A TOURIST DRIVING along Chestnut Hill Road in New Boston, population around 6,000, would likely be surprised to come across a rectangular granite sign that reads, in silver letters, “U.S. Air Force — New Boston Air Force Station.”
To the left of the words is a prominent U.S. Air Force symbol, also in silver. This would seem an odd place for an Air Force facility, and it is readily apparent that this is not an airfield, but something else entirely.
If the driver were to stop for a few moments to look around, he or she would find a few plain brick buildings in a neatly manicured landscape with a green lawn and a mature apple tree, which may be a relic of a long-ago farm.
Looking up the entry road, the tourist would spot the top of a mysterious white dome rising above the trees. Also noticeable would be the signs warning that “This a U.S. Air Force Installation and it is unlawful to enter this area without permission of the Installation Commander.”
This facility is managed by the 23rd Space Operations Squadron (SOPS).
According to the official website, “The 23rd SOPS provides U.S. Space Command with critical satellite command and control capability to more than 190 Department of Defense, national and civilian satellites performing intelligence, weather, navigation, early-warning and communications operations.”
The squadron is assigned to Space Delta 6, a component of the U.S. Space Force headquartered at Schriever Air Force Base near Colorado Springs, Colorado.
The New Boston AFS is the largest of four Air Force Satellite Control Network remote tracking stations. The three smaller stations are located at Thule Air Base on the island of Greenland in the North Atlantic; Oakhanger in the United Kingdom; and at Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Through these four Geographically Separated Units, as they are known, the 23rd SOPS provides the U.S. military with “assured access to space and cyberspace…(and) real-time capability to users performing on-orbit tracking, telemetry, commanding, and mission data retrieval services.” The New Boston AFS is supported by the Peterson-Schriever Garrison of the U.S. Space Force located at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
The installation’s property includes over 2,800 acres, primarily located in New Boston, but with some land in the bordering towns of Amherst and Mont Vernon. Most of this acreage is forested, with many ponds, streams, and wetlands. The squadron’s responsibilities in maintaining this landscape are to provide safety and security, civil engineering, communications, and the stewardship of natural and cultural resources.
How did such an important military installation end up in south central New Hampshire?
The story begins in 1940, when the municipal airport in Manchester, which is 17 miles east of New Boston, was taken over by the federal government for use as a base for the U.S. Army Air Corps. After a short, intense period of construction, the airfield began operating in the spring of 1941. In 1942 it was named Grenier Field, in honor of a local Army pilot, Lieutenant Jean Grenier, who had died in a plane crash in 1934.
During World War II Grenier Field operated as a way station for warplanes, pilots, and crews bound for Europe, and also served as a training facility.
To be fully operational, the base needed a bombing range that would be close to Manchester. The command at Grenier Field decided that Joe English Hill in New Boston (which stands at 1,245 feet with a rocky summit), nearby Joe English Pond, and the surrounding landscape would provide the ideal terrain for navigational training as well as for bombing runs and gunnery exercises. Joe English was a legendary local Native American figure who had interacted with European settlers during the early 18th century.
In 1942 the federal government took control of the land it needed by seizing the properties of 25 private owners in New Boston, Amherst, and Mont Vernon, and from the town of New Boston.
Monetary compensation for the former property owners was negotiated on a case-by-case basis, with some settlements taking months or years to be resolved. This was the beginning of the New Boston Bombing Range, which would serve the military into the 1950s.
Next week: Plane crashes and other bombing range tales.