Elkins attorney Wallace served in the Army during the Cold War
Editor’s note: This article is part of The Inter-Mountain’s Unsung Heroes series for 2020, which features veterans in our area sharing first-hand accounts of their military service. The series will be published through Veterans Day.
ELKINS — Elkins native and local attorney Joe Wallace, who served in the United States Army during the Cold War, was called into active service in 1961, after completing his first year of law school.
Wallace recalled that in 1961, he was working a summer job to make extra money to help pay for his education. He graduated in 1960 from Michigan State University and was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Army. He went on to attend law school at West Virginia University. He was called to active duty in 1961 after the Berlin Crisis.
“The United States faced Russia nose to nose and it could have led to World War III,” Wallace said.
Wallace was sent to Texas for training on how to use high-flying ground-to-air missiles in an attack. After training, Wallace was assigned to the North American Aerospace Defense Command control center in Maine.
“Training was like going to school,” he said. “It was hard on me because most of the people were the same age, they were people who were professional workers. I was studying law and they knew all the equipment stuff better. I got caught up and learned it.”
“I was to go to the very northeastern part of the United States, the very tip of Maine,” he said. “It was as far northeast as you could get.”
Wallace said planes would take off from the base and travel halfway to Russia before returning.
They would send them out halfway and they would turn back and another would take off. It was to head off anyone that tried to break through,” he said. “The planes were coming and going all the time.”
Wallace said representatives from several nations were at the base. He noted adjusting to life in Maine was difficult.
“The northeast of Maine is a cold place. The snow covered up all the ordinary two-story buildings,” he said. “Everything was full of snow.”
Wallace said he wasn’t there long before being sent south to another base.
“I hadn’t been there a long time, maybe a month or two, and I was moved 300 miles south in Maine to a base run by the Air Force,” he said. “It was a big building, about the size of the block. It was a round building and all along the walls there were computer systems with operators and an assistant. All that was fed into a centerpiece where all the information was fed. That person controlled the base. All incoming planes were mapped and identified to allow them to come into the air space.”
Wallace said it was the first time he had ever seen a computer and it was 30 years before he heard the word “computer” again. Wallace said he worked at one of the consoles that pushed information in to the center where the data was read.
He said while he was on the base tensions flared up with Russia and it seemed the nations were on the verge of war.
“We were all on the edge of excitement getting all ready for that,” he said. “President Kennedy had begun and he took this matter in D.C. and gathered all of his advisors. They had all these people in one room … the officers were all advising him to start a war. The president spoke with Russia and settled things and we went back to normal.”
He said it wasn’t long after that incident, the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 pushed the nation to the brink of war again.
“It was the same kind of situation,” he said. “Everything was kind of on the edge and the enemy was coming. I think they shot one American plane down before it ended. Again, he was able to settle it.”
Wallace said it was very soon afterward that his military time came to a close. Once he finished his service, Wallace returned to law school in Tulane. Wallace graduated from Tulane on May 31, 1965. He still serves as an attorney in Elkins.