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Determining the Facts

Reading 1: Ladd Field and Cold Weather Testing

Even after World War I ended in 1918, tensions in Europe continued. Many politicians in the United States believed that our nation needed to prepare itself for possible future conflict. Alaska was not yet a state, but did send a delegate to Congress. U.S. territories can elect delegates to represent them in Congress, but those delegates cannot vote. Alaska's delegate, Anthony Dimond, worked hard to persuade Congress that Alaska needed a defense system. Major General H.H. Arnold, Chief of the Army Air Corps, insisted on the establishment of an airbase. The 1935 legislation authorizing Ladd Field, named for a pilot who had lost his life, allowed for military facilities in Alaska, but did not fund them. The United States did not begin building Ladd Field until 1939. Just days later, Germany invaded Poland. World War II had begun.

Ladd Field opened near Fairbanks, Alaska, in 1940. It originally served as a Cold Weather Test station. The local weather was well suited for it. Winter in Fairbanks can start as early as September and lasts until late April or early May. Low temperatures generally average -15˚ to -25˚ Fahrenheit. However, the temperature each winter drops to more than -60˚ Fahrenheit. Snow begins to accumulate in early October and usually does not disappear until the following May. The Cold Weather Test Station was tasked with making sure aircraft would start and fly at these extreme temperatures.

More troops arrived in September, 1940. Construction of buildings and the runway continued into 1941. Portable hangars housed the airplanes until the first permanent hangar was finished. By the fall of 1941, over 500 troops were stationed at Ladd Field. However, many were only temporary. Base Commander Lt. Colonel Dale W. Gaffney complained to his superiors that it was difficult to mount a testing program with limited personnel and incomplete facilities. Also, rumors circulated that Ladd Field would be used for other purposes.

Despite slow construction and limited supplies, testing continued at Ladd Field until the spring of 1942. The Cold Weather Test Detachment learned a lot. They learned about wing icing (how to deal with ice that forms on the plane's wings), navigation, cold-weather clothing, armament, and other aspects of operating aircraft in arctic-like conditions. The military used this data as it built new aircraft. Incorporating lessons learned in Alaska helped make operating American aircraft in arctic weather conditions safer.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 pushed the United States into WWII. In 1942, the Japanese invaded the Aleutians Islands in western Alaska. As a result, the United States Army disbanded the Cold Weather Testing Detachment. The soldiers went to other military posts in Alaska to help fight the Japanese in the Aleutian Campaign. Ladd Field became a storage area to repair and service aircraft. Several months later, the Commanding General decided that more cold weather testing was necessary. He reactivated the Cold Weather Test Detachment. Aviation testing continued well after the conclusion of WWII in 1945.

In 1947, Ladd Field became a United States Air Force Base. In 1961, the facility was transferred to the Army and became Ft. Wainwright. Ladd Field/Ft.Wainwright is still an active Army installation. The buildings and structures in the historic district emphasize Ladd Field's national significance during WWII—as a cold weather test facility, as a support base for the Aleutian Campaign of the War in the Pacific, and for its role as the transfer site for aircraft along the Alaska-Siberia Route.

Questions for Reading 1

1. What was the original mission of Ladd Field? Why was its location so well suited for this type of work?

2. What event caused the Cold Weather Test Detachment to disband?

3. Do you think it was important to have a military installation in Alaska during WWII? Why or why not? What event made Alaska, not yet a state, a desirable location for military facilities? (Look back at Map 1 if necessary.)

Reading 1 was compiled from Cold Missions: The U.S. Army Air Forces and Ladd Field in WWII; National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form, Ladd Field, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1984.


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