By Lt Col Terrence G. Popravak, Jr., USAF (Retired), 142nd Fighter Wing History Office (Volunteer)
/ Published April 26, 2016
PORTLAND AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Ore. -- In the winter of 1948-1949, severe cold weather conditions gripped the western United States, threatening man and beast alike with epic amounts of snowfall and chilling temperatures.
In order to help herds of stranded livestock survive, a number of Air National Guard units answered requests in a number of States to help deliver by air forage to the animals stranded in the snow. Discussion of such an operation in Oregon was broached on 12 January 1949 by the La Grande Evening Observer sports editor Don Roberts.
Inspired by successful examples of aerial relief of livestock in the Midwest, the Oregon ANG (OreANG) responded positively to a request from State Game Commission authorities for assistance in the Blue Mountains area of eastern Oregon. In the case of Oregon, this haylift was also coined as an "elklift" as it included feed for hungry elk and deer as well.
Announcement of the haylift was made on Monday, 31 January 1949, in La Grande, Oregon, and at the OreANG headquarters in Portland, where Assistant State Adjutant General Brigadier General Raymond F. Olson said his National Guard facilities would support the request and that the twin-engine C-47 transport would carry a pilot, co-pilot, crew chief, two crew members to serve as "kickers" to release the hay as well as a game commission representative.
The OreANG at Portland Air Base might have been a youthful organization in early 1949, but the roster of the organization contained many experienced World War II veterans, as well as a few of the original members of the 123rd Observation Squadron, Oregon's first military aviation unit which first activated on 18 April 1941. Plans were soon made for haylift operations out of La Grande and Baker, Oregon, for two or three days with two or three flights each day hoped for.
In La Grande, district game agent Austin F. Hamer eagerly awaited the arrival of the OreANG C-47 from Portland on Tuesday, 1 February 1949. He arranged for ten tons of hay to be readies at La Grande and Bake airports to be delivered to the hungry game. Some 1,500 pounds of hay, in bales weighing 62 ½ pounds on average, were to be loaded for each sortie.
In addition, a General Mills sheep cube concentrate with 16 percent protein was to be dropped as a "chaser" after each haybale. The OreANG C-47 was to air drop relief to elk in the Starkey area, to deer in the Burnt River country and a mix of both below Rondowa.
Livestock were not forgotten either, with 1,000 to 1,500 head anticipated to need feed in any one area. The hay bales needed to be dropped on packed snow wherever possible so the animals could find it and consume it.
Weather delayed the operation when fog shut down flight operations at Portland on the morning of 1 February. But the C-47, under aircraft commander Major Gordon L. Doolittle, the Commander of the 123rd Fighter Squadron who later became the Commander of the OreANG, did takeoff later from Portland and fly east to commence operations from La Grande. The transport aircraft and its five-man crew made its hay runs through rough air from 800 feet above ground, sometimes descending to 300 feet to more precisely deliver a hay bale. Most of the initial drops were made to elk and deer herds around Starkey, in snow-filled canyons in the upper reaches of Beaver Creek.
A La Grande Evening Observer journalist and editor, Frank Schiro, flew aboard the C-47 along with a Portland journalist and state game biologist Austin F. Hamer. Schiro described the OreANG's first hay drop: "Hay kicked out of the plane by the crew hit the heavy slipstream and deceptively seemed to float to the ground. But when the bales struck they hit with an explosive force, that scattered hay over yards of snow...I could tell from the excitement of the crew that the situation reminded them somewhat of war flight days. All of the crew were air corps combat veterans."
In addition to saving the wildlife, the relief of deer and elk helped farmers also. With their forage covered in snow, many of the animals descended to lower elevations and sought out what they could. Ranchers reported damage to feeding station and orchards. A 30-ton stock of special hay for milk cows was consumed by the hungry wildlife near Cove, Oregon. So helping the elk and deer survive helped livestock get through the terrible winter too.
Inclement weather shut down flight operations on 2 February. It looked like a break might materialize on 3 Feb, so Maj. Doolittle and crew warmed up their aircraft for a noon departure. But then the weather closed in again and the mission was scrubbed due to low clouds and intermittent snow.
Bad weather cancelled operations yet again on Thursday, 4 February and with more poor weather in the forecast, Maj. Doolittle returned to Portland with two crewmen by train while two men remained with the aircraft to run-up the engines periodically to keep the ship ready to resume operations when the weather broke. Maj. Doolittle planned to return by air as soon as the weather lifted. Plans were made to resume operations Monday around the Burnt River and Minam areas, weather permitting. But by Monday, 7 February, the weather was still not cooperating.
Finally, after an eight-day storm, on Friday, 11 February 1949, conditions allowed resumption of the haylift. Maj. Doolittle returned to La Grande from Portland in the OreANG's other C-47 at mid-day, and the crew quickly jumped into the loaded C-47 which had remained at La Grande and flew a sortie to deliver two tons of hay in the Starkey area. Then in the early afternoon they headed further east to Ontario, Oregon, to air drop hay for livestock in eastern Oregon and Idaho. The unit's second C-47 then joined them in Ontario to augment the effort. Flight operations from Ontario to lift 100 tons of hay were to take several days for both aircraft and crews to accomplish.
Following the Ontario-based effort to help the cattle to the east, OreANG plans were to resume the deer-elk drops with between six and ten more tons of hay in Union and Wallowa counties.
In addition to Maj. Doolittle, recorded information indicates these other Oregon ANG airmen participated in the 1949 haylift operations: Captain Carl Brose, Lieutenant Richard Schmidt, Master Sergeants Bill Harlow and Kenneth Miller, Technical Sergeants Jack Cronise and Lloyd Buckley, Staff Sergeants Arthur Dierickx, Chester Strauch, Harold Underdahl and Verl Ward, Sergeant Donald Beevers and last but not least Corporal Cornelius Miller.
Despite the frustrations of the weather, the haylift was a good effort by the Citizen Airmen of Oregon to help their fellow Oregonians and neighbors in that terrible winter of 1949. The haylift missions of 1949 were an early example of ANG non-combat operational employment . They served as proof of the value of investing in the Air National Guard after World War II to ensure a ready and able air reserve force was available to answer a sudden call to duty. Oregon's Citizen Airmen were ready then, and stand ready today, to serve community, state and nation.
Special thanks to Mr. Fred "Baron" Hill, 123rd Observation Squadron veteran and Ms. Katie Townsend, Reference Librarian at the Pierce Library, Eastern Oregon University, for their assistance with the references and images for this story.