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McChord Field, McChord Air Force Base, and Joint Base Lewis-McChord: Part 2

HistoryLink.org Essay 9937 : Printer-Friendly Format

McChord Air Force Base (now part of Joint Base Lewis-McChord), located in Pierce County south of Tacoma, has served airlift and air-defense functions since World War II. Its major role has been airlift, moving troops and equipment to combat zones. Airlift planes have also carried out many humanitarian missions. In addition, McChord performs a significant role in air defense. It has been home to air-defense warning and command systems, and fighter aircraft stationed here have defended the Northwest's air space. In 2010 McChord Air Force Base was merged with Fort Lewis to create Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

Becoming McChord Air Force Base 

The end of World War II brought changes to McChord Field. The nation's large wartime air force and its personnel were demobilized. Bomber training ended and new military missions evolved. The 62nd Troop Carrier Wing arrived at McChord in August 1947, making military transport a central base activity.

On January 1, 1948, McChord Field became McChord Air Force Base, and it would have three main missions: transport and airlift duties, humanitarian support, and air defense. For example, in January 1948 McChord aircraft airlifted troops and equipment to Big Delta, Alaska, in a training exercise. These transport aircraft were used later that year in a humanitarian mission when, in the cold winter of 1948-1949, the 62nd Troop Carrier Wing airdropped hay to stranded livestock in Western states, saving about 80 percent of the animals. And, of course, the base also provided the Pacific Northwest with air defense. 

In 1950 additional land was acquired, bringing the base to 4,616 acres. That summer, to accommodate more advanced aircraft, the runway was extended from 5,880 to 9,000 feet. The base's air defense role had been enhanced with the 1950 arrival of the 325th Fighter, All-Weather Wing. The 325th flew piston-engine F-82 Twin Mustangs for interception, rocket launching, and bombing. These F-82s were soon replaced with the jet-engine F-94 Starfire, an all-weather fighter.

Korean War and After

McChord Air Force Base would become extremely busy during the Korean War, with the U.S. Air Force and Royal Canadian Air Force working together to deliver supplies and troops to the front. In the first month of the war 80 planes delivered more than one million pounds of material. These airlift duties necessitated base expansion, so in September 1951, work started on a new cargo terminal and an addition to the passenger terminal. During the first year of the Korean War the Military Airlift Transport Service (MATS) carried 96,000 passengers out of McChord.

In September 1951, the 25th Air Division (Defense) arrived at the base and would serve there for the next 49 years. Alert hangers went up 1951-1953, allowing for more rapid responses. In 1956 McChord’s 317th Fighter Interceptor Squadron was the nation’s top squadron, winning the Hughes Trophy, the air force award for air defense fighter excellence. The 317th would become the only squadron to win the Hughes trophy three times. McChord units would also compete well in the William Tell weapons meets, competitions for the best fighter gunnery and weapons.

In 1955 the closed Mountain View Tuberculosis Sanitarium was acquired for further base expansion. Its buildings were demolished, except three staff houses that became senior officer housing. New enlisted dormitories were constructed in 1956, followed by a major family housing program.  

The SAGE System

Forward bomber-stationing facilities also were constructed during the 1950s, and the air-defense system was improved. The most significant air-defense advance came in 1957. Ground was broken for the nation's first Semi Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) system complex. It had become doubtful that an enemy bomber attack could be stopped. The speed of new jet aircraft combined with slowness in tracking and getting the fighters into the air required a faster response.

The SAGE system employed the world’s largest computer (in duplex, so that if one computer failed the second took over) to collect information regarding the targets from radar sites, compute their path or track, and direct fighters to an intercept. The SAGE computer, called “Clyde” by SAGE personnel, automated the information and communication system. Clyde (its official designation was AN/FSQ-7) made 65,000 computations per second to track and guide interception, and the McChord SAGE became operational in May 1960. With the Soviet ICBM deployment and newer radars, the SAGE system eventually became obsolete and was replaced in August 1983. 

Hazards and New Duties

With the stationing of the F-106 Delta Dart high-performance fighter, the McChord runway required another lengthening, to 10,100 feet. To counter Soviet intrusions into Alaska's air space, McChord fighters deployed to forward Alaska bases. Relief supplies were flown in following the March 27, 1964, Alaska earthquake and tsunami, and 23 C-124 sorties delivered food, blankets, and other aid.  

The 62nd Troop Carrier Wing, which arrived at McChord in 1949, later became the 62nd Air Transport Wing (Heavy), a designation that reflected its increased duties and missions. Its most significant new tasks came with the Vietnam War. In 1966 MATS became the Military Airlift Command (MAC), and the 62nd received a new designation as a Military Airlift Wing (MAW). On January 1, 1966, McChord F-102 Delta Dagger fighters deployed to Paine Air Force Base near Everett to replace fighters that had been sent to Vietnam.

On August 5, 1966, the first C-141A Starlifter had arrived at McChord and was named the "Tacoma Starlifter." Unfortunately, on September 7 one of the newly assigned C-141s exploded and burned, killing two maintenance personnel. Very soon after their arrival, the C-141s were transporting troops and equipment to Southeast Asia. Two 62nd MAW C-141s were lost in March and April 1967, with casualties.

The danger to aircraft flying in Vietnam was widely recognized, but training flights in the United States also carried risks. On April 22, 1969, highly decorated Vietnam War pilot Major Clyde L. Falls Jr. (1934-1969) of Puyallup was killed in the crash of his F-106A Delta Dart 10 miles southwest of Eatonville. In late 1969, the 62d MAW bringing home military personnel as the U.S. began withdrawing troops from Vietnam.  

The Dan Cooper Episode

On November 21, 1971, a passenger calling himself Dan Cooper (the press incorrectly identified him as D. B. Cooper) hijacked a Northwest Orient flight from Portland to Seattle. He demanded $200,000 in ransom and four parachutes. His demands were met, and he ordered the pilot to fly to Mexico.

Two McChord fighters were directed to track the plane, but the 318th Fighter Interceptor Squadron F-106s had difficulty flying slow enough to tail the Boeing 727 plane. They did not witness Cooper parachuting from the plane while it was still over Washington state. As of October 2011 Cooper had not been identified or captured, although in 1980 a boy found some of the ransom money buried in the sand along the Columbia River. 

Missions and Modernization, 1974-1990

On March 20, 1975, McChord experienced a terrible loss with the crash of a C-141A on the Olympic Peninsula that killed all 16 aboard. But airlift relief efforts in the 1970s included Operation Babylift, which brought 65 Vietnamese orphans to McChord in a C-141 on April 29, 1975, with adoptive parents waiting. One of the most unpleasant airlift missions was the November 1978 return of the bodies of victims from the Jonestown, Guyana mass suicide. When Mount St. Helens erupted in May 1980, base aircraft flew search and communications operations. The 62nd was called upon for combat airlift a number of times, including during the American invasion of Grenada in 1983, when eight C-141s delivered airborne troops to make an assault.

During the 1970s base facilities were improved. Recreational opportunities were expanded with a new bowling alley, non-commissioned-officers club, and outdoor sports facilities. A new base exchange and commissary replaced undersized stores, and a new passenger terminal went up. The dormitories received upgrades, and in May 1980 women were integrated into the dorms.

In June 1983 an F-15B Eagle fighter arrived at McChord as the first of 24. The F-15 Eagles would replace the F-106s. The F-15 provided much greater air defense strength, coupled with an improved radar system.

Global Reach and Power, 1990-2000

McChord would continue to provide wartime airlift, transporting troops and equipment during Operation Desert Shield in August 1990, and airlifts supported follow-on Gulf War actions in Desert Storm in early 1991. Following the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in December 1991, more than 11,000 airmen and sailors from Clark Air Base and Subic Naval Station were brought back to the United States. Also in that month the 62nd Military Airlift Wing became the 62nd Airlift Wing.

In 1992 McChord airlift planes provided relief to Guam and Hawaii as they recovered from serious typhoons. Completing these airlift combat and relief missions requires skill, and in the 1992 national airlift competition, called the Rodeo, McChord’s 446th Air Force Reserve Wing won the event. McChord’s 62nd and 446th performed at every Rodeo.

The long presence at McChord of the 25th Air Division (air defense) ended in September 1990. The 25th was replaced with the North West Air Defense System (NWADS). The NWADS reflected a modernized air defense and grew to become the wider Western Air Defense System (WADS). On October 1, 1997, the Washington National Guard assumed WADS duties. And in July 1999 the first C-17A Globemaster aircraft landed at the base as McChord started the transition to this advanced airlift plane.  

9/11 and the Iraq War, 2001-2011

With the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the twin towers in New York and on the Pentagon, McChord’s Western Air Defense Sector (WADS) went on full alert. Fighter aircraft were parked at the end of the runway with engines running. After a short time they returned to the alert hangars, with pilots in the cockpits ready to take off. That afternoon a jumbo jet passenger plane in the air in violation of a national grounding order had to be intercepted. Two California based F-16 Fighting Falcons intercepted the Boeing 747 and escorted it to the San Francisco International Airport. Over the next few days the WADS radars, operators, and aircraft were vigilant. Over 300 interceptions were flown to ensure national safety.

In 2002 the base completed the transition from the C-141s to C-17A Globemaster IIIs. The improved airlift capability would be tested following Iraq’s failure to comply with United Nations arms inspections. On August 30, 2002, C-17 Globemaster IIIs of the 62nd Military Airlift Wing lifted off the McChord runway with Iraqi-bound troops. A 62nd MAW plane became the first C-17 struck by enemy fire when a missile hit one of its engines during a Bagdad airport takeoff, but the crew managed to return safely to the airport. On March 26, 2003, the 62nd MAW would support an airborne assault north of Bagdad. The McChord 62nd MAW and 445th AW have served in Iraq with distinction.

In 2005 base aircraft provided assistance to New Orleans after it was devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

Joint Base Lewis-McChord

The 2005 Base Reutilization and Closure (BRAC) commission recommended joint basing for military installations in close proximity, to increase efficiency. This included McChord Air Force Base and Fort Lewis. On October 1, 2010, McChord Air Force Base and Fort Lewis merged into Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

The army assumed the lead position with the joint base headquarters established at Lewis Main, but the great history of McChord Air Force Base would not be lost in the merger. The McChord Field Historic District was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. This district contains 39 eligible buildings and structures built by the Public Works Administration in 1938-1940. Listed buildings include the four hangars, the large barracks (today’s "castle"), a hospital building, heating plant, officer and non-commissioned officer housing, warehouses, and infrastructure systems. These historic buildings have been carefully rehabilitated to preserve their original designs and character, while offering modern facilities.   

Sources:
"McChord AFB: Our History," McChord Air Museum website accessed September 15, 2011 (http://www.mcchordairmuseum.org); "Fighter Wing Moving To McChord Base," The Seattle Daily Times, April 23, 1950, p. 4; "McChord Air Base Runway To Be Extended," The Seattle Daily Times, May 5, 1950, p. 35; "M’Chord Air Force Base," The Seattle Daily Times, October 21, 1956, p. 80; "Air-Defense 'Brains' Due At McChord," The Seattle Daily Times, November 2, 1958, p. 62; "Plane Wreckage Removed," The Seattle Daily Times, May 7, 1969, p. 15; "Nation Greets the First Troops Withdrawn by Nixon," The New York Times, July 9, 1969, p. 1;  "446th Airlift Wing," 446th Airlift Wing website accessed September 21, 2011 (http://www.446aw.afrc.af.mil/); Lauren McCroskey, Kate Kraft, and Terri A. Taylor, "National Register of Historic Places Nomination," McChord Field Historic District, McChord Air Force Base, U.S. National Park Service, February 2008, available at (http://www.nps.gov/nr/feature/weekly_features/2008/McChordFieldHD.pdf).


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Colonel Thomas Brittain uncasing the colors at ceremony creating Joint Base Lewis McChord (JBLM), Joint Base Lewis McChord, October 1, 2010
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