Establishing the Airfield at Oscoda, 1923 to 1925

The Creation of a Military Flying Field at Oscoda
An encounter between a businessman and a United States Army flying officer while fishing brought about the development of a military airfield at Oscoda, Michigan, a military field that continued in operation, with occasional interruptions, for a period of seventy years, from 1923 until 1993. The field at Oscoda was initially used as an auxiliary gunnery and training field for the men and units assigned to Selfridge Field, near Mt. Clemens, Michigan, located approximately15 miles northeast of Detroit and 200 miles south of Oscoda. The field at Oscoda was used by the flying units located at Selfridge Field on a regular basis, in winter as well as summer, from early in 1924 until the end of World War II. Although it eventually became established as an independent field after World War II, for the first twenty years of its existence it was considered as a “sub-base” (an auxiliary field) of Selfridge Field; its primary uses were as a gunnery range and as a test location for cold weather flying conditions.

Selfridge Field had been established in 1917, when the U. S. Army Air Service determined that it needed to rapidly develop a number of flying fields after the United States entered World War I in April of that year. It was named after an early army aviator, Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge, who was killed while flying as a passenger in an aircraft piloted by Orville Wright at Fort Myer, Virginia, on 17 September 1908. In addition to Selfridge Field, other area military flying fields were established at Rantoul, Illinois (Chanute Field, named after Octave Chanute, an aviation pioneer who died in 1910), and Dayton, Ohio (Wright Field, named after Wilbur Wright, who died from Typhoid Fever in 1912). These fields were suitable for rapid development because they had two important characteristics: they covered fairly wide areas, were suitable for flying operations, and they were flat, thus requiring relatively little preparation as landing fields, as all WWI aircraft flew from grass fields. Both Chanute Field and Wright Field were created from open farming areas. Selfridge field was created from a small, flat area, part of a small peninsula located on the western edge of Lake St. Clair, a large lake northeast of Detroit.

Flying activities at Selfridge, Chanute, and Wright Fields started in the summer of 1917, but the inclement weather during the winter of 1917-1918 caused flying activities to be temporarily suspended at these fields, and the flight training activities were transferred to fields in Texas and Louisiana. However, ground training for enlisted men was conducted at these fields, especially in the areas of aircraft maintenance and repair. Flight and ground training programs were just being regularized throughout the United States in1918 when the November armistice brought an end to hostilities in Europe. When the flying ended in Europe, the numbers of airmen and aircraft in the U. S. Air Service were quickly reduced. However, a few flying squadrons were assigned to these fields.

The squadrons assigned to Selfridge after the war included most of those assigned to the 1st Pursuit Group in France, including the famous 94th Aero Squadron, which had been commanded by American Ace pilot Eddie Rickenbacker, the 95th Aero Squadron, the 27th Aero Squadron, and the 147th Aero Squadron (later the 17th Aero Squadron). After their initial establishment at Selfridge in 1919, the squadrons of the 1st Pursuit Group were assigned to Kelly Field, Texas (near San Antonio), and then, in 1921, to Ellington Field, Texas (near Houston). While they were in Texas, the squadrons in the group conducted pursuit training, tested new aircraft, and participated in formation flights and mobilization tests; during this period, Selfridge Field was left with a caretaker contingent, as no active flying units were assigned there.

Then, in July, 1922, the 1st Pursuit Group was returned to Selfridge Field. In 1924, Major Carl (“Tooey”) Spaatz was assigned to Selfridge Field, where he was the commanding officer of the 1st Pursuit Group. One of the main activities of the squadrons was to practice firing on ground targets or targets placed on the surface of Lake St. Clair, which bordered the field on its north, east, and south sides. Unfortunately, however, there was very little ground area available for target practice, and the shipping, sightseeing, and fishing activities on Lake St. Clair were increasing significantly, so that regular use of segments of the lake for target practice was increasingly restricted, and the flying officers realized that they needed to locate another, more remote firing range, away from heavily traveled and populated areas.

In 1923, one of the flying officers assigned to Selfridge, Lieutenant Ennis Whitehead (later a general in the Air Force) struck up a friendship with the brother of an Oscoda banker; the men met while fishing on Lake St. Clair. The Oscoda banker extended an offer to Whitehead to visit Oscoda and fish in the Au Sable River, which emptied into Lake Huron between the villages of Oscoda and Au Sable, and on Van Ettan Lake, a large lake located five miles northwest of Oscoda. Whitehead accepted the offer, and when he visited Oscoda later that summer, he noticed that there was an extended, relatively open area immediately south of Van Ettan Lake. He reported back to his boss, Major Spaatz, that he had found a promising location on which he believed a flying field could be established. Spaatz (in those days he actually spelled his last name “Spatz”; later he added the second a to indicate the correct pronunciation—“spots,” not “spats”) and his second in command, Major Thomas Lanphier, visited Oscoda in July of that year and urged the citizens of Oscoda to join in a cooperative effort to make the field suitable for use by the Army Air Service.

The close proximity to fishing and other outdoor activities no doubt had a positive influence on the Air Service decision to establish a flying field at Oscoda. The local newspaper reported that when Spaatz and Lanphier visited, they “caught a mess of trout,” some of which were carried to Washington DC, where the Chief of the Air Service, General Mason Patrick, dined on trout caught in the Au Sable River. One newspaper account stated that

when the landing field was constructed at Oscoda, its use as a scene of military maneuvers was not in mind. Some of the fliers went trout fishing in the region a year ago, and remarked in the garage of Charles Hennigar, at Oscoda, that if a landing field were located nearby, it would be possible for fishermen to reach it from Selfridge Field by plane in from 60 to 90 minutes. A month later Hennigar sent the following telegram to Major Spaatz: “Come up and see your landing field.” (Times, 69)

The local citizens enthusiastically welcomed the idea of building an airfield for the Air Service, as a devastating fire had burned through the adjoining towns of Oscoda and Au Sable in 1911; Oscoda sat on the north side of the Au Sable River, and Au Sable sat on the south side of the River. The fire effectively destroyed the businesses and industries of both towns (mostly moribund logging efforts), reduced the population, and generally plunged both towns into financially distressed conditions. A group of local citizens, including Nada P. Mills, James Hull, Joseph Amley, Charles Hennigar, Warren (“Win”) Vaughan, Charles and John Flanders, and Judge Alfred Weir, raised the necessary money, and the land, eighty acres of jackpine-covered land on the south side of Van Ettan Lake, began to be cleared (Times to Remember, p. 65, 69).

The name given to the field initially was the Loud-Reames Aviation Field in honor of two local fliers, Harold Loud and Walter Reames, who died in separate flying incidents during and after World War I. Harold Loud, grandson of one of the local lumbering entrepreneurs, Henry Martyn Loud, had joined the Air Service during World War I and had been killed flying in combat in France in September, 1918. Walter Reames, whose family lived in the small community of Greenbush, fifteen miles north of Oscoda, died in 1921 while in training at a field in Texas (Times, 62-3).

In September of 1923, construction of an aerial gunnery range was begun on the west perimeter of the airfield. The local newspaper reported that “all pilots at Selfridge Field will have gunnery training at Oscoda” (Times, p. 67). In February 1924, the first effort at flying out of the airfield at Oscoda was attempted. “Tooey” Spaatz notified the local residents that some aircraft from Selfridge would be flying to Oscoda to try their luck at landing their small P-1 single-seat pursuit aircraft on skis rather than wheels. Perhaps because he had been credited with first establishing the Oscoda connection, Lieutenant Ennis Whitehead had the honor of being the first to land on the ice-covered surface of Van Ettan on skis, on 21 February. He safely departed the next day, but not after encountering some difficulty starting his engine in below freezing conditions.

Gunnery Practice and Cold Weather Activities

Because Selfridge Field was at that time the northernmost field operated by the U. S. Army’s Air Service, the units assigned to Selfridge were tasked with the challenge of demonstrating the capability of operating in cold-weather conditions. Not only were they challenged to maintain operations in the winter weather, they were given the additional duty of testing their aircraft and other flying equipment in the coldest months of the year. During the winter months the frozen surface of Van Ettan Lake served as the landing field rather than the snow-covered surface of the Loud-Reames Field. The south shore of Van Ettan Lake was located less than an eighth of a mile from the northern border of the airfield, so logistical support (aviation gasoline, engine oil, and other supplies) could easily be provided from the meager facilities (initially a single wooden barracks building) which had been constructed the previous fall.

In May 1924, a group of men arrived and, under the direction of Lieutenant (later General) Robert Douglass, began work on clearing a landing area south of Van Ettan Lake. In addition to preparing a landing area, they established an area for firing at ground targets; they also dug a well and erected personnel tents and a mess tent (Wolf 4-5). Later that year, from June through July of 1924, fliers from Selfridge Field again visited the field at Oscoda, where they practiced aerial gunnery, bombing and shooting at targets tied to rafts on Lake Huron and Van Ettan Lake, as well as at targets on the airfield. In June 1924, while attending a dinner prepared by the citizens of Oscoda for the fliers who were conducting gunnery training at the Loud-Reames Field, Major Spaatz stated that thanks to a new gunsight devised by one of the unit’s pilots, Lieutenant Oliver Broberg, firing accuracy had improved significantly (Times, 69).

In July of 1924, fliers from Selfridge Field dropped bombs at a target raft placed in Lake Huron. Captain Burt Skeel and Lieutenants Moffat and Tourtellot dropped bombs near the raft on the first day, while Lieutenant Ennis Whitehead and Sergeants Wasser and Pomeroy successfully hit the raft on the following day (Times 70). In September of 1924, a new system of target practice was devised when pilots fired at smaller target planes released in the air over the lake, where the target planes were then recovered. A large twin-engine Martin bomber from Langley Field, Virginia, transported the target planes from Selfridge to Loud-Reames Field (Times 72).

On October 4th, 1924, one of the Selfridge Field fliers, Captain Burt Skeel, was killed when his aircraft crashed during a Pulitzer speed race at Wright Field, near Dayton, Ohio. Loud-Reames Field was unofficially renamed Camp Skeel in his memory later that year, although official approval of the name did not occur until 1931?.

In February of 1925, a Detroit reporter and aviation enthusiast, William Mara, accompanied a contingent of Selfridge Field aviators when they held a winter encampment on the frozen surface of Van Ettan Lake. Led by Major Thomas Lanphier, a group of thirteen pilots participated in flying activities in frigid conditions. The purpose of the activity was to demonstrate that the Air Service could operate in remote conditions without the direct assistance of army or navy support. As described by Mara, the fliers

established a camp and temporary airdrome on a frozen lake [Van Ettan Lake] ten miles from the nearest town [Oscoda]. With the assistance of three bombing planes they carried all of their men and supplies to a point 230 miles from Detroit by rail or automobile, and operated without any assistance other than their own for a week. . . . [The men made] various flights . . . to the Straits of Mackinac, which they reached in 55 minutes. There they met and defeated an imaginary fleet of enemy pursuit planes, bombed the straits to prevent troops from crossing on the ice, and held the territory until our own infantry could march up and occupy it. (Mara 7)

The engines of the aircraft, unprotected from the cold weather, were started by a combination of ether injected into the engines and blow torches applied to the exterior of the engines. On one afternoon, the men flew to Alpena, where they were hosted for a dinner by the American Legion. According to Mara,

The bombers and De Havilands were called into service and carried the mechanics, correspondents, and visitors. A temporary airdrome was established on the ice of Thunder Bay and the planes remained there overnight in a blizzard. Next morning 10 mechanics started the motors of 16 ships with 18 motors within 30 minutes and the group left on schedule time for the return journey to Camp Skeel. (Mara 8)

The Mayor of Detroit, John W. Smith, visited Camp Skeel on the first day of the encampment, flown up from Selfridge by Lieutenant Smith in one of the two-place aircraft supporting the operation. Although the Mayor’s nose was “slightly frostbitten” as a result of the flight, that discomfort did not prevent him from visiting the residence of fellow Detroiter Carl E. Schmidt, who owned extensive property along the borders of Cedar Lake, only about three miles distant from Camp Skeel. Schmidt, who had made a fortune as a merchant of furs in Detroit, owned a “palatial” home on his property, which he called Serradella Farm. As a result of Mayor Smith’s visit, Schmidt invited the Selfridge Field fliers to “partake of one of the finest dinners that mortal man has ever eaten,” as Mara described it (20). The fliers were also hosted at dinners held in Oscoda and East Tawas.

The pattern of the use of Camp Skeel as both a warm-weather gunnery field and a cold-weather test location, established by 1925, continued for the next fifteen years.

 

Sources:

Mary Jane Hennigar, “Our Base: Wurtsmith—The Early Years,” Times to Remember: Memories and Stories of Early Au Sable and Oscoda, Michigan (Oscoda: AuSable-Oscoda Historical Society), pp. 64-72.

Mary T. Wolf, Wurtsmith Air Force Base, 1924-1980, p. 8.  Unpublished (1980).  A draft copy prepared by Sergeant Mary Wolf, 379th Bomb Wing Historian.