An official website of the United States government
Here's how you know
A .mil website belongs to an official U.S. Department of Defense organization in the United States.
A lock (lock ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .mil website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

Portland Army Air Base on 'Day of Infamy'

  • Published
  • By Retired Lt. Col. Terrence G. Popravak Jr.
  • 142nd Fighter Wing History Office
As the day dawned Dec. 7, 1941, at Portland Army Air Base all was in order. By the end of the day, however, that would completely change.

Portland Army Air Base was established March 13, 1941, at a time when numerous air installations of the Army Air Forces were under construction, as the United States prepared for looming conflict with the Axis powers.

The base was originally built in two areas, with a 30 acre part on the south side of the Portland-Columbia Airport and a 60 acre site south of that for housing of personnel, medical and administrative offices. A connecting road and utility lines connected the two areas. The original buildings were constructed to support a garrison of 2,392 enlisted and 275 officers. A flag pole for the base was donated by the public, and June 14, 1941, Flag Day, approximately 1,500 personnel and guests participated in the first flag raising over the base.

On Dec. 7, 1941, there were a variety of United States Army Air Forces units assigned to PAAB. The base itself was administered by the 43rd Air Base Group, and commanded by Col. Joseph L. Stromme. The 43rd's units included the Headquarters Squadron and 57th Materiel Squadron. Also present was the 44th Air Base Squadron, previously assigned to the 43rd ABG, but as of the time of Pearl Harbor a separate unit under the 2nd Air Force Base Command.

The principal air unit based at Portland was the 55th Pursuit Group (Interceptor), commanded by Maj. James W. McCauley, equipped with the Republic P-43 Lancer aircraft, the direct ancestor of the P-47 Thunderbolt aircraft. The group consisted of a Headquarters squadron and three pursuit squadrons, the 37th, 38th, and 54th, and the 55th Interceptor Control Squadron.

Also at the base was the 16th Transport Squadron, equipped with the Douglas C-47 Skytrain aircraft. It was the second flying unit to operate from the new base.

A mix of other Army units was also assigned to PAAB, providing essential specialized functions. These included the 35th Signal Company, 320th Signal Company, 684th Ordnance Company, 723rd Ordnance Company, Quartermaster Detachment, 91st QM, 2nd Det QM Company (Aviation Supply) and 35th QM Company. Also added to the roster was the Station Medical detachment, a detachment of the 1st Weather Squadron that formed the base weather station and the 86th Army Air Force Band. There was also the HQ Squadron of the 2nd Air Force Air Service Command, and the American Red Cross opened an office on the base too.

Before the war suddenly began, plans were announced to construct approximately 90 new buildings to provide for an expected strength at the base of some 3,600 enlisted men and 400 officers. Portland was becoming a major installation, gradually building in strength and capacity.

Between Oct. 18-20, 1941, the fighter planes of the 55th Pursuit Group, many recently flown in factory fresh from the Republic factory on the east coast, joined in with state and city of Portland organizations in an air raid drill which tested the air defense network recently established in the area. This included a blackout order, and searchlight and anti-aircraft were emplaced around strategic points in the city. A squadron of P-43's operated from the airfield at Salem, Oregon; P-38 and P-40 aircraft came from other stations to Portland to participate. Although the weather prevented the drill by the Interceptor Command from coming off as planned, visual observers, wardens, filter center workers, base and tactical flying unit personnel still accomplished some useful training. It was the largest Army-civilian air defense exercise prior to the war.

Also in October, a group of 75 officers recently graduated from flight school joined the 55th to commence transition training in the P-43. A lot of hard work was required to bring this cadre up to a mission capable status as the war clouds gathered, and in the fall season the group conducted gunnery training in Arlington, Oregon. The group also participated in maneuvers at McChord Field and Spokane, Washington.

On Nov. 11, 1941, personnel at the base participated in the Armistice Day parade in Portland. It was one of a number of events in the community which the base supported, and civil-military relations were good from the start between Portland and the base.

The attacks on the bases in Hawaii, at points in the Philippines, Guam, landings in British Malaya, etc., were totally unexpected by personnel at Portland, like everywhere else. Scant days before the assault, on Dec. 4, 1941, the base issued a Special order in compliance with pre-war federal legislation which provided for the discharge of selective service personnel in military service who were over the age of 28.

Although the Pearl Harbor attack was unexpected, the base had prudently prepared the installation for such an eventuality. A based defense plan was created early on, and was designed to combine both the air base group and flying unit personnel. Assigned personnel were marched and regularly run through the obstacle course to build endurance, underwent simulated raids and gas attacks to practice their response.

On Dec. 7, the day started normally. A formal inspection had occurred the day before, with the base commander, Stromme presiding. PAAB had only been established in April that year, construction was still going on and new personnel, many without even any basic military training, were being assigned. Frequent inspections helped assure personnel were being trained and units were properly equipped and in condition to accomplish their assigned missions.

After word of the attack reached the base, organized chaos took over.

"[With personnel] in a state of excitement ... all furloughs were cancelled, the guard was doubled, and the entire base was placed on alert," according to the official base history. "Five officers were placed on detached service and sent to the interceptor control section. All planes of the 55th Pursuit Group were armed, and scheduled aircraft maneuvers were cancelled."

The pursuit ships were later given areas for patrol and placed on a 24 hour operating schedule. Stromme and his staff also began 24 hour operations at the base.

Other measures of defense of the installation were implemented. Guards were placed at the entrance to Cornfoot Road, in order " prevent visits of curiosity seekers." Base civilian workers were allowed on the base, but other civilians were refused entrance.

To augment the air base ground defense posture, a detachment from the 18th Engineers moved to the base and augmented defenses of the cantonment area. They were equipped with half-tracks which mounted machine guns and light cannon. Also present were Infantry and a Security battalion which provided additional protection to the cantonment and technical/flight line areas.

By the evening of Dec. 8, 1941, the west coast was blacked out and radio stations cut off the air at 7 p.m. Pacific Standard Time. The order was issued by Gen. Carlyle Wash, chief of the Second Air Force Interceptor Command, and the air raid warning system was placed on 24-hour operations.

Portland citizens under the leadership of Mayor Earl Riley contributed to the effort. Twelve hundred men were placed on black out patrol duty, and additional guards were placed on the city's water supply. Citizens were asked to refrain from going out during the black out while aliens were advised to stay in their quarters. City and state police forces also mobilized additional personnel onto duty.

That same night, the first air raids of the war were sounded in New York City, New York, and San Francisco, California. There was even a report of enemy planes flying near San Francisco that did not drop bombs. Also on that evening, a warning came from Mayor Andrew McGavin of Victoria, British Colombia, that "Japanese aircraft were off the Aleutian Islands." Citizens were asked to "be calm and carry on normally."

The base itself undertook an increased training effort with practice attack and gas alerts to rehearse and improve the base defense plan. Formal training in first aid, military courtesy, aircraft recognition, map reading, safeguarding military information and other vital subjects was provided to personnel, who were perhaps encouraged to pay close attention by the proximity of the base to the coast.

Photography on base was also restricted, and subject to censorship by the base S-2 shop, including images processed through the Post Exchange.

A week after the attack on Hawaii, the Second Air Force Commanding General, Maj. Gen. Millard F. Harmon, inspected PAAB and "...pronounced it in complete readiness." The Portland Air Base "PABLOID" newspaper of Dec. 24, 1941, conveyed General Harmon's impressions of the post-attack responses:

"1. Express to all personnel of your command my gratification for the prompt and effective measures initiated immediately subsequent to the Japanese attacks on Hawaii and other American outposts on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941.

2. The work performed by all bases in putting into effect preconceived measures for the security of installations, equipment and activities; in emergency movement of essential material; the improvement of maintenance facilities and other pertinent measures in (sic) commended.

3. The staff work of the second air Force and of subordinate echelons has been well and indefatigably performed.

4. The operational activities conducted by combat units have been carried out with high efficiency in the face of adverse weather conditions and in spite of other handicaps over which they exercise no powers of correction. Special mention is made of the alertness and prompt action of the airplane commander and crew of an airplane of a squadron of this Air Force in spotting and immediately attacking a submarine while engaged in seaward reconnaissance.

5. So far so good. All must realize that the measures taken to date are but a good start toward the perfection of the operational efficiency of the Second air Force. All other considerations are secondary. Commanders in all echelons must as never before exercise their intelligence, ingenuity and resourcefulness to accomplish this purpose, i.e. combat efficiency.

Major General, U.S. Army

As things turned out, no attack on Portland materialized, though assigned units and personnel were ready to defend against one, and over time the defensive posture was relaxed. The war carried on and eventually took all of the originally assigned flying units of PAAB far away in service to the nation.

The 55th Pursuit Group left Portland in February 1942 to reinforce air defenses in the Puget Sound area of Washington State before going overseas to Europe as the 55th Fighter Group with P-38 Lightning aircraft and later, the P-51 Mustang aircraft, to serve in 8th Air Force and the strategic air war against Nazi Germany in 1943. Only the 38th Fighter Squadron remained of the original fighter units with the group. The group and squadron received a Distinguished Unit Citation for a series of eight missions over Germany in September, 1944. The 55th Fighter Group is now the 55th Operations Group of the 55th Wing at Offutt AFB, Nebraska. With 12 squadrons assigned it is Air Combat Command's largest group. The 38th Fighter Squadron is now the 38th Reconnaissance Squadron, operating the Air Force RC-135V/W Rivet Joint reconnaissance aircraft from Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska.

In May, 1942, the 54th Pursuit Squadron left the group to serve with 11th Air Force in the Aleutian Islands. The unit was last active as the 54th Fighter Squadron in 2000 at Elmendorf AFB, Alaska, equipped with the Air Force F-15C Eagle aircraft.

In early 1943 the 37th Fighter Squadron was detached from the group and sent to North Africa, and served there and onward to Sicily, Corsica and Italy with the 14th Fighter Group first in 12th Air Force, then in 15th Air Force from November, 1943. The squadron earned a Distinguished Unit Citation for action over Austria in April, 1944. Today it is designated as the 37th Flying Training Squadron, equipped with the Air Force T-6 Texan II aircraft at Columbus AFB, Mississippi.

The 16th Transport Squadron left Portland in June, 1942, and deployed overseas to England for a short period before being sent to North Africa, from where it participated in the Mediterranean theater campaigns. For a brief period in 1944, the squadron deployed to India, to help repel the Japanese invasion of India (and where it earned a Distinguished Unit Citation) and returning to the Mediterranean thereafter. Today the unit is the 16th Airlift Squadron, stationed at Charleston AFB, South Carolina, and operating the Air Force C-17 Globemaster III aircraft in the Air Mobility Command.

Even some of the air base "housekeeping" units were called upon for overseas duty, such as the 43rd Air Base Group, redesignated as the 43rd Service Group and deployed to Egypt in March, 1943. It later moved to Italy where it served four bombardment groups (probably the four bomb groups of the 47th Bomb Wing) participating 15th Air Force's part of the strategic air campaign in Europe, which included the famed 98th Bomb Group and 376th Bomb Group which participated in the epic low-level raid on Ploesti, Romania, Aug. 1, 1943. It also had a detachment operating on the island of Vis, Yugoslavia. The group had more units with meritorious service citations than any other in the XV Air Force Service Command.

The 57th Materiel Squadron, later redesignated as the 57th Service Squadron, also deployed to North Africa, to Italy, then on into southern France and ultimately into Germany by the end of the war.

But all those units going off to all those overseas locations and actions were far away from Portland, Oregon, on Dec. 7, 1941, when the Army Air Forces personnel assigned to Portland Army Air Base responded to Imperial Japan's surprise attacks in the Pacific. Let us remember those who were ready to answer the call to duty in that time and support and encourage those men and women in uniform serving at Portland ANG Base today as they stand ready to serve our community, state and nation.