General Dale Vincent Gaffney

Kirsten here again! This time to sum up a lecture given by our Curator Pete Haggland last week.

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In 2001, General Dale Vincent Gaffney’s granddaughter donated a significant collection of his photos, awards, and medals to the Pioneer Air Museum.  We had a chance to share them and Gaffney’s story with the Fairbanks Genealogical Society last week.  Our Curator, Pete Haggland discussed General Gaffney, the Commander of the Cold Weather Test Detachment and The Air Transport Command of the Alaskan Wing at Ladd Field during WWII.

General Dale Vincent Gaffney was born in 1894 in Massachusetts.  He was enrolled into boarding school and afterwards, enlisted in the Aviation Signal Corps.  He was commissioned Second Lieutenant of the Air Service in July of 1918.  He had several career assignments as a company and field grade officer from 1918-1943.  

In 1921, he had been part of the “Billy Mitchell Debate” whether or not airplanes would play a vital role in future wars.  Gaffney took part in the experiments proving that an aircraft could, in fact, sink war ships.


In 1939, Gaffney was sent as a member of the original cold weather test crew, to fly the Douglas B-18 Bolos at Elmendorf Air Force Base (Anchorage, AK).  Part of the cold weather testing program was to perform aeronautical research and testing of aircraft and associated equipment in the extreme arctic cold.  Prior to field-testing, most experiments and trials were limited and performed in simulated environments with little to no development. 

In 1940, Gaffney was sent to Ladd Field (Fairbanks, AK), and became the Commander of the Cold Weather Test Detachment.  Observations were made on Alaskan flying weather and conditions, airplane maintenance and operation, transportation, clothing, communication, health and medical issues, and survival equipment.  The primary concern was aircraft maintenance and operation.  Regulations and guidelines were developed for cold weather operations based on Gaffney’s testing and results.  Some of the newly developed procedures included parking the aircraft outside, covering the wings and tail to prevent frost build up, diluting the engine oil, using oil immersion heaters, and preheating the engine before starting.  He also gained national press for designing a test pilot prototype of an electric under-suit.  

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A view of Ladd field from the air, ca. 1940.

He also was involved in the construction of the Canol (Canadian American Norman Oil) Pipeline project in an effort to bring more oil to remote areas of Alaska.  Construction began in 1942 and was completed in 1944.  The project was to bring oil from Norman Wells, in the Northwest Territory, to a refinery along the Alaskan Highway in Whitehorse, Yukon.  The oil flow commenced in 1944, but was shut down in 1945, as it was not as productive as originally hoped.  Some supplementary pipelines were installed to distribute oil from the Whitehorse refinery, which also closed in 1945.  
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General Gaffney (wearing sunglasses) at the dedication of the Canol Refinery a t Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, April 30th 1944.

The focus of Ladd field quickly changed in 1942 after the bombing of Dutch Harbor and Japanese occupation of the Aleutian Islands.  Testing was halted and the defense of the Pacific region became a priority.  Several of Gaffney’s pilots and crew members were sent to Unmak Island as part of the 36th Heavy Bombardment Squadron.  Later, other members of Gaffney’s crew were quickly deployed as part of the Aleutian Campaign.   

The Cold Weather Test Detachment had been reestablished in the summer of 1942, with focus on testing and winterization procedures and Arctic operations for all military aircraft and associated equipment.  Going against advisement of the command, Gaffney encouraged partnership with civilian technical representatives from various manufacturers to develop the best possible solutions to cold weather problems.  Gaffney and his crew had been successful in the basic winterization process of various aircraft.  However, he still insisted that the cold weather issues that halted the Germans and Japanese Air Forces would not stop the Army Air Force; he believed it was vital that all aircraft be able to operate at 65 degrees Fahrenheit below zero in order to remain effective in defense of the US. 

During this time, the Lend Lease Program had been enacted and Ladd Field had been renovated to accommodate the ALSB (Alaska-Siberia) air route; several runways, hangars, and temporary buildings had been constructed.  In addition to cold weather testing (operating only in the now historic Hangar One), Gaffney’s role was to oversee all the aircraft going through Ladd Field.  

After the war ended, Ladd Field was renamed Ladd Air Force Base and became the Northern Sector Command Headquarters for reconnaissance, air defense, and a research post for the early years of the Cold War.  At the end of the 1950’s, the Air Force moved it’s operations to Eielson and Elmendorf Air Force Bases.  In 1961, the army took over Ladd and re-designated Fort Wainwright and still serves as an active post today.  

Over the course of the war Gaffney held many command positions; 1943-1946 as Commanding General of the Alaskan Wing Air Transport Command, Aug-Sept 1946 as Atlantic Division Air Transport Command, 1946-1946 as Commanding General of the Bermuda Base Command, 1947-1948 as the Deputy Assistant Chief of Staff Operations of Arctic Affairs for Headquarters of the USAFF, April-June 1948 as Deputy of the Alaskan Air Command, 1948-1949 as Commanding General of the Yukon Sector of the Alaskan Air Command, and in 1949-1950 he served as the Deputy Commanding General of Air Proving Ground Command.

In March of 1950, Gaffney passed away.  During his career, he was distinguished with many honors including, a Distinguished Service Medal in 1946, a Canadian Service Medal, and a letter in 1946, from King George VI appointing him an Honorary Commander of the Military Division of the British Empire.  He was a very important figure, not only for military advancement in WWII, but also as a well-loved member of the Fairbanks community.

3 responses to “General Dale Vincent Gaffney”

  1. Mary Pressman Avatar
    Mary Pressman

    I believe my father Jack Jacobs served under General Gaffney and was very close to him. He said he was a pallbearer at the General’s funeral. The General let my dad fly with him from Alaska to see my mother when my parents were dating. He described how the General looked for an opening in the clouds in order to land. It seemed like a life lesson. I wonder if there are any pictures with my dad in them.

  2. Kathleen Gaffney Finn Avatar
    Kathleen Gaffney Finn

    Hi! I am the granddaughter who donated my grandfathers items to the Pioneer Air Museuem! I would love to come to Alaska and visit soon!

  3. William H. Wherrett Avatar
    William H. Wherrett

    I am William H. Wherrett, my Uncle was Joseph Wherrett. Years ago I was told Uncle Joe was Gen. Gaffney’s personal pilot in Alaska. If you are interested in corresponding. Please contact me, would love to share stories, photos and info. E-mail
    williamwherrett@yahoo.com

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