The Beloved Portland Air Base Chapel

  • Published
  • By Terrence G. Popravak, Jr, USAF (Retired)
  • 142nd Wing/Historian's Office



According to the Portland Army Air Base history for 1941, the first chaplain assigned was 1st Lt Clyde A. Fleming (Protestant) in May, 1941.  Next was 1st Lt Alfred A. Williams (Catholic) in July, 1941.  But the chapel was still under construction. For more on the origins of Portland Air Base, see the series “The Birth Pangs of Portland Air Base, starting with Part I:  Origins” here.

The base chapel was completed  and dedicated on Wednesday, September 10, 1941 at 3:00 P.M.  The base Quartermaster, Lt Col Willis A. Platts presented the building to the base Commander, Col Joseph L. Stromme, who accepted it on behalf of the officers and men of his command.  The Second Air Force chaplain from Spokane, Lt Col Charles C. Merrill, addressed the military and civilian audience present and Lt Fleming offered the dedicatory prayer.  The first Protestant service was held on September 11, and first Catholic service the next day, September 12.

As the United States was still at peace when PAAB and the chapel were established, there were still examples of normal life apparent, such as holding the first military wedding in the chapel on November 13, 1941.  In that ceremony, Miss Delores May Chaney of St. Paul, Minnesota and  1st Lt Jack A. Killins, from Council Bluffs, Iowa, assigned to the base’s Medical Detachment, were married.

In 1948, the swollen Columbia River, full to the brim with springtime rains, breached the levee by the airport and completely flooded the installation, both civilian and military sides.  A number of the World War II temporary structures on the base were swept off their foundations and floated to other places.  But the chapel rested firmly on its foundation, and didn't move despite the flood waters.

When the Washington Air National Guard’s 141st Air Refueling Wing relocated from Geiger Field to Fairchild Air Force Base in 1978, the unit donated their chapel’s Hammond organ to the Portland Air Base Chapel.


According to the Portland Air Base “PABLOID” base newspaper’s first issue, published on September 17, 1941 the chapel was one of 492 built by the Army in that period at various posts across the United States as the nation mobilized for war, and the first to be built in the Pacific Northwest.  Base construction plans indicate it is a “Mobilization Building, Regimental Chapel, Type CH-1.”

The building was constructed according to standard plans provided for the CH-1-type chapel. The design specified details such as for construction of the pews and their placement, the altar, sanctuary chairs and the organ loft.  It has a five-foot high wood wainscot around the walls and wooden light fixtures which hang by chains from the ceiling in the nave.  It was painted white with green trim with a green roof.

Some options were available to builders in the plan, and subject to available materials on the local economy.  For example, the steeple could have open louvers, but this option wasn’t selected for Portland due to the Pacific Northwest climate, in order to prevent rain from blowing into the structure and damaging it.  A concrete foundation could be used, or one set on pier blocks – Portland’s chapel is on pier blocks with a wooden skirting.  There was an optional roof beam design, but Portland’s was built with the standard open web joist construction.

The chapel was originally given the building number T-517, with the “T” indicating it was intended as a temporary structure, expected to serve some five to ten years, after which it would be torn down or replaced with a more permanent structure if there was still a need. Most of the buildings at Portland AAB were temporary.  Over 80 years later, Portland Air Base’s chapel survives.  The building number changed to 495 in the late 1980’s following base reductions and turnover of the western property portions of the installation to the Port of Portland under new base lease agreements.  Although several examples of these CH-1 regimental chapels still exist across the U.S., most have been torn down, and Portland’s base chapel is apparently the last of its kind in Oregon.


The chapel is carried on the Oregon Historic Sites Database and the Portland Historic Resource Inventory, where it is described as such: Chapel: “Gable roof. Steeple with exposed rafters and spire. Multi-light double-hung windows. Projecting bay with gable roof at main entrance with double doors.”  The Portland document also describes the chapel as Building No. 1: “Low pitched roof with monitor. Multi-light windows and horizontal siding.”  And “Areas of Significance:  Military.”  At one point the State Historical Preservation Office examined the chapel and deemed it eligible to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places. 

But in 1983, Congress directed the Department of Defense (DoD) via the Military Construction Authorization Act to demolish remaining World War II-era temporary buildings.  The DoD coordinated with the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation ( as part of the preparation for the department-wide demolition effort. 

Some historic preservation requirements were established in 1986 and amended 1991 to address National Historic Preservation Act requirements to avoid adverse effects to historic properties.  Reference documents such as the DoD Legacy Resource Management Program/National Park Service‘s “World War II and the U.S. Army Mobilization Program:  A History of 700 and 800 Series Cantonment Construction” (1991) and the Army Corps of Engineers’ Construction Engineering Research Lab’s “World War II Temporary Military Buildings” report (1993) helped to work through historic preservation considerations.

The DoD, however, severely limited exceptions to the demolition edict from Congress, no longer views any of the remaining temporary buildings as historic properties and no longer consults with State Historic Preservations Offices about their management. 

As a result, nearly all of the temporary buildings at Portland Air Base were demolished in the 1980s, and a few remaining ones were torn down in recent years.  A two-story former barracks adjacent to the chapel used by the Civil Air Patrol and the DoD Starbase educational program was demolished circa 2014, and a former officers’ mess used as a small base exchange and all ranks club was torn down in 2019.  The chapel now stands as the sole World War II-era building survivor on a much-reduced Portland Air Base.   

In addition to serving as the focal point for religious services, and a place servicemembers can seek the counsel of chaplains, it’s been a venue for weddings from all branches of the service in the military community, a place to gather for memorial services, promotions  and other unit meetings or events.  Over the years the Portland Air Base chapel has become endeared to the hearts of many currently serving at the base as well as decades of veterans. 


These days the chapel is receiving some tender loving care from unit members and retirees who wish to see it survive and thrive.  Although use of the chapel has been restricted for several years due to asbestos concerns, it has since undergone asbestos abatement and other actions which have enabled it to be used once again. On Saturday, July 16, a work party of volunteers led by 142nd Wing Chaplain Major Robert Edwards accomplished some cleanup and beautification of the chapel, and follow-on volunteer projects will address painting and/or refinishing pews and such.

Having survived these 80+ years now, the Portland Air Base Chapel has seen a lot of changes at the base, and yet stood as an example of continuity of service to those who serve community, state and nation.  Hopefully the renovations and tender loving care will carry it on to the century mark and beyond!