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Eielson Air Force Base History


The base's beginnings

More than 50 years ago surveyors first staked out the land that would someday be Eielson Air Force Base. It was 1943; Japanese had invaded the Aleutian Islands, the Russians were asking for American aircraft to help their military defend the homeland and the Allies had yet to get the upper hand in Europe or the Pacific.

But as one looks back at the origins of the base, it becomes apparent Mother Nature - more than Uncle Sam - prompted the opening of Eielson and its expansion to the premier Air Force installation in the Interior of Alaska.

The war years

During the years prior to World War II, the Interior had already welcomed an Army Air Forces installation. Ladd Field, now Fort Wainwright, was created in 1939 primarily as a site for cold-weather testing of aircraft and equipment. Only Interior Alaska offered the consistently cold temperatures needed.

The attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, forced the temporary halt on testing at Ladd since the military needed all aircraft for the defense of Alaska.

Testing resumed less than a year later. Along with testing aircraft, the military also tested clothing, equipment and other materials.

But by 1943 testing had become a second priority. Ladd had found itself a busy hub for fighters and bombers destined for the "Forgotten 1,000 Mile War" in the Aleutians or en route to Soviet forces as part of the Lend-Lease Program.

Ladd was the turn-over point for large numbers of aircraft and pilots who made the arduous trip from Montana through the Northwest Territories into the Interior.

In August and September 1942, the first Soviet pilots and civilians of the Soviet Purchasing Commission arrived in Fairbanks and were housed at Ladd Field. There they checked out in aircraft ranging from P-39 Air Cobras to B-25 Mitchell bombers.

The first lend-lease flight took place Sept. 3, 1942, and these flights continued through August 1945. In all nearly 8,000 aircraft passed through Alaska, were turned over to the Russians and ferried over the "air bridge."

The aircraft were completely stripped of everything except basic instrumentation and armament. With no navigational aids, flights would take off from Ladd Field and fly the first leg to Galena on the Yukon River.

After refueling the pilots would fly to Nome. From there it was only a short hop across to Russia.

Still dozens of planes were lost because of bad weather. And the weather proved to be a danger to the ferrying of aircraft into Fairbanks, according to Randy Acord, a pilot with Cold Weather Test at Ladd.

"We had problems in the winter of 1942. It was a very cold winter," Acord said. "Ice fog became a problem for airplanes landing at the field.

"The airplanes, which were coming in from Great Falls, Mont., for the war effort and Lend-Lease were sometimes unable to make it to Ladd. And many of the aircraft didn't have enough fuel to make it back to Big Delta to use Allen Field as an alternate.

"Therefore, the military decided to build an auxiliary field somewhere close but south of Ladd Field so it could be used as a weather-alternate."

Military planners chose the site where Eielson sits today for a few reasons. The government had withdrawn the acreage in 1939 for use for a flood control project and channel, Acord said, so the government already owned the land. Also, the terrain around the proposed site was free of approach hazards for the arriving aircraft. The nearest hills, low ones at that, were approximately six miles from base.

Part of the acreage was eventually set aside for flood control, and the remainder was transferred to the War Department in 1943.

"In the early summer of 1943, surveyors started to lay out the air base which was to be the weather auxiliary," Acord said.

The Army completed construction of the original base in October 1944. The base consisted of approximately 600 acres with housing for 108 officers and 330 enlisted.

It eventually featured a 10-bed dispensary, two parallel runways 6,625 feet long by 150 feet wide and Birchwood Hangar, long a fixture on base.

Mile 26

The base was dubbed "Satellite" or "Mile 26" by some workers and "26-Mile Strip" by the brass. One story had it the base was named 26-Mile Strip because of its proximity to one of the 13 Army telegraph stations that linked Fairbanks with Valdez as part of the Army's WAMCAT, or Washington-Alaska Military Communications and Telegraph, system. However, according to Acord, the reason for the naming was even simpler. Once built, the gate to the base was constructed at the south end of the runway, so people traveling from Fairbanks would have to go to the south end.

"That drive measured out to be exactly 26 miles, so the base was then known as 26-Mile Strip," Acord said. However it received the name, it stuck even though the north end of the base was only about 23 miles from Fairbanks.

According to Acord, the new base was used for many purposes by Cold Weather Test out of Ladd. And whenever a flight of lend-lease aircraft landed at 26-Mile Strip, the Russians were never allowed to go down and pick up any of them.

American pilots based at Ladd Field were transported down to 26-Mile Strip. Crews would warm the aircraft, if needed, and the pilots, one of whom was Acord, would ferry the planes to Ladd where they were transferred to the Russians.

"26-Mile Strip was a great asset to the war effort as far as safety was concerned," Acord said.

However, at war's end, the number of military personnel in Alaska dropped, many of the small airfields used on the lend-lease route were shut down, and 26-Mile Strip was put into caretaker status - mothballs. No decision was made regarding its use.

The Cold War

In 1946, with the onset of the Cold War looming, there came a time for a large bomber base in the Interior, said Acord, who by that time had left the military and settled down in the local area as a civilian pilot.

The military chose a site for the new base 29 miles south of Nenana.

"The area was surveyed, the runway was laid out at 14,500 feet long, the railroad siding was constructed, two temporary warehouses were built and two wells were drilled," Acord said.

"But around that time, we had a series of about 30 earthquakes; one of them turned out to be quite severe. And it showed a fault ran across approximately the center of the runway.

"The engineers became very concerned about this, because if they were to build a big bomber base, and the runway got damaged, it would be very expensive to repair."

The military still needed a long runway to accommodate the planned deployment of Strategic Air Command intercontinental bombers. Ladd was ruled out because its main runway had already been extended from its original 5,000 feet to 9,200 feet and now was bounded by river banks thanks to a bend in the Chena.

"The runway couldn't be expanded unless it crossed over the river, only toward the Fairbanks side, which would create more noise in town," Acord said.

In two ways Mother Nature had again forced military planners to look toward the site of 26-Mile Strip.

"All the funds left from the aborted construction near Nenana were transferred to 26-Mile Strip, and the expansion began. The existing west runway was expanded to the same length of the runway south of Nenana - 14,500 feet long," Acord said.

That was not the last of the site south of Nenana, though. A year later the military began awarding contracts for constructing defense early warning radar and communication installations throughout the state. Since the 16,000 acres had already been withdrawn, Acord said, the military decided to go ahead with the construction of Clear Air Force Station, which remains today.

But 26-Mile had now become a full-fledged Air Force installation.

The Air Force is created

On Sept. 18, 1947, the Air Force gained its independence from the Army as a separate branch with President Truman's signing of the National Security Act of 1947.

The newly created Air Force now had two bases near Fairbanks. Ladd Field was home to fighter-interceptors providing air defense in the Interior, and in November the first Strategic Air Command bombers arrived at 26-Mile with the deployment of the 97th Bomber Group from Smokey Hill Air Force Base, Kan.

Shortly afterward, on Feb. 4, 1948, the Air Force changed the name of 26-Mile Post to Eielson Air Force Base in honor of famed Arctic aviation pioneer Carl Ben Eielson.

Eielson had been a famous "bush pilot" in the Interior during the 1920s. In 1928, he and Australian explorer Sir Hubert Wilkins made the first flight over the polar ice cap from the North Slope to Spitzbergen, Greenland, a 2,200-mile route. The flight earned Eielson the Distinguished Flying Cross and the 1928 Harmon Trophy for the greatest American aviation feat of the year.

However, one year later during a flight in a furious blizzard in the winter of 1929 to rescue stranded passengers and $1 million in furs aboard a freighter caught in the ice off the Siberian coast, Eielson and his mechanic, Earl Boland, were killed. Searchers discovered their bodies and the wreckage 79 days later on a small island off the Siberian coast.

The transfer of Ladd Field

The 97th Bomber Group departed Eielson in March 1948, but other Strategic Air Command units followed. Eielson played host to B-29s, B-36s and finally B-47s. In fact, the largest hangar on Eielson today, now used for the Air Force's Cope Thunder exercises, was originally built to house two B-36 "Peacekeeper" bombers, the largest bomber ever in Air Force inventory.

During these years, the Air Force had mixed emotions about having two air bases - Ladd and Eielson - so close together, Acord said. After the Korean War, the Air Force began to look at ways to cut costs.

The Air Force decided to transfer Ladd to the Army and move its operations to Eielson.

On January 1, 1961, Ladd Field was returned to the Army and became Fort Wainwright.

The future

The Air Force has seen many changes at Eielson, and many missions and aircraft have come and gone. Since its early days, Eielson has also been home to weather reconnaissance aircraft, tactical units from Alaskan Air Command, aerial tankers and, most recently, F-16s, A-10s and OA-10s as part of the 354th Fighter Wing, flying close air support and forward air control missions for nearby ground units.

Strategically, Eielson's location allows units based here to respond to hot spots in Europe faster than units at bases on the East Coast. The same is true for Korea and the Far East. Eielson units can respond quicker than many of the units based in California.

Eielson also has an important mission thanks to its close working relationship with the Army in Alaska - specifically, the 6th Infantry Division (Light) at Forts Wainwright, Greely and Richardson.

A 1940 census reported that 1,000 military people lived in Alaska that year. Today, Eielson alone has almost three times that number of military people.

The military in Alaska has roughly 24,000 active-duty people in the state, helping to explain why its $1.5 billion in spending annually ranks second only to the oil industry.

And with Alaska's strategic location, recognized in the 1920s and 1930s by Air Force pioneers like Generals Henry "Hap" Arnold and Billy Mitchell - the vision of Eielson's future certainly outshines its humble beginnings, and may someday outshine its historic past.


Alaska is the most central place in the world for aircraft, and that is true of Europe, Asia or North America. I believe in the future, he who holds Alaska will hold the world, and I think it is the most strategic place in the world.
- Brig. Gen. Billy Mitchell, appearing before House Committee on Military Affairs in early 1935, which was holding hearings regarding the strategic needs of the fledgling U.S. Army Air Corps and the establishment of new bases for frontier defense.

Significant people and events at Eielson AFB

Aircraft operating at Eielson Air Force Base

Carl Ben Eielson

Official Eielson AFB Site