Idaho History

Air travel has always been a boon to the Gem State, starting with the military

The hangar at Gowen Field was easily the largest building in Idaho when it was completed in 1941.
The hangar at Gowen Field was easily the largest building in Idaho when it was completed in 1941. Idaho State Historical Society

When unlimited expansion of the Army Air Corps was authorized by Congress on May 24, 1940, Harry W. Morrison reminded federal officials, “We have available here in Boise not only the largest airport in the state, but one of the best located and largest fields in the entire West.”

Even before the 1941 approval of Lend-Lease, designed to help beleaguered Britain by making U.S. destroyers available to them for the battle against German U-boats, plans were being made for flights of American planes over Idaho from West Coast factories to Canada on their way to Britain. In June 1940, Idaho Falls was under consideration as a refueling stop for 600 fighter planes en route from North American Aviation in California to a Canadian field. After Lend-Lease was approved by Congress in March 1941, hundreds of planes routinely landed at Idaho airports on their way to Canada. Lockheed Hudson bombers that landed regularly in Boise displayed the familiar Royal Air Force roundels of blue circles with red dots in the middle.

Among young Idahoans who could not wait to fight the Nazis was Virgil Olson, of Boise. He received a commission in the Royal Air Force in July 1940, after having served earlier with British land forces who escaped the Germans at Dunkirk. His proud mother told the Idaho Statesman: “When Lindbergh was here, Virgil was thrilled to his toes with the great aviator. Why, I could hardly get the boy home for dinner he was so determined to stay down at the field to see the Lone Eagle and the Spirit of St. Louis.” Olson had served a hitch in the U.S. Navy before going to England to join the fight against Hitler.

After receiving word that Boise had been chosen as the site of a major Army Air Corps bombardment and service base, city officials and the Chamber of Commerce began raising the $35,000 expected to be needed as a match for federal construction funds. Mayor James Straight announced that Boise’s air base would be headquarters for at least 54 twin-engine medium bombers, and home field for about 260 officers and 1,600 enlisted men. Also, there would be a service unit would have 40 officers and 700 enlisted men. Although CPT programs had been moved away from many of the country’s larger airports, Boise Junior College was assured that it could continue to use the new airport for several months yet.

Credit for bringing a major air base to Boise was generally given to some of the city’s movers and shakers, among them Idaho Adjutant General M.G. McConnell, Mayor Straight, Chamber of Commerce Aviation Chairman H. Westerman Whillock, Harry Morrison, Frank Hummel, Leo J. Falk, Walter York, Ernest Day, J. Lynn Driscoll and Robert Overstreet. But others also worked effectively to get the field built and to secure the units that would use it. Boise had already received Works Progress Administration grants to construct new runways and a paved apron in front of the United Airlines hangar near Broadway Avenue.

On Nov. 12, 1940, Boise’s City Council formally adopted the name “Boise Air Terminal” for the facility, and it is still the name of the present airport. The campus of Boise State University now occupies the space where that United Airlines hangar stood, before it was moved to the new terminal.

In January 1941, two Boise construction companies received the contract to build what would be known as Gowen Field. The city leased its airport to the U.S. Army for the duration of the war, and work began on the largest single construction job in Boise history up to that point. Morrison-Knudsen and J.O. Jordan & Son were the successful bidders after merging their interests to handle the job of constructing 120 barrack buildings, mess halls, a hospital, a recreation center, a theater and administration buildings – all included in the $1,250,000 project.

The war America had not yet been drawn into was already beginning to drastically affect the lives of families and towns all over Idaho nearly a year before Pearl Harbor.

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

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