During the years prior to World War II, the Interior had already welcomed an Army Air Forces installation, Ladd Field, known today as Fort Wainwright. In 1939, Congress authorized a base in Fairbanks, primarily as a site for the cold-weather testing of aircraft and equipment, since Interior Alaska offered the consistently cold temperatures needed to test new technology.
But the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor forced a temporary halt to testing at Ladd Field, since the military needed all its aircraft to defend Alaska. Testing resumed less than a year later, but by 1943 it had once again become a second priority. Ladd Field found itself a busy hub for fighters and bombers destined for the “Forgotten” or “1,000 Mile War” in the Aleutians, or en route to the Soviet Union as part of the Lend-Lease program.
Ladd Field was the turnover point for large numbers of U.S. aircraft, which flew the arduous route that stretched from Great Falls, Mont., through the Northwest Territories, and into the interior of Alaska. From Ladd Field, Soviet pilots would take possession of the aircraft, ranging from P-39s to B-25 Mitchell bombers, and fly them to Moscow through Siberia and eastern Russia.
The first Lend- Lease flight took place Sept. 3, 1942, and they continued through August 1945. In all, nearly 8,000 aircraft were turned over to the Russians and ferried over the “air bridge” through Siberia. These aircraft were stripped of everything except basic instrumentation and armament. With no navigational aids, pilots would take off from Ladd Field and fly the first leg to Galena on the Yukon River. 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 due to bad weather.
The weather also proved to be a danger to the aircraft arriving in Fairbanks. The winter of 1942 was one of the coldest on record, with temperatures dropping to minus 67 degrees and ice fog hindering landing operations at Ladd Field. Sometimes the planes arriving from Montana were unable to make it all the way to Fairbanks and did not have enough fuel to return to the alternative landing strip in Big Delta, known today as Delta Junction.
Officials decided to build an auxiliary field somewhere close to, but south of, Ladd Field as a weather alternative landing field. Military planners chose the site where Eielson sits today. The government had already withdrawn the acreage in 1939 for use in a flood control project. Also, the terrain around the proposed site was free of approach hazards for arriving aircraft.
The nearest hills, low ones at that, were about six miles from the site. Part of the acreage was eventually set aside for flood control, and the remainder was transferred to the War Department in 1943.
The Army completed construction of the original base in October 1944. It was composed of about 600 acres, with housing for 108 officers and 330 enlisted men. It eventually featured a 10-bed dispensary, two parallel runways 6,625 feet long by 150 feet wide, and many wooden structures, none of which remain today. The base was dubbed “Satellite” or “Mile 26” by the workers and “26-Mile Strip” by the brass. One story said 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.
Another story had a simpler explanation. The original base facilities and the only gate were constructed at the south end of the runway, so people traveling from Fairbanks would have to go around the south end to reach the base. The drive measured out to be exactly 26 miles, so the base was then known as 26-Mile Strip. However it received the name, it stuck, even though the north end of the base is only about 23 miles from Fairbanks.
At war’s end, the number of military personnel in Alaska dropped, and many of the small airfields used along the Lend- Lease route were shut down. The airstrip was mothballed, and no decision was made regarding its future use. But in 1946, with the Cold War looming, military planners decided a strategic bomber base was needed in Interior Alaska. They chose to build a new base 29 miles south of Nenana. As construction began at the new site, a series of earthquakes revealed that a major fault ran across the middle of the runway.
It would be very costly to repair a runway of sufficient size and makeup to handle Strategic Air Command (SAC) bombers, so planners looked at other options. A long runway was still needed to accommodate the planned deployment of SAC’s intercontinental bombers. Ladd Field was ruled out because its main runway had already been extended to the limit allowed due to a bend in the Chena River. Any extension of Ladd’s runway would have to cross the river toward town, increasing noise and traffic over Fairbanks. Planners were left with only one suitable option: 26-Mile Strip. Resources from the aborted site were transferred to 26-Mile Strip, and work began on the upgrade immediately. The west runway was extended to 14,500 feet, and 26-Mile Strip was finally a full-fledged Air Force installation. This was not the end of the site south of Nenana, though. A year later the military began awarding contracts for the construction of early warning defense radar and communications installations throughout the state. Since acreage had already been withdrawn for military use, plans were made to go ahead with the construction of Clear Air Force Station, which is still in operation today.
On Sept. 18, 1947, the Air Force gained its independence as a separate branch from the Army when President Harry Truman signed the National Security Act of 1947. The newly created Air Force now had two bases near Fairbanks: Ladd Field, which was home to fighter interceptors providing air defense in the Interior, and 26-Mile Strip. The first Strategic Air Command bombers arrived at 26-Mile in November with the deployment of the 97th Bomber Group from Smokey Hill Air Force Base, Kan.
On Jan. 13, 1948, the Air Force changed the name of 26-Mile Field to Eielson Air Force Base in honor of famed Arctic aviation pioneer Carl Ben Eielson. Eielson was a renowned bush pilot in the 1920s who was killed in a 1929 crash while attempting to rescue stranded passengers and a cargo of furs aboard the freighter Nanuk, caught in the ice off the Siberian coast. The 97th Bomber Group departed Eielson in March 1948, but other SAC 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 RED FLAG-Alaska exercises, was originally built to house three B-36 “Peacekeeper” bombers, the largest bomber in the Air Force inventory. Following the Korean War, the Air Force began to look at ways to cut costs. The Air Force had mixed emotions about having two air bases so close together. Because Ladd AFB had reached its limits of runway expansion, they decided to transfer Ladd to the Army and move its Air Force operations to Eielson. On Jan. 1, 1961, Ladd AFB was returned to the Army and renamed Fort Wainwright. Since then, the Air Force has seen many changes at Eielson, and many missions and aircraft have come and gone. Since its early days, Eielson has been home to weather reconnaissance aircraft, tactical units from Alaskan Air Command, aerial tankers, A/OA-10s, and most recently F-16s as part of the 354th Fighter Wing, flying as aggressors for RED FLAG-Alaska.
Strategically, Eielson’s location allows units based here to respond to hot spots in Europe faster than units at bases on the East Coast. The same is true for Korea and the Far East. Eielson units can even respond more quickly than many units based in California. A 1940 census reported that 1,000 military people lived in Alaska that year. Today, Eielson alone is home to more than twice that number. The large military presence in Alaska, combined with the large amount of defense spending in the state, ranking second only to the oil industry, ensures a significant military impact for decades to come. With Alaska’s strategic location, recognized in the 1920s and 1930s by Air Force pioneers like Gens. Henry “Hap” Arnold and Billy Mitchell, the vision of Eielson’s future certainly outshines its humble beginnings, and may someday outshine its historic past.