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
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
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
"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
"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
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
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
"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
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
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,"
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
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