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A bridge to a base

McChord, Narrows Bridge share history

Gertie and airfield aligned in time. Courtesy photo

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An airfield and a bridge are linked.  

Ten years after the construction of Camp Lewis in 1917, Pierce County voters passed a bond to purchase 900 acres for a municipal airport. Construction of the landing strip and a 27,000-square-foot hangar began in April 1929, not far from Camp Lewis.  

Named Tacoma Field, it opened March 14, 1930. The airport lost money, and the county sought to prevent closure.

National defense needs in the mid-1930s provided a way out. The Wilcox Act of 1934 authorized the construction of air bases at strategic locations. The Pacific Northwest drew attention; consequently, planning began in 1937 to convert Tacoma Field to a military base.

On Feb. 16, 1938, Washington Governor Clarence Martin signed legislation allowing for the transfer of Pierce County land to the federal government.  Later that month, the county transferred title of the airport and its hangar to the War Department.

Initially called the Northwest Air Base, the airfield was renamed McChord Field May 5, 1938, in honor of Col. William C. McChord.

With the transfer of ownership, the Works Project Administration (WPA) began the work of clearing stumps and filling swampland. The Public Works Administration (PWA) then issued contracts totaling $5 million to Pacific Northwest construction companies to build the air base. Maj. Emile Anotonovich, Army Quartermaster Corps, directed the construction, which began in August 1938.

A 1,285-man barracks, four hangars, runways, a fire station, warehouses, shops, a water supply system, family housing for enlisted and officers, and a hospital were built.

Incidentally, the large barracks are today called "The Castle" on Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

With Anotonovich's work finished, McChord Field was officially dedicated Wednesday, July 3, 1940.

"Governor Martin spoke about the base at the dedication, describing its importance in light of the world situation at the time," wrote Duane Dunfeld in an article entitled, McChord Field, McChord Air Force Base, and Joint Base Lewis-McChord: Part 1.

World War II was waiting in the wings. The governor knew that and had said as much 48 hours earlier at another dedication.

At the start of a four-day celebration July 1, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge was dedicated. At that time, Gov. Martin extolled the economic and military progress that the bridge would bring because it linked McChord Field outside of Fort Lewis to the Puget Sound Navy Shipyard in Bremerton.

A link existed between McChord Field and the Narrows Bridge.

Soon after the transfer of Tacoma Field to the federal government in 1938, the Washington State Toll Bridge Authority had submitted an application to the PWA to build the bridge.

As war loomed in Europe, then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration began putting money into re-armament programs and public work projects to include roads, dams and bridges.

Connecting McChord Field and Ft. Lewis to the Navy's shipyard made sense. The slender $11 million dollar project stretched like a steel ribbon across the Tacoma Narrows.

As local historian Murray Morgan wrote in South on the Sound, "Everyone marveled at the gossamer grace of a structure so long."

The spider's strand of a structure soon acquired the nickname "Galloping Gertie," as its 2,800-foot center span would undulate in three- to six-foot waves in winds of three to four miles per hour.

Shortly past 11 a.m. Nov. 7, 1940, in a 49-mile-per-hour windstorm, the center span collapsed into the water.  Later called "the Pearl Harbor of engineering," Gertie's demise changed how engineers designed suspension bridges.

World War II was then on, and when the United States entered in 1941, McChord Field played a vital role.

So, too, did Gertie; much of the steel from the remains of the collapsed bridge was reused in support of the war.

After the war, the renamed McChord Air Force Base would continue on, eventually becoming part of today's Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

As to the First Tacoma Narrows Bridge, a new bridge was built and reopened in 1950.  A second bridge was built in 2007.

The 2,800-foot center span that collapsed during the windstorm remains on the bottom of the Narrows. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1992.

This writer wrote the justification for that placement.

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