Fort Vancouver Barracks

Operations at Vancouver Barracks

During the years between the wars, military activity at the post was low. Prior to World War I, Pierce County had purchased 62,000 acres of land between Tacoma and Olympia, and presented it to the military for use as a cantonment, called Camp Lewis. While Vancouver Barracks served to house functions relating to the Spruce Division during the First World War, Camp Lewis, with 30,000 soldiers living in hastily assembled wood barracks, became the principal regional site for training and assembling soldiers bound overseas. From that time onward, Camp Lewis--later named Fort Lewis--was the principal military site in the Pacific Northwest.

After the First World War, a series of military units were transferred into and out of the garrison at Vancouver Barracks, among them the Forty-Ninth, First, Thirty-Second, Fifty-Ninth regiments. The Seventh Infantry returned to the post in 1922, and remained until it was moved out to the war theater in January of 1941. That unit was replaced by the Eighteenth Engineers, sent a little over a year later to build the Alaskan Highway. The Garrison continued to increase in strength, with the addition of draftees, who engaged in war games held on the Columbia River.

After December of 1941, Vancouver Barracks came under the control of the Ninth Service Command, with headquarters at Fort Douglas Utah. The post then served as a staging area for the Portland Subport of embarkation, and as a training center for certain units; in January of 1943, the army's first training center for quartermaster units began at Vancouver Barracks.

As the war progressed, the garrison size increased. To accommodate new troops, going to and from the Pacific Theater, temporary barracks were built late in the summer of 1942, near the north end of the reserve. In December the barracks were named Camp Hathaway. By 1944 both Vancouver Barracks and Camp Hathaway were brought under the wing of the Portland Subport of Embarkation; the headquarters of the Subport was moved to Vancouver Barracks on January 1, 1946. A few weeks later, Vancouver Barracks was declared excess to the needs of the Army Transportation Corps.

In the mid 1920s, the post became the site of one of the Citizens' Military Training Camp which were given statutory authority in the National Defense Act of 1920. The camps, held for two weeks each summer at posts throughout the country, were designed to give civilians grounding in military practice in various branches of the service--for example, cavalry, field artillery, and engineers--and classes were generally conducted by reserve officers. The camps in Washington and Oregon were administered by the Ninety-sixth Division headquarters in Portland.

The first of the two military activities during this period which had the most impact on the site was the growth of the post-World War I U.S. Army Air Service, which at Vancouver Barracks, due primarily to the efforts of one air reserve lieutenant, led to the establishment of an army airfield in 1925. The second was the participation of the United States War Department in the operation of the Civilian Conservation Corps, which led to Vancouver Barracks role in this program as a headquarters and dispersing agency for the program in the Pacific Northwest in the 1930s.

U.S. Army Air Force

In the early 1920s, a branch of the fledgling U.S. Army Air Service began to operate at Vancouver Barracks, east of the spruce mili site below today's East Fifth Street. As noted previously, the polo field below what is now East Fifth Street had been used in the 'teens by civilian airplane advocates. Beginning in 1921 the army airplane forest patrol, a cooperative venture between the U.S. Forest Service and the Army Air Service, which was directed out of the Ninth Corps headquarters in San Francisco, used Vancouver Barracks as a base of operations for the Portland-Vancouver region. The patrols were established spot forest fires. They initially operated out of Portland, since, on the day the first patrol was slated to begin, the landing area at Vancouver was under water--a not atypical June occurrence on the old Fort Plain. It was reported that the Vancouver army field would probably be used after the waters receded because "...the government is prepared to take care of the planes in the matter of hangers, gasoline, and oils, besides the government owned fields have their own means for protection of the planes while not in use." This was the first organized use--albeit periodic--of the site as an airfield by the military. A five thousand square foot wood-clad temporary hangar was built to protect the planes. In 1923, the field below East Fifth Street was used as a repair base for an aerial mapping and photography expedition of local ports and army installations, part of a nation-wide survey for the United States Board of Engineers for Rivers and Harbors and the United States Shipping Board. Supervision of the local effort was under the command of the Ninety-first air squadron headquarters in Portland.

Late in 1923, a Lieutenant Oakley Kelly was assigned as an air officer of the Ninety-sixth Division of the Organized Reserves. That year, the Division included the 321st Observation Squadron, which at that time was based at Vancouver Barracks with three airplanes, under the command of First Lieutenant James Powell. Under Powell's direction, the air reserve officers took part in war games in Portland in May, 1923. By 1925, the 321st Observation Squadron Headquarters were located in the Ninety-sixth Division Headquarters, in Portland, under the command of Captain Howard French. In March of that year he reported that, in addition to the 321st Division squadron, an Observation Group had been allocated to Portland, which would accommodate unassigned Air Service reserve officers. Kelly, who had made the first non-stop transcontinental flight in May of 1923, and was co-holder of the world's flight endurance record, arrived in the Pacific Northwest in February of 1924. He was a tireless and energetic supporter of the use of airplanes for both commercial and military use, and of the development of the Vancouver Barracks site as a military airfield. Establishment of its regular use began under his direction.

In March of 1924, the field at Vancouver barracks served as a pre-flight stop for the "World Fliers," an army-commissioned around-the-world flight slated to begin from Seattle. In October of that year the airfield hosted a reception for the World Fliers on their return trip to California. As part of the general celebration, two planes from Vancouver, one flown by Lieutenant Kelly, participated in an air circus in Seattle, and upon the World Fliers' return visit to Vancouver in October, the 321st squadron flew in formation above Vancouver to herald their arrival at the site. In May Kelly took the opportunity offered by a barracks polo tournament to hold a flying exhibition before the assembled tournament crowd. That year, in addition to practice flights held at the airfield by the air reserves, the squadron participated in a number of air circuses in Washington and Oregon.  In the fall of that year, Kelly made a number of presentations on the future of aviation to local civic organizations.

In the summer of 1924, Kelly announced plans to raze the spruce mill and enlarge the "landing field," which at that time was a debris-free area of the barracks pasture towards the east edge of the reserve. Work continued on the field through the spring of 1926, although earlier, by the fall of 1925, it was considered far enough along for the field's dedication ceremonies, which included an air circus for air reserve squadrons and fliers from around the country. Most of the spruce mill structures were razed between 1924 and 1926, and the grounds were graded. "The entire field has been plowed, harrowed, dragged and rolled by the liberal operation of Holt tractors and steam rollers working under the direction of Lieutenant H. C. Miller. The grading was made possible by the courtesy of the Bureau of Public Roads and Clark County officials who loaned the tractors and other grading implements," the 321st squadron headquarters reported in March of 1925.  Facilities and structures were built just west of the ordnance storehouse on the east edge of the reservation, below East Fifth Street, and a graveled road was installed leading from the public road to the new facilities. Most of the buildings associated with the new airfield were small spruce mill structures moved east to the site. The new landing field was located south of the structures.

A request to name the Vancouver airfield Pearson Field was made to the War Department, probably through the air reserve channels and on April 6, 1925, the Secretary of War issued an order to that effect. The field was named in honor of Lieutenant Alexander Pearson, Jr., who had been an air service instructor, a test pilot and participant and winner of a number of speed races, and who had made the first flight through the Grand Canyon on a survey for the Department of the Interior. Pearson had attended high school in Vancouver and had graduated from the University of Oregon. His parents' home was located in Portland. In 1924 Pearson lost his life in an air crash when practicing for a race at Wilbur Wright Field in Ohio. The dedication ceremonies and accompanying festivities, organized by Lieutenant Kelly, were held on September 16, 1925. The dedication and air circus drew "a monster crowd" to Vancouver Barracks; most businesses in the town shut down early to to allow their employees to attend. The air circus brought over sixty fliers from around the country to Vancouver, who flew in mob formation over Portland and Vancouver prior to the dedication ceremonies, and after participated in a number of speed races and flying stunts.

In the late 1920s, Pearson Field served as a training site for the 321st and other air reserve units in the area, who took part in two-week training camps as part of their reserve duties, at the post. Additional aircraft were brought in from other fields on the Pacific Coast for training, and the planes stationed at Pearson were loaned to other fields on occasion. In 1927 Charles Lindbergh circled Pearson Field on a west coast flight, but landed at Portland's new airfield on Swan Island. In 1929 a U.S.S.R. goodwill flight in the craft, Land of the Soviets, touring the United States unexpectedly landed at Pearson Field when the plane developed mechanical problems. The flight had been well-publicized, and the landing attracted a large crowd. Assisted by the field's commander, Lt. Carlton Bond, the plane was repaired and continued its flight the following day.  In 1929 the air reserve' unit at Pearson participated in the search for missing civilian pilots on two separate occasions, and performed such tasks as flying supplies to a United States Geological Survey project, in 1931.

For a brief time in 1934-5, the army replaced private contractors in providing national air mail service; Pearson Field served as a maintenance and hangar facility, where nine mail service planes were stored for two northwest routes. In 1937 the Stalinskiy marshrut left the Soviet Union in an attempt to break the long distance world record on a route from Moscow to San Francisco over the North Pole. In the final hours of its flight, fog forced the plane back towards the Pacific Northwest, and crowds swarmed to Portland's Swan Island Airport, in anticipation of seeing it land there. But the plane swept over the field, and headed to Pearson Field, where it landed, 350 miles short of the world record, and almost the same amount of miles shy of San Francisco, but still a record holder for the first transpolar flight. The Vancouver Barracks commander, Brigadier General George C. Marshall--of later World War II fame--invited the unexpected Soviet fliers to breakfast, while crowds and press thronged to the airfield to view the plane.

In 1941, after the outbreak of the Second World War, the 321st Observation squadron, which had long-practiced at Pearson Field, was called to active duty. During World War II, flight operations were curtailed at Pearson Field, and at the neighboring municipal field. All civilian and military flights operated from Portland's new airport on the Columbia River, completed in 1941. It was built with a bond issue approved by Portland voters in 1936, and partially financed by a Works Progress Administration grant of 1.3 million dollars.  In 1945, according to drawings and aerial photographs of the army air field, the United States Army intended to develop the Pearson Field site for housing: a grid of streets had been plotted, named and graded on the inactive field. After the conclusion of the war, in December of 1946 the army announced that most of Vancouver Barracks, including Pearson Field would become surplus property. In July of 1946 Pearson Field and the municipal airport to its immediate west were united operationally, physically linked, and renamed Pearson Airpark by the City of Vancouver, although the field had not yet been officially declared surplus; the act was not official, until the title to the army field was released by the War Assets Administration to the City of Vancouver on April 25, 1949. 

Civilian Conservation Corps District Headquarters

During the 1930s Vancouver Barracks became the headquarters and dispersing agency for Civilian Conservation Corps camps in Oregon and Washington. The CCC was created in March of 1933, as the Emergency Conservation Work program established by Public Act Number 5. The act gave President Franklin Roosevelt the authority to establish a chain of forest camps that would employ young men to protect, improve and conserve the nation's natural resources. He established the official existence of the CCC by Executive Order #6101 on April 5, 1933. The program involved the cooperation of the Department of Labor, working through state and local relief agencies, which was responsible for selecting applicants to the program; the War Department was assigned to enroll, feed, house, clothe, condition and transport them; various departments of the Department of Agriculture and the Interior were to select the projects, administer the camps and supervise the work. The CCC developed policy and coordinated the other agencies.

The CCC was divided into nine corps areas, plus the United States territories and a special unit on Indian Reservations, managed by the War Department. The Pacific Northwest fell within the Ninth Corps Area, administered by the U.S. Army from San Francisco, which also oversaw operations in Nevada, Montana, California, and Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. Vancouver Barracks was one of six military centers in the National Forest Service's Region Six--Washington and Oregon--where enrollees were enlisted; the others were Fort Stevens in Oregon, and Forts Lewis, Worden, George Wright and Lawton in Washington. Enrollees in the region were sent to the nearest army post and given physical examinations. Most were then sent to Vancouver Barracks for distribution to camps in forests and parks. Enrollees from out of state were primarily sent directly to Vancouver Barracks, and then distributed to camps.

In addition, Vancouver Barracks was a district headquarters, administering and supplying all camps within its district, which included most of northern Oregon and the Columbia National Forest in Washington state. As a district headquarters, Vancouver Barracks was responsible for purchasing and shipping all supplies to the camp, including temporary housing and whatever building materials were necessary for enrollees to erect permanent camps; arranging for educational advisors and material, including traveling libraries; providing recreational equipment, medical care, and religious services. The district headquarters also had a finance office to purchase materials and supplies, and pay the salaries of officers and enrollees. The camp officers were principally army reserve officers--many assumed active duty when World War II broke out, and were never replaced. In its role as distribution center, Vancouver Barracks processed enrollees being sent to other Ninth Corps areas from out of state, and shipped those who had completed their term of duty within the Ninth Corps home.

On 10 April 1933, Washington State's welfare director notified the Vancouver Garrison commander that Vancouver Barracks had been named as the training camp for eight hundred Northwest forest workers. The post was named as the base for the Thirty Ninth Battalion of the CCC. Two barracks at the reservation were evacuated to accommodate the imminent arrival of an anticipated three hundred enrollees, and plans were made to house additional CCC enrollees when they arrived. In May, Vancouver Barracks was told to establish twenty-two camps, in addition to four already in preparation at Zig Zag and Friend, in Mount Hood National Forest, and at Hemlock and Sunset in the Columbia National Forest.

By 1942, there were around four thousand CCC enrollees in the camps in Oregon and Washington, primarily engaged in national forest work, including firefighting and road construction, although six camps were directly engaged in war-related work at Vancouver Barracks and other military posts in the region. In July of that year the District Commander, Colonel Ralph Hall, was notified that all Civilian Conservation Corps activities would cease, per Congressional action which withdrew funding from the Corps on June 30. Enrollment in the District had already diminished, due to the war, a circumstance replicated across the country as enrollees entered the army or found civilian employment war-related industries.

Although Vancouver Barracks was almost immediately affected by the influx of enrollees in 1933, it wasn't until 1935 that the first structure built to specifically serve the CCC was built. That fall, the first of many temporary and permanent structures was erected for the CCC program near the rail spurs in the pastures south of today's East Fifth Street, east of McLoughlin Road, and west of the heart of the vanished spruce mill. Most of these buildings--largely unused after World War II--stood on the site until 1966, when they were razed in a mass demolition, not unlike the fate suffered by the largely vacant Hudson's Bay Company Kanaka Village houses which once stood on the same site prior to their demolition by the army a little over one hundred years earlier.

Last updated: December 8, 2015