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McChord Field, McChord Air Force Base, and Joint Base Lewis-McChord: Part 1

HistoryLink.org Essay 9934 : Printer-Friendly Format

McChord Air Force Base, now part of Joint Base Lewis-McChord and located south of Tacoma, started out as a municipal airport serving Pierce County before being taken over by the military in 1938. The federal government converted the civilian facility into a major air force base, with the Public Works Administration (PWA) building permanent barracks, hangars, housing, and administration buildings in the Moderne style. The former Tacoma Field was named McChord Field in honor of Colonel William C. McChord (1881-1937) on May 5, 1938. During World War II McChord Field served as a major bomber-training base. Nine airmen who participated in the April 1942 Doolittle raid had their B-25 training here. Following the formation of the U.S. Air Force in 1947 the field became McChord Air Force Base.

From Civilian to Military

On November 7, 1927, Pierce County voters passed a bond measure to purchase 771 acres for a municipal airport. This facility would sit on a prairie nine miles south of Tacoma. About 30 farmers had to give up their land. Construction started on April 21, 1929, and included a landing strip and a 27,000-square-foot hangar located on a total of 912 acres. Named Tacoma Field, it opened on March 14, 1930.

Tacoma Field served regular aviation and pioneering aviation events. In one of these, Harold Bromley (1898-1998) attempted a trans-Pacific Ocean crossing to Tokyo on July 29, 1929. His overloaded Lockheed plane nose-dived into the runway while attempting to take off. One year later Bromley tried again but was forced back, and a third attempt in 1932 also failed.

In subsequent years the airport lost money, and Pierce County sought to lease it out to avoid having to close the facility. National-defense needs in the mid-1930s offered a possible solution. On August 12, 1935, the Wilcox Act authorized construction of air bases at strategic locations, including the Pacific Northwest. Various sites were investigated, among them the Tacoma Airport. This strategic site was selected, surveyed, and initial planning began in 1937 for a military base. On February 16, 1938, Washington Governor Clarence D. Martin (1884-1955) signed legislation allowing transfer of the county lands to the United States and 12 days later, on February 28, Pierce County transferred title of the 900-acre airport and its hangar to the War Department.  With land from adjacent Fort Lewis and private holdings, the new field grew to 1,232 acres by 1939.

Colonel William McChord

Initially, it was called Northwest Air Base, but on May 5, 1938, the field was renamed McChord Field to honor Colonel William C. McChord, who had been killed in an aircraft accident near Richmond, Virginia, on August 18, 1937. Colonel McChord had graduated from West Point Military Academy as a cavalry officer in 1907. He completed aviation training at Rockwell, California, in 1918 and participated in the birth of military airpower.

McChord initially commanded bombardment aviation units, followed by duties in Washington, D.C. He commanded Chanute Field in Illinois and taught for four years at the Command and General Staff School. McChord then commanded the 19th Composite Wing in the Panama Canal, and following this assignment, in October 1935, he reported for duty in the Plans Division, Office of the Chief of the Air Corps. He was appointed Chief of the Training and Operations Division and, while piloting an A-17 aircraft, was killed during an attempted crash landing. 
 
Building a Base

Soon after Pierce County transferred the facility to the Army Air Corps, the Works Projects Administration (WPA) arrived to prepare the site, work that included clearing stumps and filling swampland. Then Public Works Administration (PWA) contracts were issued to leading Pacific Northwest construction companies to build a permanent air base.

The Works Projects Administration and Public Works Administration programs were Depression-era efforts to put unemployed workers and idle contractors to work. The Public Works Administration would construct the permanent buildings at McChord in what is now called PWA Moderne or Depression Modern style, which had recessed vertical windows and simple decorative elements. Major Emile P. Antonovich (b. 1884) of the Army Quartermaster Corps directed the construction, which started in August 1938.

Antonovich, an architect and builder in civilian life, had years of construction experience. Among the challenges he faced was relocating Clover Creek about one mile in July 1939 to get it out of the way of the runways and hangars. Antonovich ultimately would supervise a building program that included construction of a 1,285-man barracks, four large hangars, family housing for enlisted personnel and officers, warehouses, shops, and a hospital. These early buildings have survived, and the large barracks, called the "palace" in its early years, is now known as the "castle," and houses administrative offices. 

In early spring 1939 President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) recommended and Congress appropriated additional funds for air-power expansion. This brought monies to McChord for a radio-transmitter building, a water-supply system, and a fire station. Four runways were built to allow landing from all directions, with the two longest each being 7,000 feet. Major Antonovich completed his work at McChord and Fort Lewis and was promoted to colonel. He retired in 1944 and prepared the city of Tacoma’s postwar plan, called the “Antonovich program," which proposed street, sewer, and school improvements.  

On March 19, 1940, with McChord Field in operational readiness, an aviation innovator, Colonel Carlyle H. Wash (1890-1943), became the base commander. A 1913 graduate of West Point Military Academy, Wash completed flight training in 1918 and served in various aviation assignments. After one year at McChord, he was promoted to brigadier general and led the 4th Interceptor Command in Seattle. In 1941, Brigadier General Wash joined other air experts as advisers in a mission to England. He then went to Tampa, Florida, to command the 3rd Air Force. On January 26, 1943, Wash and nine other airmen died in a crash near Mobile, Alabama.
    
McChord Field in World War II

On June 24, 1940, B-18 Bolos of the 17th Bombardment Group (Medium) started to arrive at McChord Field, and the 89th Reconnaissance Squadron would report for duty soon after. The official McChord Field dedication took place on July 3, 1940, part of a four-day celebration that included the Tacoma Narrows Bridge dedication. Governor Martin spoke of the base at the dedication, describing its importance in light of the world situation at that time.

In 1941 the 12th Bombardment Group (Medium) was activated, flying Douglas B-18s and B-23s. In February 1941 the 17th was the first group to transition into the B-25 Mitchell bomber. Once the 17th had completed training and participation in war maneuvers, the unit transferred to March Field, California. It arrived there on December 5, 1941, and was just beginning to settle in when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7. 

The attack on Pearl Harbor put McChord on war alert. Messages broadcast on commercial radio stations ordered all service personnel to return to the field. All leaves and passes were cancelled. Half-track vehicles with machine guns were borrowed from Fort Lewis to provide defense for the field. Base aircraft flew coastal patrols looking for Japanese submarines and enemy fleets. Satellite fields were quickly built around the state for improved fighter defense and patrol duties. The 17th immediately received a new assignment and was sent to Pendleton Air Base in Oregon, from where it would fly coastal patrols to guard against Japanese attacks on the West Coast.

Just before Christmas 1941, bad weather at Pendleton forced the 17th to fly out of McChord, and on December 24 Lt. Everett W. "Brick" Holstrom (1916-2000) of Cottage Grove, Oregon, piloting a B-25, spotted a Japanese submarine off the mouth of the Columbia River. He attacked, and a second patrol aircraft reported an oil slick and debris. The ship was recorded as sunk, but post-war research indicated that the Japanese submarine I-25, although in the area, was not attacked on December 24. Holstrom reached the rank of brigadier general before retiring from the air force. On September 9, 1942, a McChord-based Lockheed A-29 Hudson bomber flown by Captain Jean H. Daugherty (1918-1997) attacked and damaged the I-25 off the Oregon coast.

In February 1942 the 17th Bombardment Group went to South Carolina and conducted Atlantic Ocean coastal patrols. In late 1942 the 17th, flying B-26 bombers, entered combat in North Africa. The group flew its first combat mission on December 30 in southern Tunisia. In 1943 the group flew missions in Italy and then supported the invasion of southern France. During the war the 17th flew 606 missions and lost 110 B-26s, while destroying 244 enemy aircraft.

Also in February 1942 the 42nd Bombardment Group arrived at McChord for training. The base population had grown to 7,000 enlisted personnel and 400 officers. During 1942 bomber training continued, but in the summer of that year numerous crashes led to a special investigation. The investigators even considered, but ruled out, sabotage. Changes in the training program corrected the problem.

In addition to the main role of bomber training, fighter aircraft were assigned to McChord and conducted air patrols. The base also supported the transfer of aircraft to Alaska. In 1944 McChord used its hangars as shops to modify P-39 fighter planes. Three hundred civilian workers for this project were trained at Washington’s Clover Park Vocational School in Lakewood. Following the P-39 modifications, other aircraft arrived for upgrades.

The Doolittle Tokyo Raid

Nine airmen of the 17th Bombardment Group who had served at McChord Field, including "Brick" Holstrom, joined Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle (1896-1993) on an April 18, 1942, mission to attack the Japanese home islands. In that raid 16 B-25 aircraft were launched from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet and flew to Tokyo to bomb the city.

Among the nine former McChord airmen was pilot Lt. Ted W. Lawson (1917-1992), who would write a book, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, telling the story of the remarkable mission. Lt. Lawson crashed-landed his B-25 in the sea near Shangchow, China, and received serious injuries that caused him to lose one leg. After recovery he medically retired with the rank of captain. His co-pilot, Lt. Dean Davenport (1918-2000) of Spokane,  was also injured in the crash, but recovered and remained in the air force, eventually retiring as a colonel. 

From McChord Field to McChord Air Force Base

In 1947 the Army Air Forces became the United States Air Force, and McChord Field became an air force base effective on January 1, 1948. Even before that, McChord Field had had many distinguished visitors. President Harry S. Truman (1884-1972) arrived on June 19, 1945, and made a quick stop before heading to Olympia for a three-day vacation. This was the first time a president had used air travel within the country -- President Roosevelt had traveled only abroad, and not domestically, by air.

With the end to World War II, McChord Field served as a processing and separation center. Thousands of veterans received their discharges here. On February 20, 1946, Army Chief of Staff General Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969) visited a McChord hangar and the base hospital. In the hangar, General Eisenhower inspected aircraft and their weapons systems, and at the hospital he chatted with patients, including Lt. John Barmon (1921-2000) of Seattle. Barmon had attended Seattle’s Queen Anne High School, Gonzaga University, and the University of Washington, lettering in football. General Eisenhower, anxious that quality personnel remain in the peacetime military, asked Barmon about his future, and the lieutenant said he was staying in the air force. He did, and retired as a colonel in 1966. He later worked for Boeing as a flight crew instructor and was active in the fundraising for the Washington state Vietnam memorial.

The facility that began life as Tacoma Field played an important role as McChord Field in the country's war effort. As McChord Air Base, it would continue to serve for decades after, eventually becoming part of Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

To go to Part 2, click Browse to Next Essay.

Sources:
Ted W. Lawson, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (New York: Random House, 1943); Wesley Frank Craven and James Lea Cate, The Army Air Forces In World War II (Washington, D.C.: Office of Air Force History, 1983); Bert Webber, Retaliation: Japanese Attacks and Allied Countermeasures on the Pacific Coast in World War II (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1975); "Fort Lewis And M’Chord Field Get $2,106,399," The Seattle Daily Times, November 6, 1938, p. 3; "McChord Air Force Base History," McChord Air Museum website accessed August 24, 2011 (http://www.mcchordairmuseum.org); "Harold Bromley, Aviator Lacking Lindbergh’s Luck, Dies at 99," The New York Times, January 11, 1998, p. 28; "17th Bombardment Group (M)," 17th Bomber Group website accessed August 25, 2011 (http://www.bombgroup 17.com); "General Wash Dies In Air Crash," The Seattle Daily Times, January 27, 1943, p. 12;  "Tacoma Looks to U.S. For Its Postwar Funds," The Oregonian, October 19, 1944, p. 6; "President Flies Non-Stop To West," The New York Times, June 20, 1945, p. 1;  "Sell Guy, Say Soldiers Of Ike," The Seattle Times, February 20, 1946, p. 10.
Note: This essay was emended on January 25, 2012, to correct the birthdate of Clarence D. Martin.


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Colonel William McChord (1881-1937)
Courtesy McChord Air Museum


Grading of the former Tacoma Field (Tacoma Field hangar, left corner), McChord Field, 1938
Courtesy U.S. Air Force


Aerial of four hangars and barracks (the "Palace"), McChord Field, 1939
Courtesy U.S. Air Force


Construction in progress, McChord Field, December 11, 1939
Courtesy U.S. Air Force


Large barracks (the "Palace"), McChord Field, 1941
Courtesy U.S. Air Force


Tacoma Field hangar in World War II camouflage, McChord Field, 1947
Courtesy U.S. Air Force


 
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