The 75th Anniversary Fly-in and Air Show

75 years ago, war came to Alaska and Yakutat was at the leading edge of our defense of the territory.  The first Army Air Base completed in Alaska,  Yakutat for a time had the longest runway on the west coast and became the model for other early air bases throughout Alaska.

Lightning Banner

P-38 Lightening with hangar in background – this plane crashed on Attu three months after the photo was taken

2016 holds many 75th anniversaries to major WWII events,  most notably for the country is December 7th,  when Imperial Japan attacked the Navy Base at Pearl Harbor.  In Alaska,  they knew what was coming and began a massive build-up to defend the territory from what was to come.  Oddly,  some of the self-made obstacles toward Alaska’s defense became a tremendous advantage.

In early ‘42, there was really nothing the US could do to slow the Japanese advance throughout the Pacific.  Our best effort turned out to be a strategic failure called the Doolittle Raid.  Lead by Jimmy Doolittle,  we launched a handful of twin-engine land bombers off the deck of the carrier Hornet.  These aircraft were being ferried to China for them to use,  however all but two ran out of fuel and crashed.  On their way by Tokyo,  they dropped a handful of bombs that did little damage.  In other words,  the mission was a complete failure – except for that it had done to the Japanese psyche.  They had told their people they were invincible – that no one could touch them.  Yet,  here comes a collection of land bombers.

The only information the Japanese could glean from the Doolittle Raid was that Jimmy Doolittle grew up in Nome. This little factoid had absolutely no bearing on the raid,  but it fed into Japan’s obsession with Alaska.  As the Battle of Midway approached,  Japan had twice the carriers available,  along with the more experienced piltos and technologically advanced aircraft.  They divided their forces and sent two of those carriers to the Aleutians,  giving us an even fight.  In other words,  because of their obsession with Alaska,  we had 3 carriers and one island to their four carriers,  found their fleet first and sank all four of their carriers at Midway,  allowing the US more time to rebuild our devastated fleet and train our men.

Dauntless Banner

SBD Dauntless dive bomber parked on the ramp between the control tower and hangar – SBD’s were credited with sinking all 4 Japanese carriers at Midway

 

Up here in Alaska, we were at war with Japan,  but a war had been raging for years (or a century) between the US Army and US Navy.  They didn’t share information,  they fought over funding and jurisdictional control,  etc.  Since the President was a Navy man,  the Navy usually won these battles.  General Buckner,  commander of the Army in Alaska was told not to set foot in the Aleutians because islands are ships and therefore the jurisdiction of the Navy.

YAK_Historic_Aerial_photo_Nov_1_1947

Yakutat Air Base circa winter 1947

 

Initially in 1940, Buckner was given authorization and money to build three projects in Alaska.  Yakutat,  Annette Island and the Cold-weather Research Station in Fairbanks.  The Yakutat Air Base was supposed to have three runways and we only have two.  General Buckner secretly embezzled money from his three projects,  put it into a private bank account,  set up a private for-profit corporation and set out to build two “canneries” in the Aleutians.  When these “canneries” were done,  we had two new air bases.  Air bases so “secret” that the Japanese spy network didn’t have a clue because even the US didn’t know we had them!

586-sioux-falls-air-base

Typical layout of runways on WWII airbases in the lower 48 – Yakutat’s 3rd runway would have aligned with our westerly winds

 

When the Japanese struck Unalaska and the Navy Base at Dutch Harbor, they had three times as many men to land as the US had to defend the entire territory.  Suddenly,  they were hit by a P-40 fighter response so much stronger than they expected that they decided to withdraw and land their people on Attu and Kiska – a thousand miles away.  Yakutat’s third runway on Umnak and Cold Bay saved Alaska from that eminent invasion.  Had these bases been financed in the open,  Japan would undoubtedly have been prepared and Alaska’s role in the war could have been far different.

 

Although the first bomber landed at the new air base on May 8th (that is our official “establishment date”),  the formal grand opening ceremony took place August 6th,  1941.  This year,  Fairweather Day falls on that date,  so we moved our official Grand Opening Anniversary celebration to Friday August 5th,  2016.  We are celebrating with a state-wide fly-in and air show,  complete with aircraft from the National Guard and possibly the Canadian Air Force.  There will be WWII aircraft from up in Anchorage that weather permitting will give rides for a fee.  The event will close with a 6pm hangar banquet dinner (for a $30 donation PP) and speeches from General Hummel and Lt. Governor Mallott.

Valiant Banner

The KWAAN BT-13 Valiant where it crashed near the mouth of the Situk – notice the train tracks in the background

 

This will be a busy weekend, with the new Sandy Beach Park dedication Friday at noon,  our events begin an hour later at 1pm with a paper airplane contest (we’re going for distance across the hangar bay floor when launched from the 2nd floor balcony),  short-field landing contest at 2pm and flour drop (the pilot flies over the target and tries to drop his baggy of flour as close to the mark as possible out the window) at 4pm.  Aircraft static displays will be on the ramp for visitors to explore.  Yes,  we need volunteers to help with logistics,  airport security and set-up.  Contact me at the fly shop if you want to lend a hand.

OK, here is my disclaimer…  We are obviously still a long way from being the museum we hope to become.  We just couldn’t let this particular 75th anniversary pass by without marking it in some way.  My grand hope right now is just to have a few toilets that flush and the hangar bay relatively clean for the event.  If it rains,  we’ll probably have no one from outside Yakutat show up,  but a beautiful day could bring in dozens – if not hundreds of aircraft from around the state.  As our first event,  our learning curve has been steep,  but we’ll get better over the years as we have more and more air shows under our belt.  Ultimately,  this event is about honoring those who serve our country,  not just the Greatest Generation,  but all the vets and active servicemen and women who protect our freedom.  Freedom doesn’t come from the promises of politicians,  or the words on old dusty documents.  It comes from the people who stand with their bodies as our shields,  to protect us from those who wish us harm.

Tentative Schedule of Events:

1200hrs Rasmuson Sandy Beach Park dedication

1300hrs Paper Airplane Contest

1400hrs Short-field Landing Contest

1600hrs Flour Drop

1800hrs Hangar Banquet

1900hrs Speeches

2000hrs Wrap/clean-up

RememberDec7th-1942

1942 original propaganda poster from our collection (hopefully will be displayed for the event…)

39 Days and Counting!

2016 has many historic milestones to celebrate when it comes to WWII.  Here in Yakutat,  Alaska,  the first of many Army Air Bases became operational leading up to our involvement in WWII and Imperial Japan’s invasion of Alaska.

This coming August,  we will be celebrating the 75th anniversary of the grand opening of our Yakutat Army Air Base.  We will be having a fly-in and airshow Friday August 5th with activities starting around noon,  hangar banquet dinner scheduled for 6pm and a couple more events Saturday morning,  leading into Yakutat’s annual Fairweather Day celebration Aug 6th.

Just over a month to go and we’re still adding to our sponsor list,  dignitary list,  getting the hangar cleaned out and the full schedule of events.  If you would like to help,  or lend your expertise in any way,  please don’t hesitate to make contact with us.  You can call,  or e-mail with suggestions,  criticisms,  or whatever…

(907)784-3087 (my fly shop number)

Thanks,
Bob Miller

All 6 of these photos come from the Levi Ballard Collection:

IMG_20150927_0029

PBY Catalina with Yakutat Hangar in the background

IMG_20150927_0098

Olivia DeHavilland steps off a C-47 on the Yakutat Ramp

IMG_20150927_0076

Pin-ups plastered inside a “Yakutat Hut” (one of two building designs named after the first base where they appeared)

IMG_20150927_0253

Some unknown formal ceremony inside the hangar – don’t expect it to look this clean in August!

IMG_20151015_0016

Willy’s Jeep parked along the side of the hangar

IMG_20151021_0020

Lockheed Hudsons from the 406th Bombardment Squadron stationed in Yakutat

Welcome to the Alaska Warbird Museum Blog

Many of you have been following our antics here in Yakutat for years through my Situk River Fly Shop blog.  Today,  it is time to separate my posts for the museum from my regular blog.  If you care to go back through my past babblings and the process of renovating the old Yakutat Army Hangar,  here is the link to the old category for those posts:

https://situkriver.wordpress.com/category/alaska-warbird-museum/

For a shorter version of events,  here is the brief history of the Alaska Warbird Museum:

Back in 2005,  Cascade Air decided to bring their DC-3 operation back to Yakutat to fly fish out of Dry Bay and the Tsiu River.  The State of Alaska owned the hangar and had been leasing it to the City of Yakutat for about 30 years.  The city had done virtually none of the required maintenance to keep the building standing and had stopped paying their lease payments to the state.  State of AK Aviation Leasing was so tired of dealing with the city that they had the old hangar slated for demolition when Cascade came back in and asked to acquire the lease.

I got to know the owners of Cascade pretty well and agreed to open a small fly shop in a corner room of the hangar.  We started renovating that space,  while cascade began cleaning up and renovating other areas of the building.  Unfortunately,  one of the owners of Cascade died suddenly of a heart attack in late 2007,  so the whole project went into limbo.  We continued to renovate our fly shop area and opened for business spring of 2008.  With our heavy investment in the shop and an effort for the city to reacquire the hangar (not a good thing considering their track record),  we ended up having the lease assigned to me and my wife to secure the roof over our heads.

This poor old building had been completely neglected for the better part of 4 decades.  Broken windows,  missing siding,  failing hangar doors,  collapsing wood floors…  But the steel structure is in good shape and the city did replace the roof after a storm tore it off and their insurance company paid for the damages.  Good bones and good roof.  That’s a pretty good start.

Looking back,  I don’t think there is any way I would have been dumb enough to take on this entire project had we not already invested in the fly shop space.  With 40,000 square feet of derelict old building,  we had renovated one room successfully and so we figured we could continue to renovate one more room at a time.  One room down and just 26 more to go on the southwest side…

The Yakutat Hangar was the first of it’s kind and they even named the design after us.  Other Yakutat Hangars are still in use throughout Alaska,  Washington,  California,  etc.  Heck,  there are two Yakutat Hangars in Roswell,  NM!  With our hangar’s rare history and the story of Alaska’s role in WWII largely untold,  we decided to dedicate most of the hangar for a very special WWII museum (with a mix of commercial space to pay the bills).

This has been a LONG process for mostly just me,  my wife and two kids,  but it is one of those rewarding experiences that makes the journey worthwhile.  Also a combination of “no good deed goes unpunished” and “be careful what you wish for”…  Over the years,  we have been contacted by soldiers,  or their decedents who served in Alaska and a few from Yakutat,  we have been sent artifacts for the collection and we have acquired the first warbird for our collection – a C-47 that served in North Africa,  Sicily,  Normandy and then flew with a great Alaska history for Cordova Airlines.  We just need to keep adding to that collection!

P5220068

Well,  this first post is already getting long,  even though I have a lot more to share.  Most importantly right now,  we will be celebrating the grand opening of the Yakutat Army Air Base – 75 years ago this August 5th.  The hangar and museum are still a LONG way from being completed,  but this commemoration can’t wait for me to have my act completely together.

More on all of this in posts to come…  Thanks for tuning in and we hope to have your support,  encouragement,  suggestions and see you in August!

Sincerely,
Bob Miller
250

And if our classic 40’s nose-art logo is too risqué for your sensibilities,  try this one:
2271 - Alaska Warbird Museum Army