KINGSLEY, Mich. — Each time Victor Rioux sits in a church pew he takes a minute to say a special prayer. He honors the 28 men who died during the Cold War when Texas Tower No. 4 collapsed amid a fierce winter storm.
“I never forget those guys,” Rioux said from his Kingsley farm house.
He makes a point to remember, he said, because not many others do.
Rioux, 76, enlisted in the US Air Force in February 1958 and served on Texas Tower No. 2 from August 1960 to March 1962. There were three towers — 2, 3 and 4 — built off the US’s east coast as radar stations intended to serve as the country’s first warning should there be any threat. The airmen could detect incoming planes at about 300 miles out, giving them about 30 minutes to alert the military before an attack, Rioux said.
“It’s just one of those unique things that happened in our country’s history, but like anything else they fade away into oblivion,” he said. “Most people, if you say ‘Texas Towers’ to them, they have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Each tower consisted of a triangular platform, 200 feet on each side, that stood on three legs. The platform rose about 70 feet above sea level and were topped by three large radar spheres.
Rioux worked as an electronics technician, primarily repairing the high-speed digital data transmitters on his tower. He and his fellow airmen worked 12 hours on, 12 hours off and once did a nearly 90-day stint on the tower. There typically were about 60 men aboard.
“It was like living in a tin can,” Rioux chuckled.
He was discharged in June 1962 as an Airman First Class, but he took a lot of memories with him, many of them tragic. He remembers exactly where he was when he heard Tower No. 4 had collapsed.
Rioux, his wife Janice and his mother were on their way to see him off to another shift when his mother asked if the news she had heard was true. Rioux told her there was no way that a tower could fall; they were large enough to withstand the high winds and turbulent ocean waves.
“We turned on the radio and listed to the news, and by golly it was true. I had to swallow hard on that one,” Rioux said. “I couldn’t believe it. All the guys were lost.”
Rioux and his wife had become close with another couple when they were “on the beach” — what they called being off the towers and on land in Massachusetts. The other couple was about to have their first child in late December 1960 when Rioux’s friend was called back to Tower No. 4.
“He no sooner got on the tower and the commander received a message from the base that his wife was going to deliver that baby. So he got right back on the helicopter and they flew him back,” Rioux said. “That was that last group that left the tower. Talk about fate.”
The tower fell on Jan. 15, 1961, killing 28 men on board, including the commander that sent Rioux’s friend home so he could meet his first child. The tower stood in deeper waters than the others, 200 feet, and had structural issues before crashing into the ocean during a storm, leaving no survivors.
“People don’t realize that even in peace time — or in my case during the Cold War, it wasn’t a hot war — people lose their lives,” Rioux said.
Rioux is now retired from a career in teaching and works part-time as a security officer. He’ll celebrate his 56th wedding anniversary in July with Janice, who he only saw a total of three months in the two years he was on Tower No. 2.
He has collected Texas Towers memorabilia over the years and still is in contact with a few airmen from back then. He worries there aren’t enough people who remember the towers, and he doesn’t want his fallen comrades to be forgotten.
“There’s people who have never heard of these things,” Rioux said. “It would be nice to have at least some knowledge of what we did.”
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