World War II: Civilian Airports Adapted for Military Use

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D.
  • Posted 8/21/2012
  • Essay 10110
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Before and during World War II the military purchased or leased a number of municipal or local airports in Washington for use as military airfields. The army and navy expanded runways, built hangars, and made other improvements. During the war the airfields served as fighter bases, bomber-training facilities, and patrol bases. At the end of the war the airfields were returned to their previous owners for use as civilian airports again.

From Civilian to Military

In the 1930s, a number of Washington communities, using funds provided by the Depression-era Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Public Works Administration (PWA), built or purchased existing airports, in large part to accommodate postal service flights. Even before America's entry into World War II, fears of attack on the Pacific Northwest led to many of these airports being quickly converted to military fields.

In Washington state, at least 17 municipal or local airports became army and navy military airfields. They were:

Arlington Naval Air Auxiliary Facility (NAAF)/Arlington Airport and Industrial Park

In August 1940 the navy purchased the Arlington airport, originally opened in 1934. Located three miles southwest of Arlington in Snohomish County, the field became a carrier-pilot training facility. The runway was painted with lines to match those on aircraft carriers so pilots could learn how to land on the small, seagoing decks.

Following the June 1942 Japanese attacks and invasions in the Aleutian Islands, the army brought in bombers for coastal defense. In 1943, with the Aleutian threat diminished, the army moved out and the navy returned to the Arlington field.

The navy built a hangar, added two runways, and stationed patrol planes, and later, carrier aircraft at the site. In July 1946 the navy closed the airfield and returned it to the City of Arlington. The World War II hangar, parachute loft, and fire-station buildings survive within what is today the Arlington Airport and Industrial Park.

Bellingham Army Airfield/Bellingham International Airport

A grass field was constructed four miles northwest of Bellingham in 1936, using Works Progress Administration (WPA) funding. In 1940 the runway was paved, and in 1941 the site was expanded. The airport opened as a civilian facility on December 7, 1941, the very day of the Pearl Harbor attack.

Three days later the army moved in and would go on to construct 38 additional airport buildings. Throughout the war, the military used the Bellingham facility to house bombers and fighters defending the Puget Sound area. It was returned to civilian use in October 1946.

Bremerton National Airport

In 1939 the Kitsap County Airport opened at Bremerton. During World War II, the navy used the airport as an Outlying Field for Naval Air Station Seattle. It has continued to serve civilian and military aircraft since the end of the war.

Ellensburg Army Airfield/Ellensburg Airport/Bowers Field

In the 1930s an airport was constructed two miles northeast of Ellensburg, Kittitas County. In 1943 it became an Army Air Force flying school operated under the Air Force Technical Service Command. The army constructed buildings and a hangar, and army antiaircraft units trained nearby.

In 1948 the airfield was returned to the town and renamed Bowers Field to honor Ellensburg resident Ensign Robert K. Bowers (1915-1941), U.S. Naval Reserve. Bowers, an observation-aircraft pilot aboard the USS California, was killed in action on December 7, 1941, at Pearl Harbor. A World War II hangar survives at the airfield today (2012).

Ephrata Army Airfield/Ephrata Municipal Airport

The Ephrata Airport, located two miles southeast of the town of that name in Grant County, opened as a civilian facility in 1933. In early 1942 the 4th Army Air Force acquired the field for bomber training. The base was operated as the 355th Army Air Force airfield. Pilots and crews trained there in B-17 and B-24 bombers.

The U.S. Air Force retained it for possible base use until 1953 and then returned it to civilian use. A World War II hangar survives at the field, which is today operated by the Port of Ephrata.

Felts Field, Spokane

In 1927, the Spokane Municipal Airport, four miles northeast of Spokane, was renamed Felt’s Field and was home to the Air National Guard/116th Observation Squadron. In 1927 the National Guard constructed a headquarters building that survives today (2012). The airfield was named to honor Buell Felts (1896-1927), a National Guard pilot killed in a May 30, 1927, crash.

An impressive Art Deco-style terminal building went up in 1932, and the field served military and civilian aviation. In 1939 a memorial clock tower was dedicated to Lieutenant Nicholas Bernard Mamer (1897-1938), a distinguished Washington pilot killed in a 1938 crash.

During World War II the field served as a Civilian Pilots Training Program/War Training Service school. This civilian program provided thousands of pilots to the war effort.

Today the Felts Field Historic District contains structures listed on the National Register of Historic Places. These includes three hangars, the terminal building, National Guard headquarters building, a small storage building, and the Mamer clock tower.

Quillayute Naval Auxiliary Air Station, (NAAS)/Quillayute State Airport

Because the existing airport at nearby Forks could not be expanded, the navy in 1941 began construction of a new airfield southwest of Quillayute on the Olympic peninsula. Prairie land was purchased for the new field and construction started in the summer of that year. Following the December 7, 1941, attack at Pearl Harbor. the army requested joint use of the field. The army constructed barracks and other facilities.

Today (2012) this is Quillayute State Airport and has four surviving buildings dating from World War II.

McAllister Flying School, Yakima/Yakima Air Terminal, McAllister Field

In 1926 Charles McAllister (1903-1998) cleared sagebrush for a landing strip three miles south of Yakima and opened a flying school. The first McAllister building was completed in 1928, still survives today, and is listed on the Washington State Heritage Register. In 1932 two gravel runways were completed.

During World War II the McAllister School of Flying became part of the Civilian Pilot Training Program/War Training Service to teach flying. The McAllister Museum of Aviation is located at the airport.   

Moon Island, Hoquim/Bowerman Field

Located two miles west of Hoquiam, the Moon Island Airport became an army airfield in 1942. The army built two runways and expanded the field to serve as a patrol base. In 1953 the field was named to honor First Lieutenant Robert C. Bowerman (1921-1952) a co-pilot killed in a Korean War crash. The airport was transferred to the Port of Grays Harbor in 1962.

Olympia Army Airfield/Olympia Regional Airport

The Olympia airport is one of the oldest in the nation, constructed in 1911 at Bush Prairie. In 1928 the City of Olympia purchased the field and paved its runway. It functioned as a municipal airport until World War II. During the war the Olympia Airport served as the 33d Army Air Force base, a satellite base of McChord Field. 

At the end of the war it was sold as surplus to the City. In 1963 the Port of Olympia obtained the airport. It is located in Tumwater and puts on an annual aviation show in June. The Olympia Flight Museum is located at the airport, and a historic hangar survives.

Pasco Naval Air Station (NAS)/Tri-Cities Airport

The Pasco Airport opened in 1932 as the Franklin County Airport. In early 1942 the navy purchased the airport for $1 an acre. Military construction started in March 1942 and the field was commissioned on July 31, 1942. Five months later the field became the first to receive a contingent of Navy Waves (Women Accepted for Volunteer Service). As the Pasco Naval Air Station, it served as a primary training field. At its peak in 1943 the station had 189 instructors, 800 students, and 304 aircraft.

The navy ended operations by December 1945 and the base was inactivated on July 1, 1946. The Naval Air Station commander, Basil. B. Smith (1894-1977), settled in Kennewick after retirement and served as mayor from 1955 to 1960. Several World War II buildings survive on the facility's north end and are still used for general aviation purposes.  

Port Angeles Army Airfield/William R. Fairchild International Airport

The Clallam County airport, located west of Port Angeles, was built in 1934. The army acquired it during World War II as a fighter field. P-38 fighters operated out of the base to defend Washington.

The airfield was returned to the county after the war. In 1953 former Coast Guard pilot William R. Fairchild (1926-1969) started Angeles Flying Service there with flights to Washington cities. He also  became a famous glacier pilot. In 1969, while taking off from Clallam County Airport piloting a commercial flight, Fairchild crashed and was killed. The airport was named to honor him.

Port Townsend Army Airfield/Jefferson County Airport

The Army Air Force constructed a grass runway near Port Townsend shortly before World War II and during the war the army kept a few fighters there. Following the war it was returned to the town. Since 1959 it has been operated by the Port of Port Townsend.

Shelton Naval Auxiliary Air Station (NAAS)/Sanderson Airport and Industrial Park

In 1927 Mason County constructed an airport outside Shelton. In July 1942 the navy purchased the airport and land and developed a joint army-navy field that opened in March 1943. However, by the time it opened the army did not need it as an interceptor field. The navy took over, added blimp facilities, and commissioned the field on July 7, 1943. It was closed on December 15, 1945 and returned to the county.

In 1966 the airport was named in honor of Shelton-born Marine Corps Major General Lawson Sanderson (1895-1976). Sanderson joined the Marine Corps in World War I as a private. Shortly after the war he attended flight school. During World War II he served in aviation units on Guadalcanal and other Pacific Islands. In 1943 he was appointed commanding general, Marine Fleet Air, for the entire West Coast. After the war he continued in Marine Corps aviation commanding air wings and other assignments.   

Skagit Regional Airport

The Works Progress Administration (WPA) built an airport near Burlington. The navy took over the field and used it as an Outlying Field for Naval Air Station, Whidbey. It remained in military use until 1958 and then became the Skagit County Airport.

In 1965 the airport became a Port of Skagit operation.

Walla Walla Army Airfield/Walla Walla Regional Airport

The army acquired the municipal airport, three miles northeast of Walla Walla, for an airfield in 1942. It would be the largest of the state's municipal airports to be converted to military use in World War II. During the war nearly 300 buildings were constructed and runway improvements made. The base unit was the 357th Army Air Force and the first major unit to train here was the 91st Bomb Group (Heavy), with 2,700 men and 72 B-17 Boeing Flying Fortress bombers.

The 91st was assigned to Walla Walla on June 26, 1942. They were ordered overseas on August 24, 1942. With their departure, Walla Walla Army Airfield stood vacant for a time. In 1944 the 4th Air Force arrived and the facility became a B-24 bomber training base. During the war approximately 8,000 officers and enlisted men trained there. In World War II the 91st Bomb Group had the greatest number of losses for heavy bomb groups.

The U.S. Air Force identified the base as surplus in 1947 and turned it over to the city and county. In May 1965 the U.S. Air Force returned with a $4 million construction effort. The Walla Walla Airport became a joint-use field with fighters from McChord Air Force Base stationed there. The concept was to have aircraft dispersed so a ballistic missile attack at McChord would not wipe out its entire fighter force. The construction included alert hangars, munitions bunkers, and rehabilitated barracks. The dispersal airfield closed in about 1971.

In 1989 the Port of Walla Walla took over the airport and industrial park. Several World War II buildings survive including hangars and barracks. A memorial to the 91st Bomb Group is located at the airport. Six alert hangars and the munitions bunkers from 1965 survive.

Willapa Airport

The Pacific County Airport was established near South Bend. During World War II the military started improving and expanding the airport, but it was unfinished at the end of the war.

Sources: Scott Murdock, "OREWASH," website accessed April 27, 2012 (; M. L. Shettle Jr., United States Naval Air Stations of World War II, Vol. 2, Western States (Bowersville, Georgia: Schaertel Publishing), 1997; "State Guard Plane Crashes at Spokane," The Seattle Daily Times, May 30, 1927, p. 12; "Walla Walla Memorial, Washington," 91st Bomb Group website accessed May 1, 2010 (; "Walla Walla Air Facility Dedicated," The Spokesman Review, May 11, 1965, p. 2.

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