Ladd Army AirField

This week on June 14th,  we celebrated the 241st birthday of the U.S. Army.  To commemorate this occasion, our intern Kirsten would like to share a bit of the history regarding the Army post here in Fairbanks, Fort. Wainwright.  

In the years leading up to WWII, Alaska’s delegates to Congress had argued without success that it was important to fortify Alaska and Hawaii. Brigadier General Billy Mitchell, believed Alaska was the “the most strategic place in the world” and Lieutenant Colonel Henry H. “Hap” Arnold thought, “air defense is national insurance…the flying machine, one of the finest vessels of air commerce, can be turned into the deadliest weapon of war.”  The nation had been slow to recognize the threat from Germany and Japan or the way aviation was redefining national security.

Finally, in 1939, Congress approved $4 million to begin building a cold weather test station in Fairbanks, Alaska.  This station was to be known as Ladd Army Air Field and was an important landmark in WWII.  It served as the Cold Weather Test Station, Air Transport Command and was the main transfer point along the Alaska-Siberia Route (ALSIB) during the Lend Lease program (1942-1945).  


Ladd Army Field in 1944.

By September 1940, the first plane, an O-38 flown by Gaffney, landed on the runway.  Cold weather testing ensued that winter and proved to be a challenge for both the men and aircraft.   Challenges for the aircraft included frozen wings, brakes, windshields, broken heaters, iced cockpits and controls. 
The men were also responsible for testing out cold weather clothing and related survival gear.  It was important that the clothing be suitable for working in the cockpit and not freeze the pilot if he found himself in fresh snow or bitter wind.  Sheepskin jackets didn’t work for the aircrew when working in cramped quarters, which led to the development of down coats, which were more flexible and comfortable.  Gaffney also designed a heated pilots suit that would plug into the cockpit. 
The Army collaborated with civilian engineers and scientists making rapid progress in technical development and production of aircraft operations in temperatures as cold as forty below.  

Ladd Army Airfield was a very modern facility for the time.  It featured modern utilities, which was rare considering the prevalent permafrost in Fairbanks.  The solution to this problem was to lay the electric, water, steam, sewer and phone lines in underground tunnels that connected all the buildings.  These underground tunnels doubled as hallways for people to traverse during the -40 degree winters.
The Japanese attack on Dutch Harbor in 1942 caused a temporary halt in the Cold Weather Testing Detachment.  Many of the men were sent to fight as part of the Aleutian Campaign.   

The final check on Douglas A – 20 Havoc attack bomber before take-off to Siberia. Photo from the UAF Archives, Kay J. Kennedy Aviation Photograph Collection, UAF-1991-98-850.

PicturePlanes lined up outside of Hangar 1 awaiting flight to Russia.

Ladd field also played a significant role in the Lend Lease program, which supplied the Allied Russian Forces with trucks, combat vehicles, planes, and other items such as engines and equipment.  For quick transit, planes were sent from Great Falls, Montana to Ladd Field in Fairbanks, where they would then be taken over by the Soviet Pilots to Russia.  This route became known as the ALSIB (Alaska Siberia) Route.  Five A-20 bombers, the first of the Lend Lease planes, arrived at Ladd Field September 3, 1942.  During the course of the war, nearly 8,000 planes were transferred through Fairbanks, the sky seemingly in a constant hum.  


Hangar 1 today at Fort Wainwright.

After the war, Ladd Field became an important Cold War Base with air defense, reconnaissance, and an Arctic research station.  In 1961, the Army took over the airfield and was renamed after Jonathan M. Wainwright.  The missions for the base have changed but Fort Wainwright still supports military aviation and Hangar 1 still resides as a historic landmark.

11 responses to “Ladd Army AirField”

  1. John Coombs Avatar
    John Coombs

    Stationed at Ladd in the Army from 1958 to 1960 I was with the 521st Transportation Company and loved every day of it.

  2. William Mulder Avatar
    William Mulder

    Station at Ft Richardson in the army from 1959-1962 and assigned to the 521st Transportation Company. Trying to complete my shadow box with my service and was wondering if there was a patch that we were authorized to wear at that time for 521st Transportation Company..If so, where or how do I obtain one?.

  3. Chris Wangen Avatar
    Chris Wangen

    My grandfather was stationed here at the end of 1945 to early 1947. He was part of the Signal Service Company installing telephone lines and such.

    1. Chris Wangen Avatar
      Chris Wangen

      174th Signal Service I forgot to mention.

    2. Bob Gonet Avatar
      Bob Gonet

      My father was stationed at Ladd from 1944-45. He was a radio operator in the control tower talking to pilots flying in and out of Ladd. He also relayed a message from the Enola Gay pilot. My father’s name was Norman Gonet from Monaca, PA.

      1. Mary Coelho Avatar
        Mary Coelho

        My father was too. He was a control tower operator and he has a bunch of artifacts from his time there. His name was Norris Saunders. I’m trying to figure where to donate his items.

  4. Bentley Hale Avatar
    Bentley Hale

    Great post thannks

  5. Mary Coelho Avatar
    Mary Coelho

    My father was stationed at Ladd Field, AK during WWII as a control tower operator. He has a lot of artifacts to include restricted maps, headset, microphone, picture of himself, radio books from that time, etc. Do you know where I can donate these? I’m trying the WWII museum, but since he worked in AK, is there a museum there?

    1. Bob Gonet Avatar
      Bob Gonet

      Mary, yes there is a museum in Alaska. It’s called the Pioneer Air Museum and is located in Fairbanks, Alaska.
      Just page down below for the link to the museum which will have articles and pictures. As I mentioned in a previous text my father was also a radio operator in the Ladd Field tower during WWII. My father probably knew your father. Unfortunately I am unable to ask him as he has passed away in 2016. Is your father still living? If he is ask him if he knew Norman Gonet.

  6. Ray Klodt Avatar
    Ray Klodt

    Hi to everyone at Ft. Wainwright. I was a civilian flight instructor at the flying club late 65-67. I would love to know what happened to the club after I left and see any available pictures.

  7. PFC Charles Kenny Avatar
    PFC Charles Kenny

    I was stationed at Fort Wainwright and was located in the 808th Engineers Battalion.I worked at Birch Hill Ski Lodge 1971 to 1972 and took flying lessons obtaining my private pilot license while I was there.Met great people and had some great times.Memories.

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