By Jeff Nash
Peterson Air and Space Museum
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — In April of 1942, America’s situation looked grim. It entered World War II almost five months earlier, following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and other military bases in Hawaii. There were defeats and set-backs all over the Pacific, as America lost ground in the Philippine Islands, Guam, Wake Island and elsewhere.
A daring attack on Tokyo, Japan on April 18 by Lt. Col. James Doolittle with a handful of U.S. bombers provided a much-needed boost to morale as America built up more strength to strike back. Part of that build-up began 10 days later here in Colorado Springs.
On April 28, 1942, Army Air Forces officers in downtown Colorado Springs issued General Order Number 1, establishing Colorado Springs Army Air Base and the Photographic Reconnaissance Operational Training Unit. They selected the Colorado Springs Municipal Airport, established in the mid 1920s, as the site for the new air base. Construction began at a fast pace within a week of base establishment.
The base’s first commanding officer, Lt. Col. David W. Hutchison, arrived on May 6. He and his staff immediately went to work overseeing base construction and organizing the new photo reconnaissance training school. The school’s mission was to organize, train and deploy new reconnaissance and aerial mapping squadrons for combat service. Aerial reconnaissance was a critical capability and it was needed in combat areas quickly.
The first troops arrived on May 13. First living in tents on the base, they were later placed in the Colorado Springs area until barracks were built. Many were housed temporarily at Colorado College. Retired Air Force Chief Warrant Officer James Chastain described the new base as “just sagebrush, jack rabbits, and rattlesnakes” when he arrived here in June 1942. Chastain was an aerial photographer and camera repairman with the 7th Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron, the first Army Air Forces flying unit to arrive at the base.
“Some of my squadron mates lived in the Kaufman Building (a Colorado Springs department store) and took baths at the City Auditorium down the street,” Chastain said. “I lived first at a youth camp near the present-day Air Force Academy before being sent up to Lowry Field in Denver. Since we didn’t have any suitable runways yet, our airplanes were flown and maintained at Lowry.” Construction crews completed new runways in August 1942, and skies over Colorado Springs soon buzzed with reconnaissance versions of P-38 “Lightning” fighters and larger B-25 “Mitchell” and B-17 “Flying Fortress” bombers. Initial base construction was completed in summer of 1943 and cost nearly $13 million.
Most buildings were temporary, or in the words of the time, “built for the duration of the war.” Many of these buildings survive today, including Building 391 (currently occupied by 4th Manpower Requirements Squadron), Building 365 (Canadian Forces Support Unit), and supply warehouses and office buildings currently used by the 21st Logistics Readiness Squadron. Many original aircraft hangars and maintenance shops also exist today along the Peterson flight line.
In December 1942, officials changed the base name to Peterson Army Air Base, in honor of 1st Lt. Edward J. Peterson, operations officer of the 14th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron. A Colorado native, he died from injuries received in a plane crash at the base the previous August. The base was commonly called Peterson Field, or “Pete Field” for short.
Reconnaissance training continued into late 1943, when the first of several base mission changes took place during the war. In November 1943, Peterson Field became a bomber crew training school, turning out 10-man B-24 “Liberator” bomber crews for assignment to overseas combat units. The 383rd Bombardment Group relocated here from Geiger Field, Wash., to form the heart of the school. Before the school closed in summer of 1944, hundreds of B-24 crew members passed through Peterson Field for two to three months training in strategic bombing.
Peterson Field then took on fighter pilot training, with the 268th Army Air Forces Base Unit using P-40 “Warhawk” fighters. The 72nd Fighter Wing, also headquartered here during this time, oversaw operations at 11 other fighter training bases in the Midwestern United States. Fighter training took place until April 1945, when the base transitioned again into an Army Air Forces instructor school.
As World War II drew to a close in August 1945, so did the need for Peterson Field. The base closed in December 1945 and the property returned to Colorado Springs as the United States demobilized from war. Apart from two brief reactivations between 1947 and 1949, the base belonged once again to jackrabbits and rattlesnakes. But as the 1950s approached, a new threat emerged. A new conflict known as “the Cold War” began. Along with the new U.S. Air Force, Peterson AFB was reborn in 1951 and played a large role in that conflict.
From its humble beginnings as a small civilian airport (now the Peterson Air and Space Museum) to the aerospace complex it is today, Peterson AFB continues to show its value to dominate our nation’s high ground. For 70 years, the base continues to serve America in conflicts large and small, wars hot and cold, in the air and in space.