The year 2015 marks a very special one for Hill Air Force Base. It’s the 75th anniversary of the installation.
Three-quarters of a century has passed since Hill AFB began as a lowly airfield known as Hill Field in 1940 to support American military efforts in World War II.
As we commemorate Hill AFB’s birthday, it’s important to focus not just on the groundbreaking event itself, but what occurred before it.
Well before the shovel hit the ground, we can find the legacy of this base and, more importantly, its namesake.
Before there were thousands of workers — military and civilian — streaming through the base’s gates to support our nation’s defense and before there were jets constantly roaring over the Wasatch Mountains and western Utah desert, there was a dream to bring a robust aviation community to the Ogden area.
Promotion of flight in Ogden began roughly 12 years prior to the existence of what we now know as Hill AFB.
Civic leaders and aviation promoters in Ogden worked to attract the budding airmail business since dedicating Ogden’s original airport on June 30, 1928.
By this time, Salt Lake City was already part of this intriguing aeronautic business, as its airport became the scheduled stop between Rock Springs, Wyoming, and Elko, Nevada, on the first transcontinental airmail route.
Despite the efforts of Ogden’s community leaders and aviation admirers, they had little success.
Throughout the next decade, Ogden started to shift with the Army Air Corps assumption of nearly half of America’s airmail routes in 1934.
It was during this year that President Franklin D. Roosevelt annulled all government airmail contracts because several contracts and route certificates were awarded to commercial airlines without public advertisement.
To resume operations while advertising and awarding new contracts, Roosevelt ordered the Army Air Corps to assume the responsibility for airmail operations — a task completely foreign to this element of the military.
Subsequently, the Postmaster General and Army Chief of Staff approached the Chief of the Air Corps, Maj. Gen. Benjamin J. Foulois, and asked for a solution. Foulois’ solution involved zones; he broke airmail operations into three across the country.
One of these zones was the western zone, and the Army Air Corps had Ogden on the list of possible headquarters locations.
However, because of influences stronger than those in Ogden, the Army Air Corp selected Salt Lake City as headquarters for the western airmail zone. Placed in command of this new zone was Lt. Col. “Hap” Arnold, who moved to Salt Lake City to oversee operations.
Once started, the Air Corps airmail endeavor proved a disaster compared with its commercial counterparts. This failure, however, proved valuable for the future of military aviation, and Hap’s exposure to the Ogden area proved critical for the future of Hill AFB.
On Feb. 16, 1934, Air Corp pilots began route familiarization flights, both night and day, from Salt Lake City, but the operation was doomed from the start.
What we today would consider common sense, were afterthoughts in the infancy of flight.
In the beginning of the military airmail effort, few Air Corps planes came equipped with landing, navigation or cockpit lights. At the time, only a select few pilots had extensive night-flying experience and even fewer knew the method of instrument flying.
Many flew with the mindset that they would rise no higher than 1,500 feet. When dealing with the mountains in the West, obviously this was not possible.
With shortcomings and nearsighted views such as these, it is no surprise that tragedy quickly struck. On the first day of the familiarization flights in the western zone, two fatal crashes occurred, and by Feb. 23, there were six pilot deaths and 12 wrecked aircraft throughout the country.
The Air Corps lost another six men and 40 more aircraft before it relinquished the program on June 1, 1934.
What this disaster exposed to the public, Congress and men like Arnold was the fact that the nation’s military aviation element needed attention — and attention is what it received.
Shortly after the relinquishment of the airmail program, Secretary of War George Dern appointed a special investigative committee to address deficiencies and possible remedies for the Army Air Corps.
The airmail debacle also spurred the creation of General Headquarters, or GHQ, Air Force, which finally gave the nation’s military aviators a greater priority for resources and a greater degree of independence within the military establishment as unrest grew throughout the world.
Eventually, one recommendation from the aforementioned committee was an airdrome board to determine requirements, select sites and establish an infrastructure of Army Air Corps bases throughout the United States
Consequently, on Aug. 12, 1935, the President signed the Wilcox-Wilson Bill into law. This law directed the Secretary of War to determine the location of seven permanent Air Corps stations and depots in strategic areas of the United States, Alaska and the Caribbean for the effective training and maintenance of GHQ Air Force.
One of the recommendations of this legislation was the creation of a depot in the “Rocky Mountain area,” to provide “maintenance of the GHQ Air Force and to afford, in addition, training in operations from fields of high altitude.”
Ogden is chosen
Fortunately, for the leaders of Ogden, Arnold assisted in the selection process for this new Rocky Mountain depot.
Arnold realized some critical details during his time in Salt Lake City.
First, when the Air Corps surveyed for a permanent Rocky Mountain air depot site, Arnold recalled the area where the Army Ordnance Department had established Ogden Arsenal in 1920, which is now the west side of the Hill AFB, and considered the convenience of having an airfield nearby.
Furthermore, Arnold recognized the strategic desirability of locating an Air Corps “supply depot” in the vicinity of Ogden or Salt Lake City. Thus, the Air Corps included Ogden, along with Salt Lake City, and several more locations as possible sites for this future depot.
The citizens of Ogden lobbied for a chance to finally get what they desired over a decade before — a strong aviation community. And all lobbying efforts in Utah paled in comparison with those of Ogden’s Chamber of Commerce.
For example, Lawrence Clayton, a prominent Ogden banker and chairman of the Chamber’s Aviation Committee, continually lobbied in Washington, D.C., once he knew Ogden was a candidate.
Other representatives of Ogden’s Chamber of Commerce, together with Utah’s congressional delegation, also promoted the advantages of locating an Intermountain air depot in Northern Utah.
These publicized advantages appealed to the Army Air Corps: a strategic and central location close to the West Coast; railroad/highway accessibility; preferred drainage and climate; proximity to Weber Canyon, and more.
More importantly, the signing of the Wilcox Act prompted the Ogden City Chamber of Commerce to take a leap of faith in 1936 as it took purchase options on a thousand acres of land adjoining the Ogden Arsenal — twice renewing these options and keeping the land in escrow in hope the Army Air Corps would select Ogden and purchase the land.
In addition to taking purchase options, the Chamber deeded more than 300 acres to the government during this time.
Opportunely for Ogden, selection and funding for military resources sped up with the mounting Nazi and Japanese threat, and the investment paid off.
On Nov. 26, 1938, the president authorized an initial expenditure of $55,608 to begin construction of runways adjacent to the Ogden Arsenal.
In April of the next year, as tensions mounted across the world, President Roosevelt signed Public Law 18, allowing the procurement of 6,000 aircraft and commencement of new, robust flight training — the greatest resource increase to Air Corps to date — to assist in protecting the nation’s defense interests.
Then, on July 1, 1939, President Roosevelt signed the Military Appropriations Bill, which included $8 million for the construction of the Ogden Air Depot.
After years of effort and the unintended airmail debacle, the War Department and Air Corps selected Ogden and received the congressional seal of approval on Dec. 7, 1939.
What was once an aviation dream for Ogden had become a reality.
According to an official Air Corps report, the Ogden area was the most natural airdrome in the whole vicinity, located on a level plateau 2 miles directly west of Weber Canyon and was an area of 2 miles square, of which 90 percent could be utilized as an airdrome.
The report concluded that the site adjacent to the Ogden Arsenal “would appear to be the most desirable location in the Salt Lake district.”
Once in place, the Ogden installation would become a major Air Corps supply and maintenance depot, capable of serving the northwestern part of the United States.
On Jan. 12, 1940, roughly 200 civic and government leaders, and other interested parties participated in the groundbreaking ceremony for Hill Field.
The day of the ceremony, the state saw its worst snowstorm in 50 years, which could not have been more appropriate for this Utah winter event.
For more than a decade of promotion in Utah all the way to the nation’s capital, to the experiences of “Hap” Arnold and the Army Air Corps, to the evolving global threat affecting Utah, the creation of Hill Field spanned over time and space.
Hill Field is now Hill AFB, and the namesake of the installation is another element of its intricate legacy that merits celebration and remembrance on its 75th anniversary.
(Editor’s note: Read next week’s edition of the Hilltop Times to learn about the base’s namesake, Maj. Ployer P. Hill.)