The American are coming –
 1387th AAF Base Unit

(by Robert G Pelley 2016/01/05)

The United States did not enter the 2nd World War until 07 December 1941, after the Japanese attack on Pear Harbor and Hitler’s subsequent declaration of war on the US.  But the Americans had already been quite active before that. For example, as is well known, and in spite of US laws to the contrary, airplanes that would later be sent to England were towed as close as possible to the Canadian border, so they could de “stolen” in the still of the night.

As far as Gander was concerned, a first Allied priority was the coordination of weather forecasting over the north Atlantic.  Therefore, on 09 March 1941, the first American weather personnel of 8th Weather Squadron, under Captain Clark Hosmer, arrived at “Gander Field" to support the later arrival of the US 21st Reconnaissance Squadron.  

Only five weeks later, on 20 April, USAAF operations were initiated in Gander with the arrival of Lt. Bleyer and Lt. Lawrence as an advance party of the 21st Reconnaissance Sqn, flying a B-18 Bolo. During this same time frame, longer range B-17Cs of the USAAF 41st Reconnaissance Squadron started flying mid-Atlantic anti-submarine patrols from Gander.

Given the expected deployment in short order of these and other US forces, on 01 April, Gander had therefore been taken over by the RCAF from civilian authorities. Constant efforts continued to be made to get everyone settled in. Members of the US 21R Sqn were billeted with RCAF personnel and Hangar 4 was vacated by the RCAF 10BR Sqn to make way for the Americans.

Gander was beginning to become overcrowded and, as well, it became clear that British and Canadian “Standing Operating Procedures” were not necessarily compatible with those of the Americans. And while they all had a common enemy and a common objective, there were still differences in what one could call “life styles” that sometimes could threaten to become important irritants.

Therefore the planned construction of a separate zone for American-led operations became a priority.  This zone, basically in the southwest corner of the airport, became known as the “American side” – a name that stuck long after the departure of US forces, from the time civilians occupied the buildings until they were torn down in the 50s.

For those no longer familiar with the "old airport", the following map, though it is from the 1950s, shows well, in dark blue, the approximate limits of the "Air Force side".

The photo below is from about 1948 to 1950.  Except for a few minor changes, it is pretty much the same site as when it was the home of the USAAF.

The American United States Army Air Force area was officially established 09 May 1941.  Luckily, this unit was commanded by an extremely able officer, JV Crabb. Just a major on his arrival, by June 1945 he was a Brigader-General commanding the 5th Bombardment Command in the Pacific and ended his career as a Major-General.

On August 21, 1941, at Langley Field, Virginia, orders were cut to send to Gander Field a group of 147 officers and enlisted personnel of the Detachment Air Base Group, the Chemical Warfare Service, the Airdrome Platoon, 446th Ordinance Company and the Detachment Medical Department which would depart by rail to arrive at the New York Port of Embarkation on or about September 2, 1941. The 36 officers and enlisted personnel of the 1st Signal Platoon were to depart by motor convoy.

A small group of one officer and four men traveled by air to Gander as the advance party. The purpose of this movement of personnel and equipment was to inventory the property of the 21st Reconnaissance Squadron and for a permanent change of station. This group was commanded by Capt Malcolm Reed who, on October 29, 1941, was promoted to major while serving as Base Supply Officer of the 1387 BU.

By early December 1941, there were on the American Side almost 60 officers and 10 times as many enlisted men.

The USAAF base in Gander came under the  general control of the 23 Army Air Forces Ferrying Wing on 18 Jun 1942. It was redesignated several weeks later as North Atlantic Wing, Air Transport Command, on 5 Jul 1942
On 27 Jun 1944,  the American side came under the command of the North Atlantic Division, Air Transport Command  and the base became then known as 1387Army Air Force Base Unit.

An AAF BU does not exist for itself. Its job is to make sure that other people can do their own job. If it had been a civilian organisation, a typical equivalent would be the Department of Material Resources for a hospital, whose job would be to make sure that the medical staff had everything it needed to take care of patients.  The job of 1387 BU was to make sure that pilots and crews had everything they needed to get their planes safely across the Atlantic.

The next photo might give an idea of what a day's work might look like for the 1387 BU or the base structure that preceded it..  There are over one hundred and thirty
B-17 and B-24 airplanes parked on the edge of the runways, waiting to leave for Europe.  One can imagine the work required.  Every single airplane had to be checked out to make sure that all its electrical, mechanical, hydraulic, electronic, navigational and fuel systems were adequate for long trip across the Atlantic.  Crews had to be feed and billeted and moral had to be taken care of - even a pre-flight chat with a padre could be arranged. Before departure, the weather office better have the most up to date infomation and essential enroute communications must be maintained. One can see, on the left of the photo, two hangers with B-17s standiing by for maintenance, with ten others on the ramp waiting their turn.

Some time ago I managed to purchase an extremely rare and unique document related to the American side, prepared by the 1387 BU.  It is an original of the brochure given to transient crews going through Gander during the war.  Normally a pilot or crew member on his way to fight in Europe or on his way back home to the US would have little reason to keep this type of document.  The former owner got this from the estate of a person who apparently served with the 1387 BU, rather than as a transient flyer.

From the buildings shown on the map included as centerpage in the booklet, it would be from about summer or fall of 1944 because it is  document labeled North Atlantic Division.  The American side had more buildings than those shown, so presumably  it shows only those of interest to transient crews.

To read the pages, just click on the page number:

page 1
page 2
page 3
page 4
page 5
page 6
map American

It should be underlined that this booklet refers to the situation in the 1944 and that conditions may have been different at other times.  For example the instructions were to the effect in 1944 that anti-aircraft batteries were out of bounds.  However, in the article on the Hell's Angels who went through Gander in October 1942, the B-17 pilot talks about visiting a 3" battery and actual firing a few rounds.

People who saw Gander when the Air Force side was a boom town might not recognize it today.

A new terminal complex was built over it and inaugurated by the Queen in 1959.  Funny about life - now it is considered too big for present air traffic and, while a rare example of period architecture, will likely be replaced by a terminal the size of a small railway station. And oh, by the way, trains no longer go through Gander either.