Era ends as air station buildings come down

The Radar Club was a soldiers' beer hall that sold on Sundays; the place where everybody was seen and more than a few couples entangled.

Today, commuters on Interstate 26 rush by without looking. The club's broken windows agape, the roof is falling in, the dance floor collapses underfoot.

In two weeks, it will be rubble.

The old club is one of the last few buildings standing of the original World War II air station that became the Charleston Air Force Base. The buildings will be torn down over the next few weeks to make way for the interstate's new Remount Road interchange in North Charleston.

"This is the last of World War II right here," George W. Miller of West Ashley said as he walked around the Radar Club on a recent afternoon to look at an excavating machine hunched over a demolished foundation behind it.

"A lot of people don't realize this was the World War II base. Across (Aviation Avenue) it was nothing," he said.

Miller, who has served with the Air Force for 30 years, is writing a book about the 1942 air station that became the Charleston Air Force Base.

The building that became the club was constructed as the air station's hospital administration office, just inside what was the main gate. It was the first "in country" medical air evacuation station of the war, a poignant footnote to its past.

The air station housed bombers and trained their crews, simulating attacks by flying at them with P-47 Thunderbirds scrapped during the war.

The hospital closed when the war was won.

In 1953, the Air Defense Command took over the buildings and the nearby radar tower to fight the Cold War.

The Radar Club opened, and stayed open until the mid-1990s, just inside the unguarded main gate, uncapping a history so tasty that one of the demolition crew working the site last week recalled savoring a few cold ones.

"That was a honey of a place when it was booming. All day people stood outside waiting to get in," said North Charleston resident Darrell Parker, who has served with the Air Force for 26 years and also has researched base history.

The crowds now will be cars entering the interstate from behind a barrier wall similar to the one at Ashley Phosphate Road, as the dilapidated shell of the place squats on S.C. Department of Transportation right-of-way.

The work is part of a $50 million expanse of bridges, ramps and collector lanes between Remount Road and Aviation Avenue, designed to ease bottlenecks among the more than 130,000 vehicles per day in today's booming Lowcountry.

The most visible part of the air station that will be left is the airport runways, built along the same lines, across South Aviation Avenue where today's base stands.

The city plans to commemorate the air station site but has yet to decided how, said Steve Thompson, a project engineer with North Charleston Public Works. But the 65-year-old buildings couldn't be saved.

"It's hard to see an era end," the historian Miller said. "I know it's not much to most people. But it existed. It had a purpose."