The Birth Pangs of Portland ANG Base - Part I: Origins

  • Published
  • By Lt Col Terrence G. Popravak, USAF (Retired)
  • 142nd Fighter Wing History Office
Portland Air National Guard Base celebrates its 75th anniversary this year as a military aviation installation.   This article is the first in a series commemorating the earliest history of the base.

The clacking keys on a borrowed manual typewriter in the Army Corps of Engineers field office at the base construction site heralded the birth of the new Air Corps station as they struck the ribbon and imparted ink to a sheet of paper which then read:

Special Order # 1
Portland Army Air Base

          March 13, 1941

1.  The Portland Air Base is established effective this date and the undersigned assumes command.

2.  The following named officers having reported for duty, this station, are assigned as follows:
    Captain Milton W. Kingcaid, AC, Executive Officer
    Captain Alexander Cohn, AC, Air Corps Supply Officer
    Captain Robert H. Blount, MC Surgeon
    First Lieutenant Russie H. Vincent, AC, Adjutant

     Joseph L. Stromme,
     Lieutenant Colonel, Air Corps,

The sound of the noisy typewriter keys at the newly activated Portland Army Air Base (PAAB)  was but one manifestation of the global conflict thousands of miles from Portland, Oregon, which threatened to engulf the United States.   

The reasons for construction of the base were in the American response to the growing fascism in Asia and Europe, as seen in the war in China from July, 1937, the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia in September, 1938, the resulting Munich Agreement which would not guarantee peace, and punctuated by the Kristallnacht of 9 November 1938.  These events alarmed President Roosevelt and the nation's military leaders.  They knew that years of minimal defense spending made America woefully unprepared for any armed conflict with the aggressive Axis powers, Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan, which seemed even then bent on death, destruction and global domination.

The president and military planners recognized the importance of air power and made development of additional base facilities a part of the national war effort.  In January, 1939, there were but 10 air bases in the United States under the GHQ Air Force, the combat arm of the Army Air Corps.  McChord Field in Washington State was then the Army's newest air installation, where construction began in 1938 and which took two years to complete. 

On 12 January 1939, President Roosevelt asked the Congress to appropriate $300 million dollars for new Army aircraft.  The Army planned to expand its force structure to 54 combat groups with the new aircraft, and devised an activation schedule for new groups commencing in Jun 1940. 

Before that expansion plan could be realized and with Imperial Japan already at war in China, war broke out in Europe with the Nazi invasion of Poland in September, 1939.  And although it seemed at first that it might not spread, it did.  Imperial Japan signed a non-aggression treaty with the Soviet Union which then invaded eastern Poland; the Soviets annexed the Baltic republics (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) and then invaded Finland.   Conflict grew in April, 1940, when Hitler's Germany invaded both Denmark and Norway. 

With the prospects for global war growing at a frightening pace, selection of the sites to base the 54 Air Corps combat groups began in earnest in June 1940, spurred on by the shocking Nazi victories in Western Europe in May, 1940, which saw the fall of France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg.  On 10 June fascist Italy also invaded France and declared war on Great Britain.

By 15 June 1940 a tentative list identified municipal airfields deemed suitable for military operations was presented to the Chief of the Air Corps, Major General Henry H. Arnold.  Site surveys were conducted, and by 17 August 1940 a revised list was presented to the Army Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall; the list included Portland, Oregon.  Meanwhile the epic Battle of Britain was fought between the British Royal Air Force and German Luftwaffe.

By 18 September 1940 the Army Plans Division assigned construction priority to 24 airport projects, and gave the task for construction to the Quartermaster (QM) General.  Even as the order was given, Fascist Italy attacked British-held Egypt in September, while Imperial Japan occupied northern French Indochina in late September underlined the urgent need to develop facilities in a timely manner as the approaching storm clouds darkened. 

On 12 October 1940 the US Army Adjutant General issued a directive to the QM General for construction of Portland Army Air Base (PAAB).  And in late October, fascist Italy commenced war against Greece.  The flames of war kept spreading.

The base's official history cites three reasons for the activation of the base:
(1)  To repair transient aircraft and to repair, service and maintain aircraft based at Portland Army Air Base.
(2) To serve as an air combat training base.
(3) To serve as a shuttle base for fighters and bombers engaged in the defense of the Pacific Coast.

But the nationwide task of air base development overwhelmed the Construction Division of the QM Corps; delays with obtaining desired leases also slowed things.  In order to expedite the buildup, on 19 November 1940 the Army assigned responsibility to the Corps of Engineers to supervise and control all Air Corps construction projects.  By this point the QM Corps had managed to do some grading work on the base site before the Portland District of the Army Corps of Engineers took over.

In Portland, construction soon commenced.  The site selected for the new base was at the recently completed (1940) Portland-Columbia Municipal Airport on the south bank of the Columbia River, just upstream from Vancouver Barracks.  It was seven miles north of Portland's business district, adjacent to US Highway 30.  The base area was constructed on the south side of the airport, which replaced Portland's first municipal airport at Swan Island.

The Port of Portland had purchased land adjacent to the new airport for future expansion, protection of the aerial approaches and anticipated Army requirements.  The Army obtained the land required for cantonment and flightline areas by lease from the Port for a sum of $1.00 per year.  Although most of the base cantonment site was on lands purchased by the Port in 1940-1941, the Army acquired title to another 325 acres, presumably to facilitate dispersal of assigned, transient and/or reinforcing aircraft. 

The air base was originally built in two areas, with a 30-acre flightline area on the south side of the airport and the 60-acre cantonment site south of that for base support, including housing of personnel, medical and administrative offices.  A road and utility lines connected these two areas.

On 21 Nov 1940, the Army awarded three Portland companies, George H. Buckler, Hauser Construction and Natt McDougall, contracts to build a 60-acre cantonment area for the new base designed to accommodate an Army pursuit group - from the earliest time an air defense mission had been envisioned for Portland.  The work and materials were valued at $1,142,056.00 and a lumber order for three million board feet was placed by the contractors.

Actual construction at PAAB began on 20 December 1940.  The first buildings started were a Bachelor Officers Quarters, three barracks and a mess hall in the cantonment area.  The base hospital and technical buildings soon followed.

The original buildings were constructed to support a garrison of 2,392 enlisted men and 275 officers.  But even before the Imperial Japanese attack on US forces in the Pacific in December, 1941, new plans were announced for some 90 more buildings to accommodate an increase in expected strength up to around 3,600 enlisted men and 400 officers. 

Army funds provided not only for the construction of new base facilities, but also for significant improvements to the existing airport as well.  These enhancements became part of the overall airport infrastructure and included the widening of paved runways from 150 feet to 300 feet (better to accommodate larger four-motored bomber and transport aircraft), additional taxiway construction (helping enable simultaneous movement to/from runways and/or better dispersal of large numbers of aircraft) and the accompanying airfield lighting alongside these newly paved surfaces. 

The Army also took on maintenance responsibility for this new and improved infrastructure.  With all the new base facilities and improvements to the airport, Portland soon became a major air installation in the Pacific Northwest.

But before soldiers arrived for duty at the newly-activated air base, supplies began to arrive, a lot of supplies, on automatic requisition.  They quickly piled up and costly demurrage began to accumulate.  Col. Stromme requested help and in response the Army sent the 255th Quartermaster to help with two officers and 20 men in the initial cadre.

Delving into the received goods, the men found a large amount of medical equipment that required checking and receipt, so Col. Stromme requested help again - Fort Lewis sent a medical detachment.  Ordnance and Signal units then arrived from McChord Field.  Portland AAB was beginning to take shape!

Meanwhile, as the base began to emerge, Nazi troops landed in North Africa in February, 1941, to help their Italian allies against the British.  And as Lt. Col. Stromme declared Portland AAB activated on 13 March 1941, Imperial Japan was placing pressure on resource-rich European colonial territories in Southeast Asia.  It was well for the United States and for the Pacific Northwest that Portland Army Air Base was being built!

To be continued...