By Terrence G. Popravak, Jr., Lt Col, USAF (Retired), 142nd Fighter Wing History Office (Volunteer)
/ Published April 18, 2016
PORTLAND AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Ore. -- G. Robert Dodson's short, official request; "We've got people, we've got a place, and we're ready!"- launched the 123rd Observation Squadron in the spring of 1941. But how the squadron got to the point of creation isn't as well-known.
Oregon had its first military aviation pioneers in the World War I-era, with Captain Frank W. Wright of the Oregon National Guard and Ensign Louis T. Barin of the Oregon Naval Militia. They trained as pilots and by the spring of 1917 were on the verge of returning to Oregon to train other Oregon pilots in their respective branches when the US entered World War I, after which they were inducted into federal service to serve elsewhere.
Thus a seed was planted, even if it did not immediately blossom. About 20 years passed before another impetus to create a state-based military aviation capability in Oregon produced a fruitful result.
Military aviation did return to Oregon after World War I, however, though not with the Oregon National Guard, when the Army established organized reserve formations to bolster future mobilization capabilities. In the western United States the Ninth Corps Area was organized. Among the units under Ninth Corps was the 96th Division, reconstituted in the organized reserve at Portland, Oregon, on 24 June 1921. Allotted to the Ninth Corps Area and assigned to the 96th Division was an aviation unit, the 321st Squadron (Observation).
The 321st Squadron, initiated 13 February 1922, was one of the few air squadrons in the organized reserve to have personnel, equipment, aircraft and facilities available for use. The aircraft were based across the Columbia River at Vancouver Barracks (the airfield there was named Pearson Field in 1925) in Vancouver, Wash. Though subordinations and designations changed over the years, the unit aircraft and equipment remained at Pearson Field. The squadron held its Inactive Training Period meetings at the Chamber of Commerce Building in Portland and at Pearson Field while it conducted annual summer training at Pearson Field or Gray Field at Fort Lewis, Wash.
On 1 August 1938, Air Corps reservist officer, pilot and executive with the Jantzen Knitting Mills in Portland, G. Robert Dodson, assumed command of the 321st Observation Squadron, which he commanded until 1 April 1941. During this period war was approaching the United States, and visionary leaders, Dodson among them, saw the need for the nation to prepare.
Dodson's sense of timing was good. In light of the deteriorating international security situation President Franklin D. Roosevelt urged Congress to expand the Air Corps and by April, 1939, plans approved by Congress were underway to triple the size of the Air Corps from 1,775 aircraft to 5,500 aircraft. These plans included a plus-up in personnel and aircraft for19 existing National Guard air squadrons and authorization for ten new National Guard squadrons.
G. Robert Dodson was a Northwest aviation enthusiast, a pilot since 1931, and a member of the Oregon State Board of Aeronautics and National Aeronautical Association governor for Oregon. He played a prominent role in advocating for and later creating an aviation element in the Oregon National Guard. He reportedly approached The Adjutant General (TAG, in National Guard nomenclature) of Oregon, Major General George A. White, with the idea of forming a National Guard air squadron in Oregon, and offices at the National Guard Bureau (NGB) as well. He is thus considered by many to be the "founding father" of the Oregon Air National Guard.
In August, 1939, Oregon's TAG made an official request to Major General John F. Williams, Chief of the NGB, for an aviation squadron to be allotted to Oregon. Events in Europe soon underlined the need for America to improve its national defense readiness.
Oregon's efforts soon achieved a result. On 30 July 1940, when the remaining eight of the ten new National Guard aviation squadrons were designated and allotted, one of them was Oregon's 123rd Observation Squadron. This was no small accomplishment for Oregon as during this time the Aviation Division of the NGB received applications to form 40 new Guard aviation squadrons. But there were not sufficient funds nor War Department authorization for that many Guard air units to be formed; it cost an estimated $1 million to form a flying squadron and about $130,000 a year in operating expenses.
Observation squadrons in the prewar buildup were the common air unit across the National Guard at that time. The new squadron was authorized a full strength of 31 officers and 116 enlisted men and was to be equipped with 14 aircraft.
Gen. White requested that G. Robert Dodson be transferred to the Oregon National Guard and his request was later approved. Dodson would be joined by another 321st officer, First Lieutenant Wallace J. O'Daniels, to help get the new squadron going.
Later that month Lt. Col. Benjamin F. Giles, Air Officer for the NGB came to Oregon to inspect prospective air installations and facilities to base the new unit. Of the available fields, the new Portland-Columbia Airport (Portland International Airport/PDX today) looked most suited to the new squadron. But a dedicated hangar would be needed and there was none, so plans were made to procure funds to construct one. The NGB would provide $50,000, with the federal Works Progress Authority to furnish $250,000 to enable the hangar's construction. This plan was later overtaken by events as the Army decided to establish Portland Army Air Base at the airport (activated on 13 March 1941), but this was the long-range plan of the Oregon National Guard.
Momentous events soon impacted the Oregon National Guard. On 16 September 1940 all active National Guard units in Oregon were inducted into federal service. The induction included the TAG as well, and Colonel Elmer V. Wooton, the Assistant Adjutant, became the acting TAG for Oregon. As a result of the induction, many experienced staff officers departed and Col. Wooton picked up the effort to get the newly authorized squadron launched. Around this time G. Robert Dodson and Wallace J. O'Daniels began a recruiting drive. As word of the new organization spread, interest grew.
December of 1940 found Col. Wooton in Washington D.C. where he met with NGB staff to discuss the squadron and arrangements for the new hangar. It was agreed that an approved hangar design would be used, based on an example in the Maryland National Guard. But Oregon had to find funds to pay for a Portland architect to render services and provide an estimate of cost, which the legislature provided by passing a special bill. When the bill was approved by Oregon Governor Charles A. Sprague, Col. Wooton then contacted Gen. Williams at the NGB and requested immediate organization of the Oregon squadron.
Given the time needed for the construction of a new facility at the Portland-Columbia Airport, it was agreed that the former municipal airport in Portland at Swan Island would initially be used by the new unit.
Meanwhile in California, where Major Carlisle I. Ferris was the Air Corps instructor for the 115th Observation Squadron of the California National Guard, new orders arrived. On 4 February 1941 Maj. Ferris was ordered to Oregon to aid in forming the 123rd and serve as its Air Corps instructor. He was the father of renowned aviation artist Keith Ferris.
Shortly after arrival in Portland, Maj. Ferris was joined by Maj. G. Robert Dodson, Air Corps Reserve. Dodson had already been working with Col. Wooton to organize the new unit. As most of the Air Corps Reserve officers in the area had been inducted into federal service, Dodson was the only qualified choice to assume command of the new squadron.
By early April, 1941, Dodson formally vacated his command of the 321st Observation Squadron and was commissioned as a Major in the Oregon National Guard. Although only one officer was needed to obtain federal recognition of the unit he had the help of 1st Lt. O'Daniels to establish the initial officer leadership in the new squadron.
From March, 1941, applications for enlistment in the 123rd Observation Squadron were accepted. Prospective candidates were interviewed at the Multnomah County Armory in Portland, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, and from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays while physical exams were held Sunday afternoons. Men wishing to enlist had to be between 18 and 45 years of age, and preference was given to those with experience in aircraft mechanics. aerial photography, radio communications and ordnance repair.
Advertising for enlistment appeared in newspapers, in theater lobbies and was communicated by word of mouth. Fred Parish, one of the original 123rd Observation Squadron members and the last known surviving charter member, was a young Oregonian working in airfield construction at the new Portland Army Air Base when he learned about the new squadron:
"In the latter part of 1940 and early 1941, I was employed as a road roller operator helping to build the new Portland-Columbia airport (later re-named Portland-International). For a 20-year old guy, this was a slow and boring job. On the other hand, it paid fairly well. I yearned for something a bit speedier."
"In the spring of 1941, Bob Wall (a senior Scouting friend) mentioned in conversation with my parents that he was joining a new aviation unit of the Oregon Army National Guard and explained some of the details involved."
"He told us that joining would involve a three-year hitch, one of which would be a year of full-time active duty for training. For men subject to the federal draft, serving in the National Guard would fulfill the service requirement. The remaining two years of the hitch would be the traditional monthly weekend drills and a two-week encampment session in the summer."
"At first, I was only mildly interested as it appealed to Bob. But, my parents thought this would be a good idea for me to look into this and they talked me into going down to the National Guard Armory in Northwest Portland to see more. On the way, Bob picked up his former Scouting patrol leader Cliff Shaffer and we went to have a look-see."
Parish recalls his initial contact with the organizing unit and continues: "As I remember, we were handed the inevitable forms to fill out and when it was our turn, we were briefly interviewed by a lieutenant. Apparently, it was his job to screen out people with obvious reasons for not being good candidates."
"I was then referred to a Captain who queried me further and then he referred me into another room where Major G. Robert Dodson sat. He had me explain to him why I thought that I would be a good addition to the squadron. I said it would be a good idea because of my leadership background in Scouting and that I was first-aid trained which would qualify me to work as a medic."
"Maj. Dodson quickly instructed me to come in on the following Sunday for a physical exam. I asked him if this meant that I had been accepted and he replied that if I passed the physical, I was "in." Cliff Shaffer, because of his culinary training, was also in. I was not confident that I would pass the physical because I had some teeth that needed fixing. But on Sunday, I passed the physical and found myself signing some more papers."
By the end of the month 105 men had been enlisted in the squadron. This happened despite word that the squadron would be inducted into federal service later in the year. But with the draft taking place, many men wished to be in an Oregon-affiliated unit rather than be drafted and sent hither and yon in the Army.
With the minimum number of officers and men required the squadron now had the personnel it needed to become Oregon's first military aviation unit. It may be from this time in March, 1941, that G. Robert Dodson reportedly wrote on yellow legal paper a message to be sent to the NGB containing his famous words "We've got people, we've got a place, and we're ready!" Action soon occurred and a go-ahead was given.
On 14 April 1941, Maj. Dodson issued special orders to the members of the squadron to appear for an inspection for federal recognition on Friday, 18 April 1941 at 7:00 pm in the Portland Armory at 10th and Couch streets. Early on the 18th, Maj. Dodson and Lt. O'Daniels passed a board of officers and were sworn in by Maj. Ferris. In the evening on that day, 110 enlisted men were sworn in under a mass oath administered by Col. Wooton. The men wore civilian attire as the unit had not yet been provided with uniforms. Fred Parish was one of those men and remembers the event:
"By post card, I was informed to report to the Armory at 7:00 PM on the 18th of April, 1941. There were over 100 civilian men there and we were instructed to form two long lines for the mass swearing-in. We raised our right hands shoulder high and repeated the oath that changed us from civilians to military people. From that point forward, my mail came addressed to Private Parish."
There was no fanfare at the ceremony, Parish recalls: "...after the swearing-in, there were a few announcements and instructions. Then, we were dismissed and we all went home. No press. No photographers, no flashbulbs. No Champagne...nothing. It was a chore that had to be done in order to be official."
The final paperwork was then accomplished and forwarded to Oregon's Adjutant General, and onward to the National Guard Bureau. Thus the Oregon National Guard's first military aviation unit, the 123rd Observation Squadron, was born.