Seth Husney

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Idaho Air Bases
Seth Husney

World War II, Army Air Bases, and Idaho

In the late 1930s, as Nazi Germany was growing stronger, Idaho was a quiet, rural state focused on farming and geographically removed from the political strife in Europe. Within 10 years, however, there would be air bases at Gowen Field and in Mountain Home that were critical to the War effort, and continue to influence Idaho today.

Boise’s airport was tiny and hemmed in by trees, power lines, and the Boise River. In 1937, Boise city leaders, dreaming big, rebuilt their airport on a sagebrush plain south of the city. When completed in 1939, Boise boasted that it had the longest landing strip in the nation. In 1940, the U.S. War Department took notice of Boise. Its dry, temperate climate, almost endless space, and an easy approach, made it an ideal training base. Geographic isolation meant that enemy planes couldn’t reach it, yet it was close to all major western cities. Plans to build an Army Air Base that would be named Gowen Field ensued. The first soldiers arrived in April 1941. When the United States entered WW II, in December 1941, Gowen Field was already an active training center. Its primary mission was to train bombardment crews using B17 “Flying Fortress” and B24 “Liberator” planes.

While Idaho was working to influence the war, the war influenced Idaho. Gowen Field brought many groups to Boise and helped diversify the homogenous Boise community. In 1942, the African American population in Idaho was 595. Over the course of the next year the air base brought 300 more African Americans to Idaho as soldiers. Little is known about the African American soldiers at Gowen, but what is known is that they performed well, challenged racial stereotypes, and boosted the minority population in Idaho. Women arrived at the base, too. The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAACs) provided clerical support at the base, and did many mechanical jobs traditionally reserved for men. The Women’s Air Force Service Pilots (WASPs) also served at Gowen. These women pilots risked their lives, ferrying planes and towing targets, so that the soldiers could practice air-to-air machine gunnery.

The need for more heavy bombardment training bases and the success of Gowen Field led to the development of another air base, this time in Mountain Home, Idaho. The United States Army Corps of Engineers found inexpensive, uninhabited land, perfect for heavy bombardment training, unless you were a jackrabbit, coyote or rattlesnake living in the open range. The same ideal conditions found in Boise were present in Mountain Home, with the added benefit of being removed from the population center in Boise. Mountain Home Army Air Base was finished in August 1943. Heavy bombardment crews for the B-24 were trained and fought in the Pacific and Europe. Crews to fly the B-29 “Super Fortress” arrived just as the war ended.

Right after the war, the bases at Gowen Field and Mountain Home were deactivated. Gowen Field did not continue as an air base, perhaps because the city of Boise was too close, or the arrangement of sharing civilian runways and air space was too messy. The re-designated Mountain Home Air Force Base was reactivated in 1948. It has been a training site for many aircraft and is now home to the 366th Fighter Wing and its F-15 “Strike Eagle”. Mountain Home Air Force Base has been called “Idaho’s second largest industry,” and the base remains a great source of pride for the state. Gowen Field did become home to other military groups including the Army and Air National Guard and the Army, Navy and Marine Corps Reserves. Commercial airliners now land where bombers once trained, and they taxi to Duane W. Beeson terminal, named for an Idaho born, WWII, flying ace.

Although Idaho was almost as far as you could get from both the European and Pacific fronts during World War II, it left its mark on the War. Between 1943 and 1945 nearly 15,000 men trained at Gowen. The soldiers brought the War to Idaho‘s streets and skies and in doing so, the War left its mark on Idaho. The Gowen Beacon from October 1944 reported, “In the skies over Gowen Field and vicinity this week, dramatic simulated aerial warfare is being waged with swarms of sleek fighters streaking through the blue…” Today the skies over Idaho are quieter, occasionally interrupted by a passing A-10 from Gowen Field, or an F-15 from Mountain Home. Both are reminders of the important role Idaho played during World War II.