From field to global force

McChord history flies high

By J.M. Simpson on October 19, 2017

From an argument over naming rights to a place of global importance, today's McChord Field holds a significant place in Joint Base Lewis-McChord's history.

In 1927, Pierce County purchased a 771-acre piece of land for a municipal airport.

John Rigney was the one to sell his land to make room for the facility, and he did so with the understanding that the airfield would be named Rigney Field.

Work began April 21, 1929, to build a landing strip and a 27,000-square-foot hangar.

By the time the airfield opened March 14, 1930, the Pierce County Commissioners had voted to reverse its agreement with Rigney and named the site Tacoma Field.

Tacoma Field proved to be a financial sinkhole, and the county looked to lease it out to forestall closure.

Help soon came.

National defense needs in the form of the Wilcox Act of 1935 authorized the construction of airfields at strategic locations such as the Pacific Northwest.

Tacoma Field was selected, and Washington Governor Clarence Martin signed legislation Feb. 16, 1938, transferring the airfield to the Army Air Corps.

For a short time, the airport was called the Northwest Air Base; however, May 5, 1938, the field was renamed McChord Field to honor Col. William McChord.

In efforts to pull America out of the Great Depression and to prepare for war, the federal government contracted for the construction of many of the current bases' permanent buildings.

Work began in August 1938 under the supervision of Army Maj. Emile Antonovich.

His efforts led to the relocation of Clover Creek and the construction of four large hangars, four runways, family housing for officers and enlisted personnel, warehouses, shops, and a 1,285-man barracks that was initially referred to as "The Palace" and is today called "The Castle."

With the advent of World War II, McChord became home to both bomber and fighter squadrons.  Their presence led to the construction of today's Clover Park Technical College in Lakewood.

Nine airmen serving at McChord and assigned to the 17th Bombardment Group took part in Lt. Col. James Doolittle's raid on Tokyo in 1942. In an unprecedented move, 16 B-25 aircraft were launched from the USS Hornet, an aircraft carrier.

After the war's end in 1945 and the creation of the United States Air Force in 1947, McChord Field was renamed McChord Air Force Base Jan. 1, 1948.

As the Cold War (1946-1990) deepened, the base grew to 4,600 acres as the main runway was extended from 5,900 to 9,000 feet.

Throughout the Korean War (1950-1953) and into the Vietnam War, McChord continued to function as a transportation and fighter base.

In August 1966, the first C-141A Starlifter arrived, an airframe that would become a familiar sight for the next three decades.

During the 1970s, base facilities were improved with the addition of a bowling alley, non-commissioned officers club and outdoor sports facilities.  Additionally, a base exchange, a commissary and a passenger terminal were built.

As national defense needs increased, the Western Air Defense System (WADS) was added, and in 1997 the Washington National Guard assumed command.

Two years later, the now familiar C-17 Globemaster III arrived at McChord, and it would play an integral role in the Global War on Terror.

In 2005, the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process recommended joint basing with nearby Fort Lewis to increase efficiency. On Oct. 1, 2010, McChord Air Force Base and Fort Lewis merged to become Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

A power projection platform, JBLM serves the nation with the history of McChord Air Field firmly in mind.

Acknowledgements:  Dr. Duane Denfeld, Cultural Resources Program, JBLM