Where we were: An Airman's life

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Dillon White
  • 341st Space Wing Public Affairs Offic
(Editor's note: This is the second part in a three-part series on Malmstrom history. Part three of the series will showcase the Malmstrom Museum.) 

Airmen's lives have changed throughout the decades in ways other than the missions they performed. 

These differences include living conditions, transportation and how they spent their time off duty. 

"[Working at Malmstrom] was the best duty in the Air Force," said retired Tech. Sergeant Kyle Samples who was stationed at Malmstrom in the '60s. "I worked with good people and had no wants for anything [more]." 

The Barracks 
In 1942, Airmen were still called Soldiers and wore Army green.
Soldiers at Great Falls Army Air Base, which is now Malmstrom stayed in barracks made of single sheet lumber covered in tar paper with no insulation. 

Soldiers slept in bunk beds lined up in much the same way as the racks are in basic training. 

"If you had knot holes above your bed in the summer, you had blow through ventilation," said retired Chief Master Sgt. Curt Shannon, also a former senior enlisted advisor at Malmstrom. "In the winter you would have snow on your bed. That's just the way it was."
There were 30 men in each barracks and there was no running water or bathrooms in the barracks, Mr. Shannon said. 

"Each barracks had three coal stoves for heat, but the buildings were not insulated," Mr. Shannon said. "With cold weather, it still wouldn't be warm inside." 

Centralized bath houses were located near the barracks and squadron orderly rooms were also located in the bath houses, Mr. Shannon said. 

Work details
News traveled as fast as Airmen could read their squadron bulletin board in the days before base-wide e-mail traffic. Each board was positioned outdoors on two wooden posts and protected from Montana weather by an awning. 

"The daily bulletin was posted on the bulletin board and it was your responsibility to read it," Mr. Shannon said. "If your name was on the board and you were supposed to do something, you better know about it." 

In 1947, Privates became Airmen, and with that, a new rank structure comprised of third, second and first class Airmen. 

"In the late 60's, officials decided we shouldn't have second class citizens in our Air Force [to be politically correct]," Mr. Shannon said. "The bottom line was if you were an airman third class, there was no doubt whose hands were going to fit around the shop's mop handle. When you made airman second class, mopping duties went to someone else." 

Transportation and going to town
"When I was an Airman in the dorms, there were about 60 [Airmen] who lived there, and there were five cars in the parking lot," Mr. Shannon said. "And guess what? It took all 60 of us to [financially] keep those five cars running." 

When Airmen had wheels they could go off base if they had a Class A pass. 

"You had to get along with your first sergeant," said Mr. Samples, who was among the first crew members of the Semi Automatic Ground Environment computer housed in building 500 at Malmstrom in 1961. SAGE compiled incoming radar information to track aircraft for national air defense. "If you were doing a good job and were an up-standing Airman, then you could get a pass." 

If Airmen didn't feel like going off base, they could still go to the base theater to watch a movie or the base-exchange snack bar for a burger with fries and a draft beer, Mr. Samples said. 

"The base theater is in the same place it used to be and there was an NCO club you could go to as well, if you were an NCO," he said. 

When Airmen worked eight-hour shifts in building 500 in the '60s, they could take a break at the top floor snack bar to have coffee and doughnuts with their Canadian counterparts, also stationed here to assist in the monitoring of aircraft over Canada. 

The Air Force Song
The author of "The Air Force Song," originally known as "The Army Air Corps Song," was stationed in Great Falls at Gore Hill as well. Capt. Robert Crawford flew aircraft to Alaska during the Lend-Lease program. 

Today, Airmen's lives and the mission at Malmstrom Air Force Base have changed; however, Airmen's hands still fit around mop handles and they still sing "The Air Force Song." The dormitories now have kitchenettes, insulation and indoor plumbing. Building 500 still houses a coffee shop and Mr. Samples and Mr. Shannon are still at Malmstrom working at the base's museum.