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This Week in OKC History: Tinker Takes Flight PDF Print E-mail
Written by Jack Money   
Saturday, 01 August 2009 02:35

(Photo from Oklahoma Historical Society) 

It was moving day for hundreds of soldiers working at the Oklahoma City Air Depot this week in history, 67 years ago.

Soldiers belonging to aircraft repair squadrons were relocating from their temporary home in a tent city outside of Will Rogers Field to permanent barracks at the depot – today known as Tinker Air Force Base.(1)

The move counted as another step in a long-evolving process that gives us the economic and military powerhouse the base functions as today.

The base, along with an accompanying bomber plant that functioned as part of the base until the end of World War II, are the products of successful lobbying on the part of the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce and the Oklahoma Industries Foundation made up of powerful chamber leaders.(2)

In August, 1940, chamber leaders lobbied aircraft companies throughout the country about the city’s interest in getting an aircraft plant located here – preferably close to Will Rogers Field, which is known today as Will Rogers World Airport.

At about the same time, chamber leaders learned through their Washington, D.C. contact that the federal government sought to locate an aircraft repair depot in this part of the country as well.

The local organization opted to pursue the depot, believing it would last longer than an aircraft manufacturing plant would.

The federal government awarded it for its efforts by announcing in March 1941 that a depot would be built in the Oklahoma City area, (3) 

Then, in January 1942, Oklahoma City learned Douglas Aircraft had selected the community as a location to build the DC-3.

Getting an air maintenance depot, and then a manufacturing plant were supreme accomplishments, given Oklahoma’s Govs. Murray and Phillips and Sen. Thomas P. Gore had been hostile to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal. Even now, some historians speculate Oklahomans suffered somewhat because of that political opposition.

But with war engulfing Europe, the military feared the coming conflict and needed places within the nation’s interior where aircrews could be trained and aircraft could be manufactured and repaired. Oklahoma’s central location between the East and West Coasts had to have been a significant selling point to the military and to Douglas Aircraft.

In July 1941, U.S. Rep. Mike Monroney provided details about  the Air Depot’s planned configuration during a Washington news conference. It would, U.S. Army officials said, be a “model” depot that all others would be patterned after. (4)

The $14.3 million project would include 400 permanent buildings, some as big as a block and a half long and a block wide, and two runways, one oriented north and south and 6,000 feet in length, the other oriented southeast and northwest that would be 5,000 feet in length.

Monroney also said the depot would be a “third echelon” depot, meaning it could make whatever repairs any arriving aircraft might require.

The largest building, today likely the base’s 3001 building, was designed to handle both aircraft that needed basic repairs and those that needed to be completely disassembled and put back together to complete repairs.  Planners designated a location next to the building as one to use to make engine repairs, complete with 12 separate cells where rebuilt engines could be tested. Underground fuel tanks also were planned to be part of the depot.

The housing – barracks moved into by the men living in the tent city – were planned, as were a smattering of homes for officers. Even a depot hospital would be built.

Work on the project started in July 1941, when workers started to build a railroad line to the location. Later that same month, city leaders started up a bus line to get workers from the city to the depot location, which at the time was miles away from the city’s residential populations.

Dunning-James-Patterson Construction Co. was awarded the contract to build the depot the same month. Already, workmen were putting finishing touches to a temporary office building erected on the location.

Construction officials said they would start by doing needed grading at the 1,440 acre site. But before doing anything, they met with Army officials to coordinate the project so that it would be done correctly.

“A job of this magnitude has got to be well organized at the start,” said Army Maj. H.A. Montgomery, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Tulsa engineer. (5)

Within months, however, word leaked out the Army sought an additional 960 acres on the depot’s south and east sides to add to the location. While they stayed mum on what it might be used for, some sources theorized it might be the location of a bomber assembly plant. (6)

In October 1941, officials announced the Oklahoma Portland Cement Co. was the recipient of a $101,000 contract to provide concrete for the depot, by then known as the Midwest Air Depot, and to plants being built to assemble bombers in Tulsa.

By November, employment at the depot had swelled to 1,300 men, and paving work on the longest of the two runways started the following month. In January 1942, officials announced that 2,400 people were working at the plant.

That same month, the Army’s Depot commander arrived – Lieut. Col. and Mrs. W.R. Turnbull were made to feel at home by the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce, finding the couple a home and making sure its electricity, water and gas were turned on.

Unfortunately, a cold snap had frozen the pipes inside the home, meaning the Turnbulls had to spend their first night in Oklahoma City at a hotel.

Still, they expressed their appreciation for the Oklahoma City-style welcome they were shown.

“We think the courtesy shown us … is splendid,” Col. Turnbull said. “It’s a grand welcoming, and the less said about the broken pipes, which were nobody’s fault, the better.” (7)

January 1942 brought more than just a permanent commander for the depot, however.

That some month, U.S. Senator Elmer Thomas and R.A. Singletary, an Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce representative, announced that Douglas Aircraft Co. would build an aircraft assembly plant in Oklahoma City.

At the same time, Oklahoma City’s Mayor Hefner announced the city would propose for its residents to approve a $1 million bond issue to buy another 480 acres to add to the depot and to pay for bringing additional city utilities to the location.

“This is not a ‘duration’ project,” Hefner predicted at the time. “After the war is over, the Douglas Aircraft Co. can expect to continue to use it for the manufacture of airplanes.”(8)

In February 1942, military personnel began to arrive to work at the depot. But their housing was not yet ready. So, Oklahoma City authorized the creation of the tent city outside of Will Rogers Field.

Housing also was on the mind of civic leaders, who envisioned the need for a community outside the base where its civilian workers could live.

Enter W.P. “Bill” Atkinson, who announced he would build a $4 million residential community outside the base’s perimeter. The community, which Atkinson named “Midwest City,” initially would have a capacity of 2,500 persons, he said.

In April 1942, Col. Turnbull’s personal aircraft, a five-passenger Howard, landed on the depot’s main runway, officially noting the runway’s operational status.

By July 1942, the depot took on its first operating personnel. Officials estimated the base would employ 8,000 workers, at its peak.

In August 1942, The Oklahoman published a story approved by the U.S. Army Air Forces, saying the depot “has added its mighty facilities to the drive to ‘Keep ‘Em Flying.’”

Construction on the by-then $217.5 million project still continued, but the depot officially had been activated in March, officials announced.

Col. Turnbull told the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce in October 1942 that he saw the depot becoming a permanent fixture of the Oklahoma City community.

“The coming of the air depot to Oklahoma City as a permanent institution will constitute your major industrial development and your greatest resource for the future,” Turnbull predicted. (9)

Later the same year, the depot received a new name – Tinker Field, in honor of Gen. C. L. Tinker, the member of an Osage Indian family of Pawhuska.  Tinker lost his life leading a bombing mission during the battle of Midway Island earlier the same year.

In January 1943, the depot’s key staff met with Col. Turnbull to celebrate the passing of a year since his arrival to the city a year earlier, when work on the massive depot had been just beginning.

But work was not interrupted for any type of celebration.

After all, a war was being fought, and fought to be won. (10)

 

1.)    “Soldiers Move Into Air Depot,” The Oklahoman, August 4, 1942

2.)    “World War II,” Oklahoma Historical Society’s Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, http://digital.library.okstate.edu/encyclopedia/entries/W/WO025.html

3.)    “Bomber Assembly Plant Lands,” The Oklahoman, January 24, 1942

4.)    “Air Depot Plans Detailed,” The Oklahoman, July 27, 1941

5.)    “Work at Depot To Hit Stride Within Week,” The Oklahoman, July 26, 1941

6.)    “Army Will Add To Depot Site,” The Oklahoman, September 4, 1941

7.)    “All is Ready For Colonel Except Bath,” The Oklahoman, January 17, 1942

8.)    “City Becomes Key Aviation Center of U.S.,” The Oklahoman, January 24, 1942

9.)    “City Pictured As Air Center of America,” The Oklahoman, October 10, 1942

10.) “City Air Depot One Year Old, It’s Work Day,” The Oklahoman, January 16, 1943