The early years: On Tinker’s 70th birthday, a look back

  • Published
  • By Brian Schroeder
  • Tinker Public Affairs
On a blazing summer afternoon July 30, 1941, construction of the military industrial complex known today as Tinker Air Force Base had begun.

W.E. Hightower, Oklahoma City chamber president, spoke from atop a bulldozer in 104 degree heat, saying construction of the 1,820-acre air depot was too large of an undertaking to begin with a hand shovel. His words still ring true to the economic development and stability of Oklahoma City.

"This is a mechanized age," Mr. Hightower said. "I think this tractor is the least we should use for an affair symbolizing a project of such magnitude."

In 1940, the Army was in search for a location between Kansas City and Dallas to build an air depot. Oklahoma City was chosen as an ideal location to house the approximate 200 officers and 2,000 enlisted men who would be initially assigned to the airfield. Construction costs were estimated between $10 and $15 million.

Construction of the base provided much needed economic relief to residents of the Sooner State, who were still feeling after effects of the dustbowl. E.K. Gaylord, Oklahoma City newspaper mogul, endorsed the building of an aircraft plant or air repair center because of the potential economic prosperity for Oklahoma.

"This is the greatest opportunity that has come before Oklahoma City in many years," Mr. Gaylord said. "In fact, it's the only visible expansion we can take hold of at the present time that amounts to a great deal."

Prior to the groundbreaking ceremony, the depot had already received its first official name, Midwest Air Depot, May, 1941. Construction of a three-quarter mile brick building, paid for by Douglas Aircraft Company, began March 23, 1942, and assisted in the production of aircraft alongside the depot.

In late December, 1941, Lt. Col. William R. Turnbull was selected to be the first commander of the new Oklahoma City air depot. He issued the first general order, dated January 15, 1942, assuming command of Midwest Air Depot. Operations began on the same day in an eight by 10-foot office on the second floor of the Commerce Exchange Building in downtown Oklahoma City. According to Lt. Col. Frank Katzentine, the temporary office came equipped with a single wooden desk, chair, used file cabinet and a typewriter with several keys missing.

Ted Wheaton, a civilian from Duncan Field, San Antonio, worked with Colonel Turnbull to establish the Office of Civilian Personnel and began hiring the first civilian personnel Jan. 26, 1942. Within the next six months, 2,800 people were hired and sent to the San Antonio Air Depot for training.

By March of the same year, the first shipments of air material began arriving, and personnel interviewers processed 500 job applications in one six-hour day for civilian positions on the depot. The first Soldiers began arriving April 1 and were housed in "Tent City" at Will Rogers Air Field. The Soldiers commuted daily to the now named Oklahoma City Air Depot to help prepare barracks and other buildings on base. The first official unit assigned to OCAD, 17th Mobile Air Depot Group, arrived 17 days later commanded by Capt. Sylvester Morrison.

In summer 1942, boardwalks served as walkways around the base, which was still a construction site. Permanent buildings and hangars were nearing completion, and in August, 129 men of the 22nd Air Depot Squadron became the first military unit to occupy two new barracks buildings on base. At the end of the month, roads were beginning to be paved and the 50,000-square foot Headquarters Building 460 was completed and became the headquarters and personnel office.

On Aug. 21, 1942, the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce recommended to the War Department in Washington, D.C. the name of the airfield changed to honor native Oklahoman and member of the Osage Nation, Maj. Gen. Clarence L. Tinker, who was lost at sea during a bomber strike on Wake Island in the Pacific Ocean two months prior. With full support from Oklahoma City civic leaders and General H.H. "Hap" Arnold, Air Services Command designated the installation as Tinker Filed effective Oct. 14, 1942.

The first scheduled maintenance project was the installation of tow-target releases of 40 BT-13s slated to begin Sept. 5. Eight days prior, the depot conducted its first unscheduled maintenance repairs on a Navy SO3C-1. Despite having inadequate training or tools to repair the aircraft, maintenance teams were able to get the plane back in the air within eight days.

In September 1942 the first base cafeteria opened in Building 1, the first issue of the base newspaper, Contact, was on newsstands. "Ride clubs" were organized and served as carpools for workers to commute to work and ration petroleum products.

The fall of 1942, the air depot experienced many firsts. The base movie theater opened and charged 15 cents to see Between Us Girls. Air Freight service and delivery began on base, along with the first gyroscope repair using an assembly line method. On Oct. 27, the depot was renamed Oklahoma City Air Depot, Tinker Field, Oklahoma City and three days later, the first "all airfield civilian dance" was held on base. Colonel Turnbull invited Oklahoma City civic leaders on their first base tour Nov. 14, and Harry F. Spalding became the first civilian casualty when a B-17 tire exploded during inflation.

In December, the base newspaper was renamed Tinker Field Take Off. At the beginning of 1943, the depot employed 9,000 civilians. That number reached 14,925 in October, the highest number of civilian employees at the depot during World War II, half of which were women.

In March, 1943, C-47 Skytrains were being produced in the Douglas plant only eight months after groundbreaking for the plant. Douglas Aircraft Company employed an additional 23,000 Oklahomans for the war effort. The plant was rated the top aircraft production per-man-hour in the nation during World War II. By the end of the war, half of all C-47s were produced in Oklahoma City. B-17, B-24 and B-29 bombers were also produced at the US Army Air Force Depot in Oklahoma and remained a staple of equipment maintenance at the depot.

The first Women's Army Auxiliary Corps detachment was assigned to Tinker July 19, 1943, and the first open house for the general public was held one week later.

Years following World War II, Oklahoma City became a discharge center for veterans of the war. Tinker expanded to include the Douglas Plant (Building 3001) on Nov. 1, 1945, and was listed as a permanent base by the Army, further contributing to the economic stability of Oklahoma City and surrounding communities.

Tinker took on the moniker Oklahoma City Air Materiel Area on July 2, 1946, and received its first jet engine later that year. Tinker was named a repair base for P-80 aircraft, the Army Air Forces' first jet aircraft. Effective Jan. 13, 1948, Tinker Field became Tinker Air Force Base, just four months after the creation of the Department of the Air Force.

Later that year, two devastating tornadoes hit Oklahoma City, resulting in millions of dollars of damage to buildings and aircraft at Tinker. On March 20, 1948, the first storm ravaged the base, resulting in the greatest property damage in Oklahoma from a single tornado on record to that date. Five days later, Maj. Ernest J. Fawbush and Capt. Robert C. Miller, 1059th Weather Wing meteorologists, analyzed wind and weather patterns above 10,000 feet, discovered the weather was identical to the storm five days prior. They contacted the base commanding general, which resulted in an alert issued across Tinker to prepare for another destructive storm. This became the first official tornado warning issued in the U.S.

(Information for this article provided by 'More Valuable than Oil, The Establishment and Development of Tinker Air Force Base, 1940 - 1949,' by Dr. James L. Crowder, Jr.)