Early days remembered as Malmstrom marks 75 years

  • Published
  • By John Turner
  • 341st Missile Wing Public Affairs

Twelve-year old Bill Steele’s world was turned upside down in 1942.

An avid hockey player, the boy had been eager for the completion of the Civic Center in Great Falls, Montana, and specifically the indoor ice skating rink it housed.

But Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941, and America’s subsequent entry into World War II soon brought changes to the city and a few disruptions for young Bill.

The Army Air Corps’ 7th Ferrying Group arrived in Great Falls the following June. Assigned to the municipal airport on Gore Hill, the group’s mission was to establish an air route to Fairbanks, Alaska. Military barracks had not yet been completed at Gore Field so the enlisted men were temporarily sheltered in the Civic Center, sleeping on cots in the skating arena.

“My dad said, ‘I guess you won’t be playing hockey anymore,’” Steele recalls.

Steele also learned that his parents were renting out their own bedroom to a lieutenant and his family. Bill now had to knock on the bathroom door every time before entering – an inconvenience fresh in his mind 75 years later.

“That was my introduction to World War II,” Steele said. “I lost my hockey practice place and I couldn’t go to the bathroom unless I knocked on the door first.”

One day the officer living in their home brought young Bill up to Gore Field to see the base and the aircraft.

“He let me sit in one of the airplanes,” Steele said, remembering it was a twin engine B-25 medium bomber.  

“I was an airplane freak even when I was a kid,” he said. “I could tell you all of the different fighters we had right up to the P-40 (Warhawk) and P-39 (Airacobra).”

Steele was mesmerized watching the aircraft climb into the sky.

“Of course I didn’t watch them take off from Malmstrom so much as I did on Gore Hill because all of that stuff was going through Gore Hill at that time,” he said.

To the east of the city, construction began May 9, 1942, on what would eventually become Malmstrom Air Force Base. By mid-June, five barracks and a mess hall were completed at Great Falls Army Air Base. Work continued on four runways and a concrete parking apron, two hangars, a control tower and other buildings. The base was renamed to Great Falls Army Air Field on October 27. Throughout the war people referred to it as simply ‘East Base.’

The first B-17 “Flying Fortress” heavy bombers landed at Great Falls AAF Nov. 30, 1942, to begin advanced training. That mission lasted only 11 months but it prepared four bombardment groups for combat. By the end of 1943 the base was instead being used for the Lend-Lease program after units and equipment were transferred from Gore Field.

Gary Ulmer was six years old when Great Falls AAF was built. He remembers aircraft flying overhead.

“I loved to watch those planes,” he said. “I watched those planes every chance I could.”

Second Avenue North was the main road through the city; today’s busy 10th Avenue South was undeveloped dirt backroad. Motorists driving through Great Falls toward the base exited the city at 22nd Street, crossing railroad tracks into what was known as Boston Heights. Between 38th Street and the base was approximately two miles of open farm land.

“Great Falls was so much smaller than it is now,” Steele said. “The other thing I specifically remember was that Great Falls ended at the Missouri River. There was nothing on the other side.”

Black Eagle was a separate community and a small service station stood where the oil refinery is now. Railroad workers populated the west side of the Missouri River beyond the First Avenue North Bridge, then just a narrow two-lane crossing.

The fairgrounds were fringed by stock yards, pastures and little else.

“I remember the downtown area being the area,” Steele said. “The hub of Great Falls was down on Central Avenue. If you needed clothes, you went down to Central Avenue. If you wanted prescriptions you went to the Central Avenue. If you wanted a dentist you went to the Central Avenue. If you wanted a diamond ring you went to Central Avenue.”

The only exception was that every neighborhood had a grocery store.

“You didn’t have to walk five blocks,” Steele said.  “No matter where you were in this city there was a store.”

Railroads through Great Falls were vital to the war effort and expanded as soldiers and supplies flowed through the city. The population of the Great Falls rose to 29,000 during the war, making it the second largest city in Montana.

Steele enjoyed his own economic windfall as troop trains rolled through in 1942. He sold newspapers in the central business district and quickly discovered that soldiers at the train station were eager customers of his extra copies. The enterprising newsie circumvented military secrecy by pestering railroad workers about train schedules.

“To make a long story short I’d go in and check and they would say, ‘We’ve got a train coming through and maybe you’d like to take a look at it Wednesday,’” Steele said. “So I had an in with the Great Northern Railroad and I’d sell 70 or 80 papers and that was five cents profit for me. I was in tall money.”

American GIs weren’t the only military that Steele encountered in Great Falls. Russian officers serving as liaisons to the Lend-Lease program were quartered in the hotels downtown.

“That really made your day when you saw a Russian pilot,” Steele remembers. “They wore the high boots with the britches and the green and black uniform. They were our allies, they were the good guys.”

“I always thought that was great stuff,” he said.