By Lt Col Terrence G. Popravak, USAF (Retired), 142FW/HO (Volunteer)
/ Published May 27, 2016
PORTLAND AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Ore. -- With construction of Portland Army Air Base's (PAAB) well underway in the spring of 1941, the first "housekeeping" unit arrived by truck and train from Hamilton Field, California, the 43rd Air Base Group (Headquarters, 44th Air Base Squadron and 57th Materiel Squadron) with 17 officers and 233 enlisted men, circa 21 April 1941. Advance elements of the base's first tactical unit, the 55th Pursuit Group, also from Hamilton Field in California, showed up as well.
But due to a lack of barracks at the base ready to accommodate the new arrivals, many were temporarily billeted in tents over at Vancouver Barracks and commuted the eight miles to the base by truck to perform their duties. At Vancouver Barracks the Portland refugees were able to use a new building for a mess hall and the downstairs of another barracks for orderly rooms.
Soldiers not immediately needed at the base for lack of facilities and equipment remained at Vancouver Barracks and accomplished fatigue and miscellaneous details. Though much progress had been made in building the base, there were no paved streets or walkways yet and the area became a sea of mud.
Among units arriving early at Portland in these early days were the 255th Separate Quartermaster Company (AB), 35th Signal Company, 320th Signal Company, from McChord Field, as well as the 684th Ordnance Company and 723rd Ordnance Company.
The soldiers assigned to Portland Army Air Base were not the only Air Corps elements with a space problem. The initial aircraft assigned to the base were a Northrop A-17 single-engine attack plane and a lone Douglas B-18 Bolo twin-engine bomber. But the parking ramp on the new flightline was not ready yet and so the aircraft were temporarily kept at nearby Pearson Field, in Vancouver, Washington, until the base flightline area was operational.
Finally, on 13 May 1941, 554 enlisted men and 54 officers moved into the base, essentially bringing the 43rd Air Base Group, advanced elements of the 55th Pursuit Group and Signal Corps and Quartermaster Corps units onto the station. The base really began to function on its own with this infusion of personnel.
The station medical Detachment activated at PAAB on 15 May when the original cadre of 42 men arrived from CASC Unit 1907 at Fort Lewis. With the base hospital not yet finished, a temporary infirmary was created in one of the new barracks buildings. Sick call took place daily and the infirmary was able to handle minor medical matters, with more serious cases transferred to the station hospital at Vancouver Barracks (later called Barnes Medical Center, now the Portland VA satellite campus in Vancouver).
About a week later, on 22 May, the main body of the 55th Pursuit Group (Headquarters, 37th, 38th and 54th Pursuit Squadrons) relocated to Portland and its three flying squadrons began to operate with P-43 Lancer fighter planes fresh from the Republic factory. The 55th Pursuit Group, commanded by Major James W. McCauley, was thus the first tactical unit to be stationed at Portland. Air strength built slowly, however, as the aircraft arrived in Portland in dribbles as they came out of the factory on the east coast and were then flown across the states to Portland.
Of note, after war broke out the 55th Fighter Group moved north in February, 1942, to defend the Puget Sound area during the early war period when the US was at greater risk from Imperial Japanese attack. It later deployed overseas to the European Theater of Operations where it flew combat with Eighth Air Force in the Lockheed P-38 Lightning and later the North American P-51 Mustang. Today the group is designated as the 55th Operations Group, operating the Boeing E-4B National Airborne Operations Center (NAOC), a key component of the National Military Command System for the President, Secretary of Defense, and Joint Chiefs of Staff. The group is also responsible for units operating a number of reconnaissance variants of the Boeing C-135 as part of the 55th Wing at Offutt AFB, Nebraska.
Portland's construction was not without difficulty and at one point the cantonment area drainage system necessitated a change in plans. The War Department purchased an additional 2 and 1/3 acres and the Port of Portland additional land which was then added into the original lease agreement in order to facilitate the required drainage of the rising base.
Many of the new arrivals at Portland were draftees from other parts of the United States as well as local recruits. Given the great expansion of the Army underway at that time, basic training for new recruits was conducted at many military bases across the US, and Portland was no exception. So the base had to form its own basic training program. Given the limited facilities initially available, such training was constrained. But classes were organized to instruct new personnel in military matters, including rifle training, though it was dry run firing as no range was available. The largest single groups trained in these early days were 100 men from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas and 100 men from Jefferson Barracks, St. Louis, Missouri, who arrived as one unit. They received seven weeks of basic military training at Portland.
This challenge was compounded by the great demand within the Army for competent, qualified officers and non-commissioned officers for technical, administrative and officer candidate schools. This created a sort of personnel "turbulence" within units as such personnel received orders sending them from Portland for such training, some not returning to Portland. Remaining personnel had to fill in for such departures, temporary or permanent, until returnee or replacements arrived.
Operationally, the based and assigned units fell under 2nd Air Force, headquartered at Fort George Wright near Spokane, Washington and commanded by Major General John F. Curry. General Curry made frequent visits to Portland to inspect the construction and arriving units. He later became the first national commander of the Civil Air Patrol.
On 21 May the Chief of the Army's General Headquarters Air Force (GHQ AF), Lieutenant General Delos C. Emmons, also paid a visit to Portland to see the new base. Emmons GHQ AF was in operational control of all the Army's aviation units including Curry and his 2nd Air Force.
Though busy with construction and organization tasks on base, Portland's new Army Airmen also made efforts to engage the citizens of Portland and the surrounding area. And some of the women associated with these men also began community engagement; in May officers' wives met in Vancouver to organize the ladies' Auxiliary.
On 30 May 1941, Memorial Day, all available personnel from PAAB participated in Portland's Memorial Day parade. It was the first parade of officers and men assigned to the base.
To be continued...