Friday, November 13, 2009

The 39th Pursuit Squadron

"December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan... The attack yesterday on the Hawaiian Islands has caused severe damage to American naval and military forces. I regret to tell you that very many American lives have been lost. In addition, American ships have been reported torpedoed on the high seas between San Francisco and Honolulu." - President Franklin D. Roosevelt

The newly-opened Whatcom County Airfield/Bellingham Airdrome was active with civilians on that fateful day... and all likely listened with disbelief as news of the attack on Pearl Harbor played over their car radios. What did this mean for the Country? What did this mean for a town like Bellingham, perched on the edge of the Pacific's sheltered in-land waters? What lurked off the coast, waiting to strike?

Though the events of December 7th came as a shock, the possibility that America would ultimate engage in WWII likely came as little surprise to most. Since the conception of the Bellingham airport project before 1936, the Army Air Corps had been lobbying hard for an airfield in such a strategic position. And our research indicates that the final push to finish the first runway after 4 long years of stopping and starting, came as a result of War Department funding. Simultaneously, in other parts of the country, a handful of pursuit squadrons were being made 'battle ready'... and it was one of these, the 39th Pursuit Squadron, that arrived in Bellingham a mere three days after Pearl Harbor.

We have been in contact with one of the pilots of the 39th, and he has very graciously shared his memories of those days with us. Another pilot with that squadron, though no longer with us, has been able to contribute to our research thanks to his son who has provided us with much-looked-for information on our air base. The former tells us that, after a long journey across country, the initial pilots, aircraft and maintenance crews arrived at Bellingham with much relief... and sadness. It was almost Christmas, they had left their homes, families, friends almost over-night... thrust suddenly into 'the real thing'. Bellingham was a 'newly concreted air strip' in the middle of no where, with few amenities for a battle-ready squadron of almost 300 men. No barracks. No hangars. No buildings. Just a fresh runway, a small taxiway, and a wooden shack.

Thankfully for the pilots and crews, the community opened their arms, and for the three weeks that they were stationed here patrolling the air and water ways for signs of an invasion they were welcomed into the homes and families of this county.

The 39th Pursuit Squadron flew the P-39 Aircobra - an aircraft that served it's time well, but was ultimately and quickly replaced by newer and better aircraft. Many P-39's were ferried to Alaska and on to Russia as part of the Lend-Lease Act, while others like those with the 39th went to Australia and the South Pacific and were left in the jungles there.

The pilots of the 39th, after leaving Bellingham, went on to Australia and Papua New Guinea where they became one of the most highly decorated combat squadrons of WWII. They had numerous aces in their ranks: Tommy Lynch, Dick Bong, 'Snarlin' Charlie King... and it all started here.

We hope to get permission from the gentlemen who have shared their memories to use their correspondence verbatim - because they really do tell it best. Until then, we continue to research, and continue to be surprised at the great stories to be told about the Bellingham airport.

1 June 2010 marks the 70th anniversary of the dedication of our airport. We intend to celebrate accordingly! [KS]

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