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A Transforming Force: Military Aviation and Utah in World War II

Utah Historical Quarterly

Vol. 63, 1995, No. 3

A Transforming Force: Military Aviation and Utah in World War II

MOST AVIATION BEFORE WORLD WAR II was a mixture of daredevil adventure and tension. The image of the lone pilot battling harsh weather, rudimentary technology, and primitive flight operations is all too vivid. Dean Smith, an airmail pilot forced down on the Chicago-to-Omaha route in the 1920s, reported a common problem that distressed planes. He cabled the superintendent of air mail: "On trip 4 westbound. Flying low. Engine quit. Only place to land on cow. Killed cow. Wrecked plane. Scared me. Smith." 

World War II wrenched aviation into a much more technologically advanced sphere. It forced a quantum leap in technology. And, more important, it moved flight from a curiosity to an everyday, practical occurrence. America in the early 1940s was a nation on the move as never before. The exigencies of war reoriented virtually every aspect of the culture, economy, demographics, and politics of aviation in the United States. While this transformation would have happened anyway, it was hastened by several years because of the crisis of World War II.

Due to the interplay of dominant personalities, party politics, a favorable business environment, economic depression, and geographic serendipity, Utah figured more largely in this transformation than much of the rest of the nation. Population shifts, societal alterations, transforming cultural patterns, and a host of other subtle moves recast Utah from an isolated state into an area much more directly tied to the national mainstream. 

When the United States began to increase its military preparedness in the late 1930s, the Roosevelt administration specifically earmarked greater portions of the funding each year for the U.S. Army Air Corps (USAAC). Something needed to be done to rectify what Maj. Gen. Frank M. Andrews, commander of General Headquarters Air Force, described as a "fifth rate air force."  The president was only a little more polite, calling the Air Corps' aircraft "antiquated weapons."  By April 1939 Congress had appropriated funds for the USAAC to procure additional aircraft, develop new facilities, and expand operations. This was, of course, only the beginning of a massive wartime expenditure for military aviation. 

Utah benefited directly from the building of air bases in the state. In 1939 the USAAC possessed a total of twenty-five primary airfields and depots in the United States. Initially there was none in Utah, but during the war years this changed as flying fields were built and operated at seemingly every crossroads to meet the wartime emergency.  Utah became a hub for military aviation activities in the western United States. During the war the state became the home of six military flying fields and other types of installations as well as logistical support facilities for air route maintenance and materiel production. (See Table 1.) These bases also facilitated the easy movement of units throughout the nation and served as logistics and training sites. They created nearly 40,000 jobs in the state during World War II, more than half of them at Hill Field, and the multiplying effect of federal paychecks spent in the local economy provided a great boost to the state.


Military flyers explicitly recognized several unique attributes Utah offered when siting these military air installations. First, there was the strategic issue of safety from attack, a not unrealistic concern in 1941 and 1942. After Pearl Harbor military leaders realized that the Japanese Navy's ability to strike American forces on the West Coast could not be dismissed lightly, since it had already crippled the American fleet in Hawaii. 

Because of this fear, on December 9, 1941, Hap Arnold, commander of the Army's Air Forces, directed that military resources be dispersed inland so that a single attack could not destroy significant military capability. In such an environment, decisions to locate training and other support facilities for the Army Air Forces to inland areas was a natural extension. The greater security for bases in the Utah interior ensured that military efforts would not be impeded by possible enemy attack. 

Second, the open spaces available in Utah and throughout the West made air operations there more attractive. The wide stretch of land, with a small population, made the region especially good for the training of aircrews, logistics support activities, and the development of new weapons. The military could obtain expansive ranges for bombing and gunnery training and for weapons testing without difficulty. Moreover, the weather in the state, especially in the southern and western parts, provided excellent flying conditions most of the year, enabling the efficient completion of training and testing schedules. The region's central location also facilitated the easy movement of units throughout the nation and provided good logistics and depot sites. 

Third, the Wasatch Front area was excellent for logistics support operations. It was equidistant from the three major West Coast military and shipping centers at Seattle-Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles-San Diego. There was also a superb transportation infrastructure to support logistics activities. Transcontinental railroads and highways were in place, and Salt Lake City had been an integral part of the transcontinental airway system since the early 1920s. Shipping and receiving of war materiel, therefore, posed little difficulty.

Finally, the state of Utah had a large number of intelligent, deferential people who were out of work and willing to be retrained for defense jobs. That, coupled with the aggressive actions of the state's business and political leaders, prompted the placement of several air installations in Utah. The military expansion, then, built upon Utah's recognized strengths and did not represent a great departure in direction, only an acceleration of what had been underway for some time. 

The first air base established in Utah was Hill Field in 1940. It started as a result of a combination of influences that began in 1934 when the Army Air Corps flew the mail and based its western zone out of Salt Lake City.  While there the commander, then Lt. Col. Hap Arnold, became enthusiastic about the area's ability to support West Coast aeronautical logistics requirements. Arnold told his superiors in the Air Corps "that any [supply and repair] Depot west of the mountains might be rendered untenable by a determined adversary."  His assessment of relative safety from attack in the Rocky Mountains was a strategic consideration that appeared especially wise in the crisis environment following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Even before that, Air Corps leaders had begun to appreciate Arnold's recognition that the location was excellent in terms of ease of movement on existing highways and railroads.

After years of planning involving military and other federal government officials, civic leaders, and the local business community, Hill Field became operational on November 7, 1940.  The installation expanded slowly at first, but after Pearl Harbor it became a major supply facility servicing the West Coast. For some fifteen months after the beginning of World War II, personnel at Hill were mostly involved in supplying units in the Pacific and organizing for repair responsibilities. George H. Van Leeuwen, a stock clerk at the field in 1942 who later became Hill's head of Materiel Management, recalled that by late December 1941 the airfield suddenly had "train loads of material that started pouring in and the warehouses weren't even close to being finished." The Army Air Forces built storage facilities as quickly as possible, and the workers at Hill Field began to organize their logistical efforts. Van Leeuwen suggested that chaos was the standard order of the base until well into 1942, but gradually structure was imposed and the resupply mission began to be effectively fulfilled. He commented, "Thank God for all the women we had working there. I sat there in my supply job as just about the lone male in my particular unit. I had one other man and all the rest of them were women, and out in the warehouses there were about eight or nine men and forty women. They really did a difficult job in a crisis situation." These women worked in warehouse jobs that would have been filled by men before the war; but, in the crisis when "man" power was at a premium, they moved into ever more nontraditional areas of employment. Some also went to work as aircraft mechanics and in other aeronautical service capacities that had been theretofore essentially a province of men. 

Hill Field also served throughout the war as a crucial repair depot for the Army Air Forces. In early February 1943 the depot began an overhaul production line for B-24 Liberator bombers, delivering one per day to the Army Air Forces beginning in July 1943. Not long thereafter, the base began refurbishing B-17 Flying Fortresses and P-47 fighters. Each of these workload responsibilities necessitated an increase in facilities and personnel. For instance, from only about 300 civilian workers in 1941 the base work force rose to 7,000 by mid- 1942 and to nearly 16,000 early the next year. At its peak in March 1943, Hill Field employed 15,000 civilians, 6,000 military, and several thousand POWs, making it the largest employer in the state. Most of them worked on bomber overhaul or other production lines. 

The training imperative for fighting a world war was the single most important factor in establishing new air bases in the U.S. Of the six bases in Utah in 1945, four were primarily dedicated to some form of Army Air Forces training. Kearns Field, for example, was an induction center and basic training site. Established eleven miles southwest of Salt Lake City in mid-1942, the installation served throughout the war as a center of training for the Army Air Forces Technical Training Command, the agency charged with U.S.-based training of air support personnel. In the spring of 1943 a population of about 40,000 troops and more than 1,000 civilian employees made Kearns Utah's third largest city. One of the troops sent to Kearns was the husband of Irene Carrigan Winn of Ogden. He had been a chef before the war, and when the officer contingent at Kearns learned about this they kept him there to work in their mess. Winn's skill helped make the cuisine offered at the Kearns officers' mess some of the best in the Army Air Forces. During its World War II operation Kearns trained more than 150,000 Army Air Forces personnel. 

The Flying Training Command, the Army Air Forces' central authority for primary aircrew training in the war, also operated fields in the state to prepare aircrews for service in combat theaters. By the end of the war its West Coast Training Center had established fortyfour fields from California to southwest Texas, three of which were located in Utah. At these locations pilots underwent orientation instruction with light trainers, usually Stearman biplanes, and were then transferred to an intermediate training program before being placed in operational units. 

As a second step in aircrew training, in January 1942 the Air Staff in Washington, D.C, gave Second Air Force the mission of training 273 heavy bomber crews in the American West. The Second initially had only four installations for this purpose. When Maj. Gen. Robert Olds took over command of the unit in May 1942 he asked for expanded training sites. To help fulfill this request, three bases were constructed in Utah as well as several in other Rocky Mountain states. 

Olds's expanded training program eventually involved specializing certain segments of the course in a three-phased program, each of four weeks duration. The first phase was conducted at bases in Arizona, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon and involved basic flight training in bombers. The second phase involved developing proficiency in bombing and gunnery, using Wendover and Salt Lake City Army Air Bases among other places. The Low Flight Strip near Knolls, west of the Great Salt Lake, served as an auxiliary flying field. The Salt Lake City location was later dropped because its proximity to a major population center created difficulties ranging from airspace congestion to safety violations. Low never became more than an auxiliary runway. But Wendover became an integral part of the bomber training process. The third phase consisted of training crews to work as part of larger formations and emphasized longrange navigation between home bases and targets hundreds of miles distant. 

One of the largest ranges employed in the second phase of the training was developed at Wendover. The total range encompassed an area 86 by 36 miles and stretched into three counties: Box Elder to the north, Tooele in the middle, and Juab to the south. Located on the Utah-Nevada border approximately 110 miles west of Salt Lake City with almost nothing surrounding it for miles, this area included vast amounts of open flat land already controlled by the Department of the Interior. Wendover had a population of only 103 people at the time. Despite its size, it was serviced by rail lines running between Salt Lake City and the West Coast. The weather conditions in the area were also ideally suited for flight training. Adding to the attractiveness of the desert area was the location of a supply and repair depot at Hill Field. In June 1940 the army designated the range area as a facility for aerial gunnery and actual bombing practice for aircraft from throughout the region. 

Wendover Field was activated on July 29, 1941, and over the course of the war a total of twenty B-17 and B-24 groups received a central portion of their training there. (See Table 2.) In all, well over 3,000 aircrews were trained at the isolated western Utah range. Brig. Gen. Robert F. Travis of the Second Air Force commented in May 1943 that Wendover was "the outstanding base in the northwest for training heavy bomber pilots and crews." He added, "Wendover was not such a pleasant place to live, but it provided almost perfect terrain and conditions for the intensive training of heavy bomber crews." The crews trained at Wendover participated in the strategic bombing of Germany, flew in support of D-Day, and assisted combat operations around the world from the Mediterranean to China. In addition, two groups of P-47 fighters were trained at the base. 

In May 1943 the two-phased training program Olds had instituted was changed to three phases of four weeks each with the Utah bases and ranges being the second stop for the groups in training. The result was constant movement to and from military bases throughout the West. This training approach not only required many instructional locations, but it also saturated support facilities with aircraft flying about the region. This frantic activity held important ramifications for the state as people moved into and out of Utah on a regular basis, effectively ending its traditional isolation. 

In addition to the actual air bases established, industrial activities in Utah in support of military aviation enjoyed remarkable growth as a result of the war. Some of this took the form of direct investment in military support facilities by the federal government, while some was the result of military contracts to private companies. Other enterprises were less readily quantifiable, but virtually every important town in Utah during World War II performed some type of contract work on behalf of aeronautics. By any measure applied, the economy of Utah boomed as a result of war contracts. The value added by the manufacturer between 1939 and 1947—a measure of profits after all costs have been subtracted—was $85 million, a 196 percent increase. The state's business and political leaders were aggressive in obtaining federal spending for the state, and 91 percent of Utah's wartime expansion was financed by public funds. 

As in virtually all other instances during World War II, industrial expansion in Utah took a course that emphasized historic strengths of the region. The state, rich in natural resources and with a long tradition of extractive industry, contributed many such products to the war effort. Iron, copper, tungsten, and other Utah minerals were incorporated into aviation hardware.

Utah's most significant war-related industry was the Geneva Steel Works in Orem. It required nearly two-thirds of the $310 million made available to Utah for new facility construction by the Defense Plant Corporation in 1941 and when operating at maximum capacity employed 4,200 workers. Henry J. Kaiser, the West Coast magnate who had been popularly dubbed "Sir Launchalot" because of his extensive ship-building enterprises, was a driving force behind the plant. During operation it took iron from Utah's mines, as well as from elsewhere, and produced 634,010 tons of plate steel and another 144,280 tons of shaped steel. Geneva became the largest steel plant west of the Mississippi, Kaiser calling it a victory not only for the war effort but also for "the independent industrialization of the West."  Geneva was such a significant war industry in Utah that Ted C. Hindmarsh recalled a day during the war when people in the local community observed a "weird colored airplane" flying toward the plant and were convinced that it was a Japanese bomber intent on Geneva's destruction. "It appeared almost like it didn't know where it was going," Hindmarsh recalled. "It wandered around over near the mountains, came around, and made a couple of circles. Everybody ran out to see that airplane." The plane did turn out to be a Japanese bomber, but it had been captured in the Pacific and flown back to the U.S. for study. The Air Forces had painted florescent orange on the nose, tail, and wings as a signal to the ground that it was friendly, so there were no air raid sirens, no fighters chasing it, and no real danger. 

Also important were such industrial enterprises as weapons production. The Browning Gun Works, manufacturers of fine small arms since the mid-nineteenth century, for example, expanded greatly during the war, and some of its weapons and ammunition found their way into combat aircraft. The Remington Arms Company also established a $30 million small arms plant in Salt Lake City. It manufactured .30- and .50-caliber machine-gun ammunition that was used in aircraft. A massive manufacturing consortium composed of Remington, Browning, and the Ogden Arsenal engaged in similar activities. It created 10,000 new jobs in the state and accounted for nearly a third, some $22 million, of Utah's 1943 manufacturing payroll. 

Donna J. Fifield of Salt Lake City took a job at Remington just a few months after Pearl Harbor. Working in the final inspection section for first .30-caliber and then .50-caliber ammunition, she recalled that a machine would check the cartridges for quality and those that failed she would put through different gauges and measure within a thousandth of an inch. If they passed her second inspection then they could be used for target practice but not in combat. While some young men were working in the plant when she arrived in 1942, virtually all of them were gone by April 1943. Ruth Wright was a seventeenyear-old girl when she went to work at Remington. She recalled that many of her girlfriends went into the military—especially the Army Air Forces, which was especially popular—and all of the young men she had dated left. When she told her father that she wanted to join up too, he forbade it. One man who worked at Remington much of the war was Victor Hindmarsh of Provo. He recalled that he made 90 cents an hour at the ammunition plant, not particularly good wages, since Geneva Steel was paying twice that, but that the work was less rigorous than at Geneva. He stayed at Remington for a time, long enough to help the plant move from a concentration on ,30-caliber ammunition to .50-caliber cartridges. He said this decision was made because most Japanese airplanes mounted .50-caliber machine guns and U.S. warplanes could not compete. 

There were also ancillary aviation industries supporting the war effort in Utah that almost certainly would not have developed nearly so rapidly (if at all) without World War II. For example, the support structure for aircraft transiting the state received a tremendous boost because of the traffic caused by the war. The latter 1930s witnessed a rapid expansion of aeronautical routes and support systems ranging from navigational systems and repair facilities to in-flight meals service. These were extended and made even more efficient as a result of the war.

One primary example was the building of new airport facilities. Virtually all communities of any size built new airports or greatly expanded existing ones. Some of them housed temporary military organizations. This activity infused new capital into the region and employed significant numbers of worke rs in both the construction and operation of airports. Salt Lake City teamed with the Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA) during the war to add runways, hangars, and support facilities to its airport. This experience was repeated throughout the state from Cedar City to Logan, prompting incorporation of the region into the national aviation network. 

Other relatively small, almost cottage industries, also were involved with military aviation. Standard Parachute Company, for example, moved to Manti from San Bruno, California, in 1942 and manufactured parachutes for use in military aircraft until finally closed near the end of the war. 

Of almost equal importance in this effort was the development of aeronautical navigation during the war. Anyone who has flown an aircraft, simulator, or computer flight game can attest to the difficulties of arriving at the landing site. Early pilots used a variety of means to find their locations and chart courses for landing fields. Dead reckoning methods of navigation, signals from the ground including bonfires and beacons, airway signs painted on the roofs of prominent buildings, radio directional finders, and a host of other methods all were employed both within and without Utah. At first these were simple systems, but during the war navigational methods became increasingly sophisticated. For example, the Mormon Tabernacle had a directional sign to the Salt Lake City airport painted on its roof throughout the war. However, the growth of electronic methods of navigation grew significantly in the early 1940s and made such signs obsolete. Regional centers were established to direct aircraft throughout the nation. The CAA established an air route traffic control center in Salt Lake City on April 1, 1939, in anticipation of the traffic transiting the central Rockies.

The CAA also took over most airport control towers in the nation as a wartime expedient. By November 1942 it supervised all aerial routes in the United States and was controlling virtually all flights, precipitating a turf battle with the military over control of the airways. Beginning in 1940 the CAA also required the installation of radios in all aircraft for navigation and communication. These activities were, of course, not unique to Utah, but the state enjoyed the increased safety and efficiency they brought. The regional airways system was fully incorporated into the national network during the war, something that would have almost assuredly come less quickly without the crisis. 

The spiral upward of Utah business was perhaps the most dramatic aspect of the state's wartime role, but it may have not been the most significant. The social and political changes that were forced on the state as a result of wartime activity in aviation had a fundamental impact. First, thousands of Utahns found themselves in the Army Air Corps around the world. The movement of large numbers of people from the state to other places, disrupting lives and comfortable patterns of behavior, had a significant impact on those who went through the trauma of war. Upon return, they were never quite the same again, and old perspectives had to be altered to take into account the new realities. Equally important, the state experienced a rapid and sustained influx of immigrants from outside—most of whom did not subscribe to the dominant religious position and eschewed its conservatism—who went to work for the Army Air Forces either as civilian or uniformed personnel. During the war more than 50,000 people moved into the Wasatch Front, and many ended up supporting aeronautics in some form or another. This growth brought a far greater degree of pluralism than ever had been present in Utah before. 

The population shifts associated with aviation also changed the region in other vital ways. Servicemen and transient war workers, for instance, were everywhere. They were passing through the region en route to debarkation points overseas or home on furlough. A new age of air mobility dawned with the coming of the war, and it has yet to abate. Approximately three million military personnel passed through Salt Lake City during the course of the war.  Ted C. Hindmarsh, a child during the war, remembered "a lot of coming and going of military aircraft." Hill Field was an especially busy stopping point, and Hindmarsh would see the big airplanes in traffic patterns overhead, or landing or taking off "right over our home." The most common planes were the transports, especially the DC-3s fresh from the factories and without the camouflage paint routinely used in the combat theaters.  The military travelers pumped dollars into every community where they stopped. They also brought Iowa farmboy, New York streetwise, and southern homespun manners to a region that had been uniquely isolated by distance and mores from most of the rest of the nation. Those stationed in the region formed attachments to it that affected them the rest of their lives. These population shifts also created housing and other urban problems that had to be dealt with throughout the 1940s and beyond.

Social dislocation no doubt affected the traditional family. The sense of impermanence, the absence of normal attachments, the competition for scarce commodities, the stress of the crisis, and numerous other factors of a less tangible nature all affected Utah society. Historian John Costello documented one aspect of the changing sexual mores in the United States brought about by the war by suggesting that not only did women enter the work force in a big way but that other traditional gender boundaries were also eroded by the war. He commented that total war unleashed a "hedonistic impulse" in society at large. The thought of perhaps dying tomorrow created a psyche directed toward living life to the fullest at the present both among those who might go into combat and those with whom they associated. It loosened morals and opened doors as never before. 

While residents of Salt Lake City and Ogden lived far from the direct influences of combat, they were constantly reminded by the comings and goings of military personnel of the wartime potential for death. There were many war brides in Utah, and they lived with the same fears as those closer to the front lines. The "flyboys" training at Utah airfields met, fell in love with, and in some cases married local women. Virtually every community witnessed this social interaction. City fathers were forever trying to protect the local women from the perceived "love them and leave them" attitude of the servicemen.

Some even condoned prostitution as a means of easing pressures in the local community. Ogden s "two-bit street," the notorious 25th Street red light district, had been around for many years prior to the war, but it expanded greatly as "victory girls" catered to the wishes of the Hill Field airmen. As long as the activity was out of sight from most of the public, city officials turned a blind eye to it, in part because it eased some of the pressure on their daughters.  In the end, however, local Utah leaders could stave off neither the influx nor the influence of the aviators and others involved in defense activities in the state.

World War II brought many changes to the West, and Utah participated in them. The aviation activities in the region were especially significant. The economic impact of the new military aviation activities in the state, the growth of industry related to the aerospace sector, the relocation of people, and the overthrow of older perspectives for new ones were everywhere apparent. Because of the aviation activities in the region, both those taking place there as well as those in transit, Utah became more closely tied to the regional and national economy and culture than ever before. With airplanes, someone in Utah could leave home in the morning and be in the nation's capital before evening. It also worked the opposite way. People moved in and out and through the area in numbers that had only been dreamed of by such futurists as H. G. Wells. In this process the homogeneity of the state broke down and a more national perspective began to develop. 

Equally important—indeed it may ultimately have been fundamentally more significant—the aviation spawned by the war created a much greater airmindedness in the people of the United States than ever before. During the war flight became a common means of transportation. The acculturation process brought to a whole generation of Americans the expectation of rapid transit. Utah gave to and received much from aviation during World War II. The state's aeronautical activities were a transforming force that not only contributed significantly to the victory of the United States in World War II but also altered the perceptions and attitudes of Americans toward the emerging technology.

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