Peterson marks 65th anniversary

The airport passenger terminal, built in 1941, became the base headquarters and weather station during air base construction.  It is now part of the Peterson Air and Space Museum. (U. S. Air Force photo)

The airport passenger terminal, built in 1941, became the base headquarters and weather station during air base construction. It is now part of the Peterson Air and Space Museum. (U. S. Air Force photo)

Aircraft crowd the Peterson Field flight line in 1943.  During World War II, Peterson served as a reconnaissance, bomber, and fighter training base. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Aircraft crowd the Peterson Field flight line in 1943. During World War II, Peterson served as a reconnaissance, bomber, and fighter training base. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Lieutenant Edward J. Peterson was the first Colorado native to lose his life at the new base.  At his wife’s request, his ashes were scattered over Pikes Peak. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Lieutenant Edward J. Peterson was the first Colorado native to lose his life at the new base. At his wife’s request, his ashes were scattered over Pikes Peak. (U.S. Air Force photo)

A formation of P-40 “Warhawk” fighters passes along the Front Range in 1944.  The Peterson Museum has a replica of this aircraft type on display at the corner of Peterson Boulevard and Ent Avenue. (U.S. Air Force photo)

A formation of P-40 “Warhawk” fighters passes along the Front Range in 1944. The Peterson Museum has a replica of this aircraft type on display at the corner of Peterson Boulevard and Ent Avenue. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Shown here in 1940, the Colorado Springs Municipal Airport was chosen as the site for the new Colorado Springs Army Air Base in 1942.  (U. S. Air Force photo)

Shown here in 1940, the Colorado Springs Municipal Airport was chosen as the site for the new Colorado Springs Army Air Base in 1942. (U. S. Air Force photo)

Building 365 under construction in early 1943.  This building still stands today, as do the hangars in the background. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Building 365 under construction in early 1943. This building still stands today, as do the hangars in the background. (U.S. Air Force photo)

PETERSON AFB, Colo. -- "Just sagebrush, jack rabbits and rattlesnakes..." That's how retired Air Force Chief Warrant Officer James Chastain described a patch of Colorado prairie when he arrived here in June 1942.

Chastain was a member of the newly-formed 7th Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron, 2nd Photographic Group, Army Air Forces, the first flying unit to arrive at the new Colorado Springs Army Air Base. There was a frenzy of activity and new construction, with more troops arriving every day.

On April 28, 1942, Army Air Forces officers in Colorado Springs issued General Order No. 1, creating the base and the Photographic Reconnaissance Operational Training Unit. Officials selected the Colorado Springs Municipal Airport, established in the mid 1920s, as the site for the new air base. The base's first commanding officer, Lt. Col. David Hutchison, arrived May 6. He and his staff immediately went to work supervising base construction and organizing the new photo reconnaissance training school. The school's mission was to organize and prepare new reconnaissance and aerial mapping squadrons for combat service. Reconnaissance was a fairly new military capability and it was needed overseas quickly.

Construction began at a furious pace within a week of base activation. The first troops arrived May 13. First living in tents on the base, they were later placed in and around Colorado Springs until barracks were built.

"Some of my squadron mates lived in the Kaufmann Building (a Colorado Springs landmark) and took baths at the City Auditorium," Mr. Chastain explained. "I lived first at a youth camp near the present-day Air Force Academy before being sent up to Lowry Field in Denver. Since we didn't have any suitable runways yet, our airplanes were flown and maintained at Lowry."

Construction crews completed new runways in August 1942, and skies over Colorado Springs soon buzzed with reconnaissance versions of P-38 fighters and larger B-25 and B-17 bombers. Base construction continued until summer of 1943 and cost nearly $13 million.

Most buildings and facilities were temporary, or in the words of the time, "built for the duration of the war." Many of these buildings still survive today, such as Building 391 (currently occupied by the HQ AFSPC Inspector General), Building 615 (the Peterson Thrift Shop), and the warehouses and office buildings currently used by base supply. Most of the original aircraft hangars and maintenance shops exist today along the Peterson flight line.

In December 1942, officials changed the base name to Peterson Army Air Base, in honor of Lt. Edward J. Peterson, the operations officer of the 14th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron. A Colorado native, he died as a result of a plane crash at the base the previous August. The base was commonly called Peterson Field, or "Pete Field" for short.

Reconnaissance training continued into late 1943, when the first of several base mission changes took place during the war. In November 1943, Peterson Field transformed into a combat crew training school, turning out 10-man B-24 "Liberator" bomber crews for assignment to overseas combat units. The 383rd Bombardment Group relocated here from Geiger Field, Washington, to form the nucleus for the training school. Before the school disbanded in the summer of 1944, hundreds of B-24 crew members passed through Peterson Field for two to three months training in strategic bombing.

Peterson Field then took on fighter pilot training, with the 268th Army Air Forces Base Unit using P-40 "Warhawks." The 72nd Fighter Wing, headquartered here during this time, oversaw operations at six other fighter training bases in the Southwest United States. Fighter training took place until April 1945, when the base transitioned again into an Army Air Forces instructor school.

As World War II drew to a close in August 1945, so did the need for Peterson Field. The base closed in December 1945 and the property returned to Colorado Springs while the United States demobilized from war. Apart from two brief reactivations between 1947 and 1949, the base belonged once again to jackrabbits and rattlesnakes. But as the 1950s approached, a new threat emerged. A new conflict of ideologies known as "the Cold War" was about to begin. Along with the new U.S. Air Force, Peterson AFB would play a large role in that conflict.

(2007 marks the 65th anniversary of the establishment of Peterson Air Force Base. This is the first of a series of articles detailing the story of the base and other Air Force activities in Colorado Springs, from World War II to the present.)