Historic Fort Wainwright In Fairbanks Was An Integral Military Facility Used During World War II.
Fort Wainwright, MARS building, Chena River, Casey Woster, Hangar One, Amber Phillippe
MRV: The Buzz, Your Outdoor Lifestyle Insider, Written By: Renee Wright
Era Of Cooperation Between The U.S., Russia And Canada
World War II Base Fort Wainwright Is Largely Overlooked By Visitors But It Preserves A Unique History Involving The Fairbanks Lend-Lease Agreement
Most people think of the Russian border as being located east of Alaska on the far side of the Bering Strait. But during World War II, Russian territory began inside an aircraft hanger on the outskirts of Fairbanks.
It was the era of Lend-Lease and the United States was ferrying airplanes up through Canada and turning them over to the Soviet army. Instead of letting U.S. pilots fly the planes to bases in Siberia, the Soviets insisted on taking possession of the aircraft in Alaska.
“The transfers took place in Hangar One,” Casey Woster, architectural historian at today’s Fort Wainwright, says. “There were three-story high steel doors in the middle of the hangar. The U.S. planes would pull in the east side, then be passed through the doors to the Russian side, where they’d have red stars painted over their white American stars. They’d come out the western side of the hangar as Russian planes and head for the runway.”
“Almost 8,000 aircraft went through there between 1942 and 1945,” Pete Haggland, director of the Pioneer Air Museum in Fairbanks says. “That’s a lot of airplanes.” Most of them were B-25 Mitchell bombers, P-39 Airacobras, P-63 King Cobras, and P-51 Mustang fighters, according to Pete, a local expert on Alaska aviation.
“They were ferried up from the New York factory, with women pilots flying them as far as Montana, because that’s as far as the military would let them go,” Pete says. “A lot of times the women had never flown these planes before, just read the manual and away they’d go. They did a superb job.”
Fort Wainwright started out as Ladd Air Field, established in 1939 as a cold weather testing facility to develop flight suits as well as aircraft fuel and lubricants that could withstand the Arctic temperatures. “Fairbanks has one of the largest temperature swings on the planet,” Casey Woster says. “It can go from 50 or 60 below in winter to the 90s in the summer.”
The outbreak of war put development of Ladd into high gear. “An enormous number of local people worked on the construction,” Amber Phillippe, public outreach officer for Fort Wainwright tells The Buzz.
All didn’t go entirely smoothly with the project, Amber says. “They had a number of old miners from the area on the construction team and they kept telling the Army engineers that the way they were building the runway wasn’t going to work because of the permafrost. Sure enough, come Spring a whole section collapsed and had to be rebuilt.”
Local women played a role as well, stitching the cold weather flight suits, as well as packing parachutes and sewing wing covers for the planes. They made some important contributions to cold weather flight suit design, according to Amber. The first versions didn’t have cuffs around the wrists or fur around the hood, both adaptations to surviving in the cold well-known to local residents.
With the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entry into the war in December, 1941, Ladd became a strategically critical facility, with new buildings and runways added to accommodate Lend-Lease, the war against the Japanese in the Aleutians and other operations centered at the airfield. The base population soared from around 500 in 1941 to over 5,000 in 1945. About 300 of those were Russian personnel permanently stationed at Ladd Field, in addition to the transient Soviet pilots who arrived to fly the planes to Siberia.
The Soviet pilots in particular made an impression on the local community, according to Casey Woster, who was born and raised in Fairbanks. “They would come into town and clear out the whole sections of the stores, buying hose, shoes and other things that we took for granted. They were dealing with a lot of shortages at home and these were luxury items to them.”
Amber Phillippe has been looking at oral history records about the Russian presence. “The Soviet officers were fancy dressers, often wearing leather uniforms with pistols on their hips and medals on display,” she says. “The bartenders in the officer's club said the Russians loved to play pool and were crazy about chess. They would buy all the cigarettes, candy bars and beer the bartenders were allowed to sell.”
The Soviets disappeared following the defeat of Germany, and the Cold War soon took over Alaska’s military installations. Ladd became an Air Force base in 1947, and in 1961, was transferred to the Army which renamed it for World War II General Jonathan Wainwright. In 1985, portions of the the base that played a role in WWII were declared a National Historic Landmark. Visitors can pick up a driving tour brochure at the base’s main gate.
“We’ve done a lot of work to preserve the historic feel of the WWII era,” Casey Woster says. “The horseshoe area is our crowning gem.” The base’s oldest buildings, including the Commander’s Quarters and officers quarters, surround a parade ground. Visitors will find informational panels on the parade ground’s south side.
Other WWII era buildings on the tour include the base chapel and the MARS building, surrounded by radio transmitters. Hangar One is still standing as well, and still in use. “We are still an active military installation, and all the buildings have been adapted to current needs,” Casey says. As a result, most buildings remain closed to the public. Photography is not permitted on the base, and visitors need to show their driver's license, car registration and insurance at the gate. Building 3023 distributes free photos and copies of publications tracing the area’s history.
Casey also suggests a walk along the Chena River. “It’s a pretty trail,” she says. “We have bird boxes and bald eagle nests.”
Although just a couple of miles from the city of Fairbanks, Fort Wainwright remains largely overlooked by visitors. The history it preserves, of a unique era of cooperation between the United States, Russia and Canada, is all but forgotten today.
A graduate of Franconia College in Social Psychology, Renee has worked as Travel Editor for Charlotte Magazine and has written three travel guidebooks for Countryman Press among other writing assignments. She enjoys food and camping.
Make Sure To Stay At:
Chena River Wayside is a 26-acre park is located on the west side of Fairbanks, Alaska. The state recreation site has free Wi-Fi Hot Spot, Chena River Boat Launch, Picnic Areas, 56 Spacious RV sites, and proximity to everything in town.