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Blatchford Field: The War Years, 1939 - 1945

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Mark Hopkins

The Northwest Staging Route

Reprinted with permission of the author and publisher of For King and Country: Alberta in the Second World War

For King and CountryDuring the 1930s Grant McConnachie, owner of United Air Transport, envisioned flying his aircraft from Edmonton to Shanghai. By 1939 McConnachie was operating commercial service to Fort St. John, Dawson Creek and Whitehorse, while completing a field at Fort Nelson and beginning one at Watson Lake. Logically the next step seemed to be through Alaska, over the Bering Sea, and down the coast of Siberia to China. Imperial Oil was already financing the project with a $100,000 line of credit. On 13 January 1941 McConnachie sold his airline, now called Yukon Southern Air Transport, to CPR, which he eventually would manage as president of Canadian Pacific Airlines.

On 22 June 1941 Germany launched an all-out assault on the Russian front. Within a month negotiations were under way regarding a proposed American lend-lease programme. Talks were still in progress when Japanese aircraft attacked Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. The following January, plans were made and permission granted by the Canadian government for the utilization of a route through Canada to Alaska. This route, pioneered by Grant McConnachie, would become known as the Northwest Staging Route.

Blatchford Field began to handle American aircraft within days of the attack on Pearl Harbor. C-47s loaded with troops and equipment began heading to Alaskan military bases through Alberta. To add to the confusion, on 14 February 1942 the United States and Canada directed work to begin on the Alaska Highway. A road would be built stretching 1523 miles from Dawson Creek to Fairbanks, Alaska, sending 10,000 American soldiers and over 16,000 civilian workers on the rails through Edmonton to the railhead at Dawson Creek.16

On 3 June 1942 the Japanese attacked Dutch Harbor in Alaska, and within days thirty United States Air Force DC-3s came screaming into Blatchford Field. Capt. Bell was almost at a loss as refuelling and parking virtually clogged all the airport's runways. Later in the month 500 aircraft passed through Edmonton, mostly en route to Alaska. The skies above Edmonton were buzzing, and of little comfort to Jimmy Bell was the fact that the Americans had not yet officially arrived.

On 14 August 1942 the USAF 7th Ferrying Group, 383rd Air Base Squadron was established with their headquarters in Edmonton. Detachments were located in Fort St. John, Fort Nelson, Grande Prairie, Watson Lake and Whitehorse. The 384th Air Base Squadron was located in Fairbanks with detachments in Northway, Tanacross, Big Delta, McGrath, Galena, Nome and Anchorage. The 385th Air Base Squadron was assigned to Great Falls, Montana with detachments in Lethbridge, Kamloops, Prince George and Calgary.17

Captain Bell must have been overjoyed when in late 1942 the government completed the new "state of the art" control tower and administration building. This complex featured a meteorological station, radio equipment that could maintain contact over a million square miles of territory, and offices for Bell, his staff, TCA, CPA, and Wing Commander Farrell of the Northwest Staging Route.18 Meanwhile across the field, on the east side, the Americans were building four hangars, barracks and support buildings. While Captain Bell may have had new facilities, they soon would prove necessary as Blatchford Field was becoming the busiest airport in North America, with takeoffs and landings averaging one per minute at peak times.

Edmonton residents were shocked to learn that on 22 November 1942 the first highway convoy from Dawson Creek had arrived in Fairbanks, Alaska, only nine short months after construction began. By this time a new venture was under way, the Canol Pipeline. Alaska was in urgent need of oil and as Edmonton residents were learning, where there was American will there was a way. Completed almost as fast as the Alaska Highway, the 500 mile pipeline would extend from Norman Wells to a refinery in Whitehorse.

Captain Bell was finding his new facilities being worked to the maximum. On 29 September 1943 the field set a North American record with 860 planes passing through the field.19 The American facilities on the east side of the field were nearing completion or ready for occupancy, and the congestion around the field forced BCATP aircraft to Penhold and Claresholm for their training flights. On one day 27 aircraft circled the city waiting for permission to land; on another occasion over 100 DC-3s were lined up waiting for the weather to clear; their cargo - live naval torpedoes.20 To Edmonton residents it must have appeared to be a full-scale invasion. The airport was crowded, the streets were swarming with American personnel, hotels were always full and airport support buildings were overflowing into the west end and downtown. The Americans decided to build another airport to relieve the congestion.

Eight miles north of the city the Americans started construction on a seven million dollar project. The new Namao airfield would feature two 7000-foot runways capable of handling the largest aircraft. At the same time the federal government continued to upgrade and invest in Blatchford Field. By 1944 six million dollars had been spent on the field with a further two million invested by the end of the war. The runways were upgraded with steel and concrete, increasing the field's ability to handle heavy transport aircraft. When NO.2 AOS closed its doors in July 1944, it provided more room for Northwest Staging Route personnel. Wop May was presented with the Medal Of Freedom, Bronze Palm for assisting with the Staging Route, as well as developing in 1943 an aerial rescue unit to save downed pilots along the route.

On 27 September 1944 the base at Namao was completed and American personnel were settling into their new facilities. One of the last functions of the American staff at Blatchford was to honour the person who had worked incredibly hard for them; Captain Jimmy Bell was awarded the American Medal of Freedom. The vacated facilities at Blatchford Field were taken over almost immediately by the Department of Transport and various commercial operations. Aircraft Repair Ltd. was reaching the end of their contract obligations and began laying off hundreds of workers.

Notes

16. Stan Cohen, The Trail of ’42. A Pictorial History of the Alaska Highway. [Missoula: Pictorial Histories Publishing Co., 1979; reprinted., Altona, Man.: D.W. Friesen and Sons Ltd., 1993], p. 15.

17. Stan Cohen, The Forgotten War. Volume Two. A Pictorial History of World War II in Alaska and Northwestern Canada. [Missoula: Pictorial Histories Publishing Company, 1988], p. 37.

18. Eugenie Louise Myles, Airborne from Edmonton. [Toronto: The Ryerson Press, 1959], p. 259.

19. James G. MacGregor, Edmonton: A History. [Edmonton: M.G. Hurtig Publishers, 1967], p. 265.

20. Pierre Berton, Runway to the World. Muni News, Volume 7 Issue 1, 1994, p. 11.

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