Where we were: Malmstrom through the decades

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Dillon White
  • 341st Space Wing Public Affairs Office
(Editor's note: This is the first part in a three-part series on Malmstrom history. Part two of this series will detail the life of an Airman at Malmstrom throughout its history. Part three of the series will showcase the Malmstrom Museum.) 

The land surrounding Great Falls and what was to become Malmstrom Air Force Base is rich in military history. 

Capts. Meriweather Lewis and William Clark passed through the area in 1805 during the Corps. of Discovery and in 1942, Great Falls Army Air Base was built with a mission to establish an air route to Ladd Field, Alaska., during World War II. 

Great Falls AAB was a B-17 training base from November 1942 to October 1943. Runways were also constructed in Glasgow, Cutbank and Lewistown, Mont. The 2nd, 385th, 390th and 401st bomber squadrons would take off, form up in squadron formation above their separate locations, then form up in group formation in central Montana as part of their training. 

Between 1943 and 1945, about 8,000 aircraft flew into Great Falls AAB with United States insignia and flew out with new Russian insignia and Russian-style camouflage paint during the Russian Lend-Lease Program. The Lend-Lease Program provided aircraft and equipment to Russia to fight the German military during WWII. 

"The Russians were fighting [German Panzers] in horse-drawn carriages with bolt-action rifles, rakes, hoes, shovels or anything they could get their hands on," said Curt Shannon, Malmstrom Heritage Center director. "What we did, was gave them the materials they needed to make life hard on the Germans on the eastern front which forced Hitler to move more of his assets from France, Belgium, Spain and Italy over to the Russian conflict which took the pressure off of England so we could go in and fight," he said. 

Aircraft officially changed hands here before they were flown to Alaska where Russian pilots took over in the cockpit; Russian pilots also flew their new aircraft out of Great Falls AAB, Mr. Shannon said. 

P-39 Airacobras, C-47 Skytrains, P-63 Kingcobras, A-20 Havocs and B-25 Mitchell bombers were among the aircraft supplied to the allied war effort. 

"The Russian's loved the P-39 and P-63 because the engine was behind the pilot. This left the whole nose [of the aircraft] open for guns," Mr. Shannon said. "A 37mm cannon came out the center of the propeller and pilots could just look out the center of the nose to aim." 

B-25 Mitchell bombers were brought in by rail and assembled here. Women Air Service Pilots, or WASPs, also flew planes in from various air bases in the U.S. and performed maintenance on aircraft at GFAAB with local women volunteers. 

The base then acted as a hub, transporting military personnel and equipment to Alaska following the Lend-Lease Program. 

The Air Force became its own separate service in September 1947, and the base's name was also changed at that time to Great Falls Air Force Base. 

In 1948, the newly formed 517th Air Transport Wing trained C-54 pilots who were assigned to "Operation Vittles" during the Berlin Airlift. 

The base was transformed into a mock-up of Tempelhoff Airport in Berlin where planes landed on a three minute beat, Mr. Shannon said. 

"A plane was landing or taking off every minute and if a plane was early or late, it would have to go to the end of the line," he said. 

Following the Berlin Airlift, the 517th ATW became the 1701st ATW. At first, the mission was to route and schedule flights in the Pacific area. Later, it switched to training C-54 Skymaster pilots. 

The 407th Strategic Fighter Wing was realigned to Strategic Air Command in 1954 bringing F-84 Thunderjets and Boeing KB-29's to the base. These planes provided fighter escort to B-36 "Peacemaker" bombers. 

On Aug. 21, 1954 Col. Einar Malmstrom, 407th SFW vice commander, was killed in a T-33 Shooting Star. His plane crashed about one mile west of the Great Falls International Airport. 

Colonel Malmstrom's popularity with the local community was strong despite his short tenure here. The local community rallied to have the base renamed Malmstrom AFB, and on June 15, 1956, it was made official. 

Digital security

The North American Aerospace Defense Command was created in 1957 and Malmstrom was responsible for an area covering the Rocky Mountains to a halfway point of North Dakota and as far north as Canada through Alberta and Saskatchewan. 

To cover this area of responsibility, the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment computer was constructed at Malmstrom and weighed 250 tons. The computer contained 60,000 vacuum tubes and was housed in building 500, a four story building which is now the 341st Space Wing headquarters. 

Operators were on the top floor of building 500 and the computer system was chiefly located on the lower two floors and basement culminating in a 4-story computer. The system funneled information coming from radar sites in outlying areas through phone lines into the computer, Mr. Shannon said. 

Control stations consisted of round screens with dots representing aircraft. A light gun was connected to the controls and was used to identify aircraft in the area. 

"You could put your light gun over the unknown aircraft on your screen and within the lightning fast speed of 15 seconds to two minutes, you could find the elevation, speed and heading of the aircraft, then determine whether to send up an air defense unit," Mr. Shannon said. 

Building 500 also included an optical illusion to confuse bombers. 

"Building 500 is checker boarded with vertically and horizontally grooved concrete," Mr. Shannon said. "Before laser-guided bombs, if you were a pilot trying to [aim] at the building it would disorient you, and you could never get it in your sight." 

The SAGE computer remained in service until 1983. 


The 341st Strategic Missile Wing was activated July 15, 1961. 

A Strategic Missile Squadron was referred to as the "Ace in the Hole" by President John F. Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis when the Soviet Union had placed nuclear missiles in Cuba. The president was referring to the strategic deterrent of the 10th Strategic Missile Squadron. 

On May 5, 1967, with the completion of the 564th Strategic Missile Squadron, in addition to the already operational 10th, 12th and 490th Strategic Missile Squadrons, Malmstrom's missile complex was the largest in the U.S. In October 1995, the wing was re-designated the 341st Space Wing. 

On Jan. 1, 1997, the base's refueling group was moved to McDill AFB, Fla., effectively closing the flightline. Later the same year, the 819th RED HORSE Squadron, a self-contained civil engineering unit capable of heavy damage repair and construction arrived at Malmstrom.