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Bellingham's celebration of airport cut short by Pearl Harbor

The Dec. 7, 1941 edition of The Bellingham Herald told readers about a public open house at the city’s new airport – and President Roosevelt’s warning to Japanese Emperor Hirohito.
The Dec. 7, 1941 edition of The Bellingham Herald told readers about a public open house at the city’s new airport – and President Roosevelt’s warning to Japanese Emperor Hirohito. The Bellingham Herald

The day Japan attacked Pearl Harbor was expected to be a day of celebration in Whatcom County, as a long awaited public construction project was nearing completion.

It would be nearly five years later before the public could use the entire facility.

The Dec. 7, 1941, edition of The Bellingham Herald showed an aerial photo of the Bellingham airport on the front page, with a story about it being open for public inspection that day. Construction was nearly complete on its second and third runways and the public was encouraged to check it out by driving their cars on all three runways.

According to the Port of Bellingham, about 3,000 visitors attended the event. With concerns that Japan might launch attacks on the Pacific Northwest, the military took over the Bellingham airport three days later and it became known as the Bellingham Army Air Field.

By the time the airport was transferred back to the county in October 1946, it had expanded from 350 acres to 910 acres and had 38 buildings, including a dormitory and 13 bomb-storage structures.

It was unclear in media reports at the time if any commercial flights were allowed in and out of the airport during the war.

William H. McClure, who was named the station manager at the Bellingham airport for United Airlines a month earlier, would later write that the Army painted everything at the airport olive brown, including United Airlines’ building and ramp equipment. His daughter, Ruth McClure, provided his writings about his time at the airport during the 1940s and 1950s to the Port of Bellingham.

Creating an airport in that area north of Bellingham apparently required quite a bit of work. The airport’s origins are unclear, according to Port research, but in October 1936 the county bought 200 acres of land for $50 an acre from Charles F. Larrabee to build it. Construction workers were consumed by the prep work, dealing with uneven land and even a small lake where the third runway would later be built.

“Topographical maps of the area drafted in 1936 show that the airport lands were densely uneven, ranging from 130-160 feet above sea level,” according to a Port report about the history of the airport on its website.

To top it off, the prep work ate up a lot of funding, so the project went through fits and starts, and construction wouldn’t begin until the spring of 1940. The first runway was completed in June; at that grand opening about 5,000 people came, causing traffic jams in the area.

After the war Whatcom County had a bigger airport, which helped because returning veterans had acquired an interest in flying. According to the Port, three flight schools were set up to meet the demand.

Despite that and the twice-daily United flights to Vancouver, B.C., the biggest moneymaker was said to be the hay that was mowed in the areas around the airport, according to the Port. With mounting costs and repair work needed on the runways, the county sold the airport to the Port of Bellingham in 1957 for $1.

Dave Gallagher: 360-715-2269, @BhamHeraldBiz

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