In the years leading up to WWII, Alaska’s delegates to Congress had argued without success that it was important to fortify Alaska and Hawaii. Brigadier General Billy Mitchell, believed Alaska was the “the most strategic place in the world” and Lieutenant Colonel Henry H. “Hap” Arnold thought, “air defense is national insurance…the flying machine, one of the finest vessels of air commerce, can be turned into the deadliest weapon of war.” The nation had been slow to recognize the threat from Germany and Japan or the way aviation was redefining national security.
Finally, in 1939, Congress approved $4 million to begin building a cold weather test station in Fairbanks, Alaska. This station was to be known as Ladd Army Air Field and was an important landmark in WWII. It served as the Cold Weather Test Station, Air Transport Command and was the main transfer point along the Alaska-Siberia Route (ALSIB) during the Lend Lease program (1942-1945).
The men were also responsible for testing out cold weather clothing and related survival gear. It was important that the clothing be suitable for working in the cockpit and not freeze the pilot if he found himself in fresh snow or bitter wind. Sheepskin jackets didn’t work for the aircrew when working in cramped quarters, which led to the development of down coats, which were more flexible and comfortable. Gaffney also designed a heated pilots suit that would plug into the cockpit.
The Army collaborated with civilian engineers and scientists making rapid progress in technical development and production of aircraft operations in temperatures as cold as forty below.
The Japanese attack on Dutch Harbor in 1942 caused a temporary halt in the Cold Weather Testing Detachment. Many of the men were sent to fight as part of the Aleutian Campaign.
After the war, Ladd Field became an important Cold War Base with air defense, reconnaissance, and an Arctic research station. In 1961, the Army took over the airfield and was renamed after Jonathan M. Wainwright. The missions for the base have changed but Fort Wainwright still supports military aviation and Hangar 1 still resides as a historic landmark.