The Birth Pangs of Portland Air Base – Part IV: First Air Defense Exercise in 1941

  • Published
  • By Terrence G. Popravak, Jr., USAF (Retired)
  • 142nd Wing

Some 80 years ago it was the roar of 1,200 horsepower Pratt & Whitney R-1830-49 14-cylinder air cooled radial piston engines that propelled Republic P-43 Lancer fighter planes into the skies above the newly-established Portland Army Air Base. Many fighter plane units and types of aircraft have come and gone since, but in this article, we remember the start, with the preparation for and conduct of the first air defense exercise at Portland AAB* and in the Pacific Northwest, held in late 1941.

It took some time that year to construct the base and build an air operations capability to provide for air defense of this part of the Pacific Northwest. Recall the origins of the base, and the early days after activation on March 13, 1941, in “The Birth Pangs of Portland ANG Base – Part I: Origins, at:

As for the flying unit which would operate from the base to provide this defense, the principal combat unit was the 55th Pursuit Group. Details on the group’s origins and arrival at PAB can be viewed here, in “The Birth Pangs of Portland ANG Base – Part II: Major Units Arrive,” at:

In 1941, the US Army Air Corps, which became the US Army Air Forces, was in the process of a great expansion to meet the requirements of a coming conflict. Construction at PAB continued apace through 1941, like Rome, the base wasn’t built in a day. To learn more about this continued work, see “The Birth Pangs of Portland ANG Base – Part III: Dedication and Development,” at:

As such, the 55th Pursuit Group (Interceptor) of the Second Air Force, assigned to GHQ Air Force, could not be termed a well-experienced unit when it arrived at Portland in mid-1941. Group commander Major James W. McCauley and his Headquarters Squadron staff and the three pursuit squadrons, 37th, 38th and 54th and squadron commanders worked hard to attain an ever-improved state of readiness in the summer and fall of 1941. One only had to read the headlines of the newspapers at the time to know that the clouds of war were spreading across the world in the Second World War, and that the United States, like it or not, would be drawn into the conflict.

The commanding general of Second Air Force, headquartered at Fort George Wright near Spokane, Washington and responsible for Army air operations over 11 northwestern states

including Oregon, Washington and Idaho, Major General John F. Curry, came to Portland frequently as the base was being built to inspect and receive reports of progress at the base and its tactical units. Later in the year, after he assumed command of Rocky Mountain Technical Command at Lowry Field, Colorado, where aviation mechanics were trained, Major General Curry still found reason to fly out and see how Portland’s development was going. He sought the views on what would make for more competent graduates from Lowry.

In July the major command that the 55th Pursuit Group (55th PG) was assigned to, GHQ Air Force, was changed to Air Force Combat Command (AFCC). This followed the establishment of the US Army Air Forces (USAAF) in June 1941, and both the AFCC and 55th PG were now part of the USAAF.

In August the 55th PG held gunnery training at the Arlington Bombing Range (now known as the Boardman Bombing Range) at Arlington, Oregon. Sometimes such small-scale unit training maneuvers were helpful to get away from the ongoing construction at PAB, which could limit flight operations.

Echoing that dual-value thought, some 150 personnel of the 55th PG, officers and men, went to Spokane’s Felts in mid-September. They took 11 P-43s, a couple of trainers, a PT-17 biplane and an AT-6 monoplane, to Felts for training, along with a few of the newly-arrived pilots too.

At the same time, several officers, including the group commander, went to Seattle to train at the II Interceptor Command school on how to operate a tactical center/information board of the kind to be used in Portland in the multi-phase Second Air Force maneuvers set to begin on October 28, 1941.

There were plans for the flying echelon of the group to extend its stay at Felts Field in order to accomplish more training of new pilots, but the group returned to Portland as recorded in the Pabloid base newspaper issue of October 15, 1941, perhaps to prepare for the upcoming air defense exercise, the first such large-scale maneuver the group would participate it in during its time at Portland and the first for the base as well.

During the fall season that year, 71 newly-commissioned officers fresh out of flight school and wearing their new pilot wings were assigned to the 55th PG for transition training into the unit’s fighter aircraft and to build the unit up to its authorized personnel strength. On September 30, 1941, 29 newly-commissioned flyers arrived at PAB from the air corps advanced flying school at Stockton, California.

The remaining 42 officers were scheduled to report in by mid-October with 20 from Kelly Field, Texas; nine from Luke Field, Arizona; seven from Mathews (Mather?) Field, California and the last six from other sources. By the end of October, 68 new pilots had actually arrived at PAB. Two of the new pilots were Portland-natives; two more were from Washington state. This arrival of such a large number of inexperienced pilots in a unit wasn’t uncommon in those days,

given the large expansion then underway in the Army Air Forces and the need to bring newly created air units like the 55th PG up to their fully authorized personnel strength.

Pilots from the group were periodically sent back east to the Republic factor in Farmingdale, NY as production of the fighter grew in mid-1941, in order to ferry new P-43 aircraft to PAB. For example, on October 26, just days before the Second Air Force maneuvers, four more new P-43A fighter planes arrived at PAB from the Republic Aviation Corporation factory at Farmingdale, Long Island, New York. Until the unit could fully-equip with the P-43, it operated a few of at least one other fighter type, the Curtiss P-36 Hawk.

Despite the ongoing construction at PAB which affected operations, a highlight in the 55th’s training program took place from October 18 to 20, when the group held local maneuvers which included state and city defense organizations. The entire regional air defense network took part, including observers, wardens and filter center workers. It was useful preparation for the Second Air Force-wide air defense maneuver slated for late in the month.

McNary Field in Salem played an important role in the operation of tactical units based at Portland, and was utilized as a shuttle and/or overflow base for PAB. One of the 55th PG’s squadrons flew its P-43s from there. Meanwhile, in preparation for that Northwest-wide maneuver, some anti-aircraft and searchlight batteries prepared to deploy in strategic locations around Portland and the vicinity, whilst a blackout was ordered to test the city’s passive defenses. This maneuver was the largest collaborative work between the military and civil defense units conducted before the arrival of war on December 7, 1941.

More details on the upcoming Second Air Force maneuver were released in the base newspaper’s October 22 edition. In addition to friendly bombers acting as simulated enemy bombers being opposed by defending friendly pursuit squadrons, it was disclosed that anti-aircraft and searchlight batteries would also participate on the night of 31 October. A battery of six 3-inch guns, flanked by 37-mm guns, was to be set-up in a 50-yard square at Kamm Field. One searchlight was to operate at Kamm Field with four other searchlights positioned at Healey Heights, Overlook Point, Macleay Park and Buckman Field.

Passive defensive measures were also formally announced and coordinate in advance, with Portland Mayor Riley’s blackout ordinance, which directed Portland residents to turn off their lights for 15 minutes starting at 10 p.m. Lighting was permitted inside buildings, but there was to be no light visible from the street. Citizens were urged to monitor radios to receive any pertinent instructions, and that sirens would be used to warn of attack and to signal all-clear. The warning for the simulated enemy attack was to consist of a series of short blasts for a three-minute period. The all-clear signal would be sounded by three long blasts, repeated three times.

As for the fighter planes of the 55th Pursuit Group, it was expected the group would generate 75 to 100 sorties as part of the response to the simulated attacks by bomber aircraft as the final phase of a four-day demonstration of Oregon’s aircraft warning service. During daylight

hours, three flights a day were to pass over the observation posts in the west if the Cascade Mountain Range. Additional aircraft were to join the exercise from home bases across the west, including P-38, P-39 and P-40 fighter units as well as some medium and light bomber units.

As part of the maneuver, camouflage measures were to be readied all across Pacific Northwest airfields and interceptor aircraft. Gone were to be the shiny, natural metal finish of prewar military aircraft. Bomber units were instructed to use flares instead of bombs in their attack against Portland during the city’s formal blackout window. This was accompanied by a total, 100% blackout of aerodromes and landing fields in the Pacific Northwest. In such conditions, aircraft were forced to find their home base without aid of lights and only after recognition by air defense authorities would they be allowed to land.

The base itself was the scene of some operational training on Monday, October 27 when the alarm was sounded in the afternoon for the first simulated attack on PAB. Base personnel adopted air base defense positions, forming machine gun squads who were issued weapons once the alarm went off. The squads were transported by truck and positioned at key points around the base, postured to defend against ground attack and/or assault by airborne troops.

In those days of urgent readiness and preparation, America’s industrial might, the “Arsenal of Democracy,” was still being brought to bear and equipment shortages were common. PAB personnel had to simulate anti-aircraft guns using trailer dollies which were positioned around the field.

The drill culminated at 1600 hours when the gas alarm was sounded. Men working on the flight line and in the hangar performed their duties with the cumbersome gas masks. The only exemption given from the mask was for personnel working in gas and splinter-proof buildings. This phase of the training exercise lasted until 1630 when the all clear was sounded.

In order to effectively and efficiently accomplish the big maneuver, II Interceptor Command coordinated with state and city organizations in Oregon and Washington to conduct this big test of Pacific Northwest area defenses. A blackout was included in the drill, and searchlight and anti-aircraft batteries deployed in the area. As a backup plan for inclement weather affecting aircraft during the blackout period, theoretical tactical problems were to be conducted by observers, filter center workers, control centers and base and tactical air units.

The culminating phase of the II Interceptor Command maneuvers, which involved a blackout of civilian communities, was scheduled from 0730 on October 31, 1941 until 1230 on November 1, 1941. The 55th Pursuit Group had six officers and 23 enlisted men participating in the defense of the city of Portland from simulated attack. These personnel began preparation for the drill a week earlier, on October 23, 1941. They were joined by an additional 11 officers and 197 enlisted men of the group for the culminating phase of the maneuver on the evening of October 31-November 1.

PAB’s 320th Signal Company played an important role in the maneuver, with the officers and men of the 79-man unit commanded by Captain Steve Gadler helping the Portland area accomplish what was needed under the II Interceptor Command control. Months of preparation and training were put to the test with 450 civilian volunteers under the direction of Army veterans to establish an effective signal and communications network in the Portland region of the interceptor command.

Portland’s interceptor command facility occupied an entire floor in a large building downtown. There, in various rooms it contained all the situational awareness and communication equipment needed for both warning the civilian population of impending enemy attack and providing direction to fighter planes to engage enemy aircraft. There were rooms with large scale maps of the region and “colorful lighting systems to flash warnings,” as well as others with the communications gear to receive and to transmit vital information. One hundred and fifty civilian volunteer workers, thirty enlisted men and five officers under the immediate direction of Major W. J. Herlihy, signal officer of the Portland region interceptor command, were required to operate this center each day.

As part of that message sending and receiving, the filter center of the communications department of the Portland area where reports of enemy forces are received, Second Lieutenant William Ardrey, explained the function of his section of the team: “to filter out incorrect information phoned in from observation posts so that true information only is passed on to the central control board of the Portland interceptor command, which is responsible for the entire Oregon region.” These observation posts were many, with a number of military, civilian and US Forest Service personnel so well placed it was night unto impossible for an enemy to make an approach to Oregon without being detected.

Also filtering in to the Portland interceptor command center were weather reports, emanating from the weather teletype dispatcher office. Weather information from across the region came in from this office.

Another room in the intercept center contained the civilian air raid warning switchboard, connected to air raid stations in other Oregon cities. From this room signals were sent to each local control board to advise authorities and civilians there to take an appropriate response action.

A Yellow warning indicated enemy aircraft were approaching, giving time for industry and civilians to make ready. A Blue signal indicated the enemy was close while Red directed an order for a complete blackout. After an enemy attack and departure, the “all-clear” was flashed via a White signal.

A room-sized map, the “Paul Bunyan” map as it was referred to, was the centerpiece of the central control room, the nerve center of the interceptor command for all of Oregon. It was festooned with numbered, moveable markers. Around the big map were staff receiving

instructions over headsets to guide the movement of markers on the map board depicting friendly and enemy forces.

Said Captain W. K. Morgan, “Reports of approaching attack are received as cold facts from the three filtering communications stations,” and that officers based their response decisions on what they saw on this big board. He further explained that on the moveable markers pushed around the map “…that the green tag on top indicated it to be a friendly force. Attached numbers indicate targets, number of planes and altitude at which they were flying. Similarly, enemy planes were represented by red topped, moving objects. They traveled like miniature planes over Oregon rivers, plains and hills.”

In the interceptor control room, “tellers” were seated on a balcony where they could readily view the Paul Bunyan map. “Interceptor boards are in direct contact with planes in flight and are thus able to direct and plot the courses of our interceptor fighters on their respective boards,” explained First Lieutenant Robert L. Clark, Captain Morgan’s assistant in the interceptor control room. Seated on another balcony across the room were two women volunteer tellers who relayed the Portland area information to the commanding general’s board in Seattle.

First Lieutenant Perry explained the overall arrangement thus: “This organization is set up to have spotters all over the country so located that the first sign of an air or ground attack – any place on the coastal region – will be immediately conveyed to the nearest filter center for forwarding to the interceptor office in Portland.”

During the conduct of the maneuver, 55th Pursuit Group Commander Major McCauley and some of his staff joined the Portland interceptor control center team to help run operations. They effectively put into practice what they had trained upon in Seattle only a few weeks earlier.

The Pabloid provided an update on the progress of the early phases of the maneuver in its October 29 issue. Pacific Northwest fall weather had crept in and low meteorological ceilings affected fighter operations. The 55th Pursuit’s commander, Maj James W. McCauley expressed his view “Weather like this is a big advantage to the bombers, but it is providing a test of our ability to locate attacking ships and will be a valuable experience for the volunteer civilian defense units. It is possible for the observers to hear the bombers even though they cannot see them and reports on audible observation are proving of real value,” he said. Maj McCauley also stated that despite adverse weather, the maneuvers would continue as scheduled.

Indeed, bomber and fighter aircraft from different units across the untied States came to find a welcoming ramp at PAB. There were A-20A Havoc light bombers from the 48th Bomb Group (Light) present from Will Rogers Field in Oklahoma. About 20 Martin B-26 Marauder medium bombers under command of Lieutenant Colonel John Y. Hart, commander of the 42nd Bomb Group (Medium) from the new air base at Boise, Idaho arrived by October 29, helping turn PAB into a wind farm for a while. The Pabloid recorded that about 225 men and 90 officers of the

42nd were at the base for the week. The fighters which deployed to Portland came from across the western states and included at least four different fighter types: Lockheed P-38 Lightning, Bell P-39 Airacobra, Curtiss P-40 Warhawk and Republic P-43 Lancer.

The last phase of the maneuver took place on the night of October 31 to exercise blackout procedures under simulated enemy attack. Unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate and plans for formation flights during the evening blackout were shelved. The rains of the early week which had opened up to clear skies Wednesday and Thursday, when “Planes which had been held to the ground by zero ceilings were able to put on an aerial display for Portland such as this city had never before witnessed.” Given, not to mention the visiting bombers, it must have been quite the show!

Alas, those clear blue skies closed back in again with rain on Friday, October 31 and scrubbed most flights. Still, the command-and-control portion of the air defense network got a workout in the interceptor control center in downtown Portland. The Chief of II Interceptor Command, Brigadier General Carlyle H. Wash, spent the blackout period at the Portland HQ to observe Maj McCauley and his staff work through the given scenario.

Just before 10 p.m. the air raid alert signal sounded in Portland. It took about ten minutes for residents to douse their lights and establish an effective black out. The three-inch anti-aircraft guns of the 205th Coast Artillery Regiment (Anti-Aircraft) “coughed and pounded at imaginary enemies while lights criss-crossed the skies to spot approaching foes.”

Colonel W. R. Carroll, Commander of the 205th, touted the capabilities of his anti-aircraft guns to the press. He said they had an effective range of 6,000 yards up to an elevation of 8,900 yards. The three-inch gun fired a shell that weighed 27 pounds at a rate of fire of up to 25 rounds per minute.

After 15 minutes, the “all clear” signal was issued and the city returned to normal. Most residents supported the blackout drill and either doused their lights or blocked them from shining outwardly. “Women fanned out across Portland's vast residential areas to patrol each block, "notifying occupants and giving instructions how to operate during the blackout… inspectors were assigned to theaters and places of public assembly. Boy scouts served as messengers, guarded fire boxes, and patrolled as air raid precautionary officers.”

Overall, Major McCauley was pleased with his 55th Pursuit Group’s performance in the maneuver and the outcome of the final phase with the operation of Portland’s intercept center. He was satisfied with the number of intercepts his fighter planes made during the week.

High-ranking visitors also took in the air defense exercise, showing the importance this Pacific Northwest air defense maneuver held in national defense readiness as the clouds of war approached. Lieutenant General Delos C. Emmons, head of the Air Force Combat Command was one of them. He remarked: “Your set-up here is not as elaborate as the one in New York, but is fully as good as the ones in Boston and Philadelphia and better than those at Norfolk,

Charleston and Wilmington.” Major General H. A. Dargue, commander of First Air Force at Mitchell Field in New York also witnessed the proceedings. He was a recent participant in the large-scale Louisiana Maneuvers as the US boosted its’ efforts at attaining wartime readiness.

Indeed, one of the remarkable aspects of this exercise was the level of civilian participation as part of the civil defense effort. According to the Oregon Secretary of State’s webpage and feature titled “Blackouts Darken the Skies of Oregon,” Oregonians wholeheartedly support the practice air raid drill. “Multnomah County alone counted 8,000 "lady air raid wardens" and 10,000 male wardens along with over 1,000 auxiliary firemen and over 1,000 boy scouts.” See this webpage at:

For a formal report on the civilian side of this maneuver, see the City of Portland, County of Multnomah Civilian Defense Council report of December 1, 1941. At:

Hot on the heels of the air defense maneuvers, on November 1, the 55th Aircraft (Interceptor) Control Squadron was activated at PAB and became the fifth squadron assigned to the 55th PG. First Lieutenant Edward P. Jungbauer was the new commander, and Sergeant William D. Taylor the new first sergeant. Forty enlisted men were transferred from other four squadrons in the group to form the new squadron. It was a radio and interceptor warning control unit and was the second such outfit to be formed on the west coast. No one knew then that within a few short weeks, the United States would be bombed into World War II.

These days, it’s 29, 180 pounds of thrust from a pair (14, 590-lbs each) of Pratt & Whitney F100-PW-220 afterburning turbofan jet engines which thunderously lift F-15C Eagle fighters into the skies in defense of our homeland. Reflecting 80-years of skills knowledge and experience in fighter operations, the pilots and ground crews are far more ready and combat capable today than their Portland predecessors of 1941.

Sometimes people get complacent, and think that airpower and air superiority are an American birthright. They aren’t. Each generation has to work hard to achieve excellence in military aviation. In 1941, a greatly expanding USAAF had to grapple with the challenges of rapidly fielding an effective airpower capability for an imminent conflict with combat-experienced and well-equipped adversaries in Asia and in Europe. The painful lessons of the early war years showed that America had much room for improvement, and improve it did, bringing incredible airpower to bear year by year until the victory of 1945.

That victory came at great cost: the USAAF suffered 12% of the Army’s battle casualties in World War II – 88, 119 airmen died in service. Battle casualty deaths were 52, 173; 45,520 killed in action, 1,140 died of wounds, 3,603 were missing in action and declared dead, and 1,910 were nonhostile battle deaths. Of all the military and naval branches of service, only the US Army ground forces suffered more battle deaths than the USAAF. Combat losses of aircraft totaled 22,948 worldwide, with 18, 418 lost in action with forces fighting Nazi Germany and 4, 530 aircraft losses in combat with Imperial Japan.

But that magnificent effort and sacrifice yielded air supremacy over the enemy, and the victory provided the foundation for the outstanding airpower the US enjoys today. May we remember to honor the service and sacrifice of those Airmen of World War II, and live up to the legacy they bequeathed to us in that generation of patriots.

*Note: Although the base was formally designated as Portland Army Air Base at the time of its construction and use in World War II, a shortened form, Portland Air Base (PAB) is commonly used in references from the period, such as in the base’s weekly newspaper, the Portland Air Base Pabloid.