Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Ladd Field (Fort Wainwright) began life as cold-weather testing facility

Ladd Field commander's quarters on North Post. Completed in 1941, it is one of the oldest buildings on Fort Wainwright

Ladd Field, now Fort Wainwright, began as a cold-weather testing facility. Named after Major Arthur Ladd, it was the first U.S. Army airfield in Alaska. According to the report The World War II Heritage of Ladd Field, congressional hearings on U.S. air defenses were held in 1935. At one of these hearings Brig. General Billy Mitchell uttered his now-famous words, “I believe that in the future, whoever holds Alaska will hold the world.” 

In August 1935 Congress passed the Wilcox Air Base Act, authorizing the War Department to determine locations for future air bases it deemed “essential,” with special consideration for, among other things, a cold-weather training facility in Alaska.

A site selection team visited Fairbanks in July and August 1936, and in March 1937 President Franklin Roosevelt withdrew a tract of public land on the banks of the Chena River just east of Fairbanks for the airfield.

Design work began in 1938, and construction funds were approved in early 1939. Crews started work on a railroad spur and road from Fairbanks to the site in August the same year. The rail extension ran from the Alaska Railroad yard north of the Chena River three miles east before crossing the river to the airfield site. The road onto post (later named Gaffney Road in honor of base commander Lt. Col. Dale Gaffney) stretched eastward 3.5 miles along the Chena River’s south bank.

The next spring construction of airfield facilities began. Army engineers were unfamiliar with permafrost and they naturally made mistakes. For instance, ground beneath the runway was only excavated to a depth of 12 inches, and portions of it consequently heaved and sagged when underlying permafrost melted. This evidently led to quite a few long-time locals wagging their fingers at the Army and saying, “I told you so!” 

The affected portions of the runway were quickly redone, this time with 15-foot-deep excavations backfilled with insulating material. Even with the delays the runway was completed and put into operation in 1940, a year earlier than anticipated.

The buildings on the oldest portion of Ladd Field, also called North Post, were completed next. Located just north of the main runway, North Post was laid out in a formal arrangement borrowed from the Beaux Arts design movement popular in the U.S. from the 1890s through the 1930s. Beaux Arts architecture was a neoclassical style originating in France. While the design of buildings on Old Post is not neoclassical, the site layout, with its open vistas, formal planning, spacing and symmetry is very much in the spirit of Beaux Arts.

The two-story housing units at Ladd Field (including the commanding officer’s quarters shown in the drawing) were actually constructed in a simplified American Neocolonial style, while the administrative and service buildings could be considered modern industrial.

National Register of Historic Places documents state that most of North Post was laid out in a horseshoe pattern around a lawn and parade ground. The horseshoe was bisected by Gaffney Road. North of Gaffney, at the top of the horseshoe, was a semicircular lawn with officers’ quarters on the west, north, and east sides. South of Gaffney, on either side of the rectangular parade ground were service buildings. At the horseshoe’s base, adjacent to the runway, was Hanger No. One, the operational center of Ladd Field.

The original facilities included nine buildings for administration and housing, six technical buildings, a hospital, and tactical fuel storage. The housing units north of Gaffney road were completed in 1941, but other buildings, such as Hanger No. One, were not completed until 1942.

Hanger No. One’s completion two years after Ladd Field officially opened meant aircraft mechanics endured extremely harsh operating conditions those first two winters. Ladd Field’s sole mission during its early years was cold-weather testing — not only of aircraft and associated equipment, but also clothing, survival equipment and other military gear. 

The entry of the United States into World War II co-opted much of Ladd Field’s facilities (fodder for another column), but cold-weather testing continued as a primary function until the end of the 1940s.


  • Early Transportation Routes, Fort Wainwright, Alaska. Ronald Burr Neely, Jr. Center for Environmental Management of Military Lands. 2003
  • “Ladd Field – National Register of Historic Places nomination form. Erwin Thompson. National Park Service. 1984
  • The World War II Heritage of Ladd Field. Cathy Price. Center for Environmental Management of Military Lands. 2004
  • The Forgotten War, Volume Two. Stan Cohen. Pictorial Histories Publishing Company. 1988.