When the Finland Air Force Base closed more than 35 years ago, the servicemen stationed there scattered to different assignments and places around the country. Saturday, some of those veterans will return to Finland and unveil a plaque to commemorate those who served and tell the story of the base.
The Finland air base operated from 1951 to 1980 as a small radar station on Lookout Mountain searching the sky for missiles or incoming Soviet aircraft during the Cold War. Marvin Crawford was stationed at the base from 1965-68 and last year organized a reunion of veterans during the Bay Days festival in Silver Bay. After the gathering he heard of other small bases like the one in Finland creating monuments to the veterans and servicemen that staffed the bases. Crawford used the email list he developed organizing the reunion to start raising money for a plaque.
"So I had a pretty good email list from the reunion so I started sending people emails," Crawford said. "The ones I didn't have emails for I sent snail mail."
Before long, 54 people who used to live or work at the air base had donated nearly $4,000 to have a plaque made and placed at Triangle Park at the intersection of Highway 1 and Cramer Road. Crawford said the airbase evoked a lot of fond memories among the veterans and their families.
"A lot of people that were up there said that this was one of their favorite places," he said. "Especially if you were an outdoors person, it was great."
For young single men who staffed much of the base, the location in remote Finland could be a bit isolated, but the good fishing and hunting kept most of them occupied when they weren't on duty. For the Kentucky-raised Crawford, the weather was a challenge when he first arrived in Duluth and made his way north toward Finland. After school in Texas and Mississippi, Crawford had always lived in warm weather climates.
"I went to Bermuda for a year and a half and then I was in southeast Asia for two years," he said. "I had never been in a cold climate and I get this assignment and I said, 'Where is this?' I arrived there on July 1, 1965, and when I got about 40 or 50 miles out of Duluth, I had to turn my heater on. On July 1. I thought what is this?"
Crawford said many of them were happy to give and even some of the families of those that served. Frank Higdon was 95 last year and met Crawford at the reunion in Silver Bay. Crawford contacted Higdon just like he had so many other veterans, but one of the first letters he received back was from Higdon's daughter. Higdon died Dec. 31, but his daughter had sent a check because she believed it was what he would have wanted.
"It may be on my mother's checkbook, but it's from my father's heart," she said.
Crawford said he would be doing a short presentation about the history of the base and pastor Joe Dokken, whose father and father-in-law both served in Finland, as well as the keynote address from Lt. Col. Richard Fred. Fred commanded the base in the 1970s.
The ceremony starts at 1 p.m. Saturday at the intersection of Highway 1 and Cramer Road in Finland and afterward the group will gather at the Clair Nelson Center for refreshments and to "tell old war stories," according to Crawford.