Buckley Field in World War II: Part III

BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- This final article on Buckley Field during World War II covers life at Buckley during this period, as well as its ultimate fate after the war ended.

The early months of Buckley’s operation as a training base were somewhat chaotic as the command staff attempted to build up its administrative infrastructure in conjunction with the rapid construction of the base’s physical infrastructure. The Classification (S-1) and Intelligence (S-2) offices processed and vetted incoming personnel and civilian workers, the Operations (S-3) office oversaw the Armament School along with the base’s various support offices, while Logistics (S-4) handled supply issues. Several agency offices were established to handle the administrative and social demands of the base, including Judge Advocate, Mess Office, Base Operations, Quartermaster, Motor Pool, Public Relations, Special Service, and Physical Training. The Public Relations office dedicated itself to nurturing good relationships with the local press; thanks to its relative transparency on base activities, several positive articles were issued on Buckley by local Denver papers throughout the war. It also sponsored off-base trips to sites such as Red Rocks Amphitheater and Winter Park, as well as USO visits and concerts on base.

Initially, living conditions at the base were rather spartan in nature, resembling more of a fort from the Old West era than a modern military base. Few of the early buildings had windows, they leaked during rainstorms, and had no electricity. Troops had to drink from lister bags, rarely bathed or shaved unless a bucket or enamel pan was available, and used outhouses and straddle trenches until the water and sewer systems were finished. Use of the mess halls was also a haphazard affair, with people naturally migrating to whichever was the most conveniently located. Gradually, however, base infrastructure improved and a system of “mess buttons” was implemented that required the troops to eat only at the mess hall to which their unit was assigned. The first “post exchange” (PX) was actually a glorified shed not much different from the frontier-era sutler stores, but the base eventually gained five PXs that sold a variety of goods, as well as a commissary. Religious services were held in one of the base theaters until two chapels could be completed in October 1942.

The Physical Training office remained busy throughout the war, providing buildings, equipment, and curriculums for all of the units on base. Most of this was developed by Capt J. Juan Reid, a former athletics coach from Colorado College. Reid oversaw the construction of baseball diamonds, volleyball courts (which doubled as a firebreak within the barracks/classroom complex), football fields, tennis and badminton courts, a 750-seat gymnasium, and outdoor basketball courts. The gym amusingly had a fence of used cracked baseball bats salvaged from base games. Reid’s assistant, 2 Lt Walter Kerbel, was responsible for constructing a 320-yard obstacle course on the complex’s southwest corner, which gained enough attention that Fox Movietone News created a short film of troops running the course. It also had an innovative 2-mile cross-country course on the southwest side of the base which became known as the “Burma Road.” The Physical Training office’s curriculums and multiple athletic offerings proved extremely successful in improving physical fitness—the average completion time for a student running the Burma Road from the start of training to the end dropped from 23 minutes to 16.5 minutes; the record was 12:37.

As construction continued through the end of 1942 and into 1943, the on-base amenities improved dramatically. Most of these were provided by the Special Services office, which served the much same purpose as today’s Morale, Welfare, and Recreation offices. The office worked with Physical Training to establish athletic and recreation programs, operated the base library, a bowling alley, and two movie theaters, assisted the Red Cross with its emergency loan program, and offered correspondence courses for soldiers interested in improving their education. The theaters proved so popular that surplus funds from ticket sales were used for additional base improvements and renovations. A two-story guest lodging facility provided 27 rooms for relatives of assigned personnel to stay up to three nights, at 75 cents per night. The most popular building on base was likely the Service Club, which served as the base enlisted club, library, and events center. At 22,800 square feet, it was one of the larger structures on base, and also featured a cafeteria and telephone room. Two enlisted bands provided both traditional and orchestral performances for events.

Buckley eventually grew to resemble something of a miniature city, with its own post office, a branch office of the Denver National Bank, and a large hospital complex. The first “base hospital” was a first-aid tent located near the ordnance depot, followed by squadron sick-call clinics, before the permanent complex was finished in September 1942. The base medical complex operated where today’s fitness center and base exchange parking lot are located, and contained enough space for 917 beds, as well as a surgical facility and Red Cross building. It also housed a 28-chair dental clinic that averaged over 17,000 sittings a month by mid-1944.

While discipline at Buckley was rarely a serious problem in the early years of its operation, occasionally a soldier might cause trouble and earn time in the base stockade, which was located near the today’s recreational vehicle parking lot by the 6th Avenue Gate. While the facility was relatively secure, a few prisoners did manage to escape. In one notorious incident, three prisoners on garden detail jumped their guard, stole his carbine, then managed to escape the base before stealing the car of a passing motorist and heading east. Overall, however, life in the stockade was not particularly draconian and some soldiers held under minor offenses were even allowed off-base during the duty day.

The question of Buckley Field’s long-term fate arose even before the end of World War II. The initial rush of training that occurred from 1942 through 1943 tapered off as manpower needs across the Army Air Forces (AAF) were filled, and AAF officials began exploring whether or not to shut the base down entirely by the end of 1944. While this ultimately did not occur, Buckley experienced a dramatic personnel drawdown by the end of the year. It temporarily became a sub-post of Lowry at the beginning of 1945, but the AAF decided to rescind this status in April and Buckley became a separate installation again, and the number of personnel on base once again grew as veteran companies returned from Europe for redeployment. The end of the war in August 1945 precipitated another rapid decline in manpower, but by 1946 it remained unclear where Buckley’s future lay—its location, infrastructure, and facilities made it difficult for the War Department to simply declare the entire base as surplus, but the available land made it a potentially juicy prize for future urban development. The uncertainty left a cloud over the base and morale greatly suffered as a result.

Buckley’s future was ultimately secured by a sequence of events beginning in the summer of 1946. The Colorado Air National Guard (CANG), seeking to relocate from Denver Municipal Airport, had been authorized to make use of Buckley’s facilities as part of the order placing the base on temporary inactive status. While Buckley Field finally ceased to operate as an active-duty AAF base in September, the CANG maintained temporary control until a final decision could be made about its fate. The US Navy became the base’s unexpected savior when it announced that it desired to turn Buckley into a Reserve training facility for its pilots, and on December 20, 1946, Sgt Fred Mitchell—a member of the initial cadre that set up Buckley as a technical base and had returned there on reassignment—turned over control of Buckley Field when he handed the newly arrived Navy commander the keys to the base headquarters building that he had just locked. Buckley Field was re-named Naval Air Station-Denver on September 28, 1947, bringing to a close one of the most dramatic periods in the base’s history.