Gowen Field had head start on B-17 training before World War II

Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress crews trained at Gowen Field in Boise.
Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress crews trained at Gowen Field in Boise. Provided by Arthur Hart

On March 19, 1941, the first contingent of 22 Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bombers with British insignia landed in Boise as part of a Lend-Lease shipment to Britain.

Although flown by Army Air Corps pilots from McChord Field near Tacoma, Washington, the big bombers carried officials of the British Embassy in Washington, D.C., and members of the British Air Mission.

All of them stayed at the Owyhee Hotel overnight, and when the weather was bad next morning decided to delay their departure a day, since none of the pilots had ever flown over the Rocky Mountains before. The British politely submitted to interviews by Idaho Statesman reporters but were noncommittal on military matters. They did insist that Britain would win the war, especially since American aid was on the way.

On March 23, 1941, H. Westerman Whillock, candidate for mayor, predicted that following the war commercial aviation would do for Boise what railroading had done for Omaha, Nebraska.

“America will have vast surpluses of planes and trained aviation personnel when world peace is restored,” he said. “I believe that we then shall see the greatest chapter in the development of commercial aviation. … Boise will profit immensely because it is ideally suited to commercial flying.”

Whillock, who would be elected mayor, had been an active supporter of commercial aviation ever since he arrived from Oregon in 1934. He bought half-interest in a World War I Curtiss Jenny owned by Dr. Lyman West and learned to fly with Weber Appel. He, like Dr. West, was a Naval Reserve officer and would be called to active duty during the war, but not as a flier. Upon resuming his mayoral duties after the war, Whillock appointed the first airport commission and continued to be a leader in projects to help local aviation. He later owned and operated radio station KBOI and Channel 2 Television.

On St. Patrick’s Day, 1941, the first North American B-25 bomber landed in Boise, one of three being flown from McChord Field to Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio. The Statesman reporter who described its appearance called it “freakish” because of its tricycle landing gear, but said it was “ultra-modern,” top secret and heavily guarded. Crew members refused to comment on its top speed or other vital statistics.

The first full company of soldiers to arrive at Gowen Field was the 253rd Quartermaster Company from Fort Douglas, Utah. They came by truck convoy in April 1941 and were soon telling everybody how much they liked the city — “especially the girls.” The men, mostly from Arkansas and Missouri, were proud of their baseball and basketball teams and of a newspaper they had published every two weeks. When publication resumed at the new station they called their paper the “Boise Bugle.”

Gowen Field was named in honor of Lt. Paul Gowen of Caldwell, who was killed in the line of duty while flying a twin-engine B-10 bomber in Panama on July 11, 1938. He was an honor graduate of West Point. A brother, William Gowen of Boise, was a well-known local pilot who had flown the Idaho backcountry since 1931.

The mission assigned to Gowen Field was to train bomber crews, first with Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses, and later with Consolidated B-24 Liberators. Both planes were long-range four-engine heavy bombers armed with gun turrets. The first B-17s arrived in 1941, not long after the base was activated. Units assigned were Headquarters and Headquarters Squadron; 42nd Bombardment Group; 75th, 76th and 77th Bombardment Squadrons; and 16th Reconnaissance Squadron.

Boeing had been turning out its B-17 model D’s for several months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, brought America into the war, and Gowen Field had a head start in training crews for the plane that would be the backbone of the American bomber force in Europe. In 1941 only 42 B-17Ds were built, but later models, with improved armament, numbered over 10,000 before the war was over.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email histnart@gmail.com.