Ernest Harmon Air Force Base

Ernest Harmon Air Force Base

Infobox Military Structure
name= Ernest Harmon Air Force Base
location= Located Near Stephenville, Newfoundland and Labrador

caption= The Stephenville Airport, formerly Ernest Harmon AFB.
type= Air Force Base
used= 1941-1966

Ernest Harmon Air Force Base is a former United States Air Force base located in Stephenville, Newfoundland and Labrador. The base was built by the United States Army Air Forces in 1941 under the Destroyers for Bases deal with the United Kingdom. Following its closure in 1966, the base property was relinquished by the Government of the United States to the Crown, Her Majesty in Right of Canada, under the terms of the original deal. The Government of Canada subsequently transferred the base property to the Government of the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador, which established the Harmon Corporation to oversee the disposition and use of the base property and facilities.

The airfield is presently operated as the Stephenville Airport while many of the base's support buildings and housing have been incorporated into the town of Stephenville.

Construction and operation

During 1940, Germany was threatening the majority of Europe, as well as North America through its successful air, land and sea campaigns. The destructiveness of the Luftwaffe (air force) and Kriegsmarine (navy) in the Battle of Britain and Battle of the Atlantic alarmed military planners in the United States who theorized that the Nazis could in future establish a beachhead on the British colony of Newfoundland and the adjacent French islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon and use it for launching air attacks and eventually land and sea attacks on the industrial heartland of North America.

In 1940, the United States entered into the Destroyers for Bases deal with the government of the United Kingdom, allowing the US military to establish facilities in British colonies in the western hemisphere. The primary focus for North American defence from Nazi aggression was Newfoundland, which the United States sought to arm as a geographic buffer much as it was doing with its Alaska territory in the northwest.

The United States established an administrative army air force base named Fort Pepperell (no airfield) in St. John's, along with a deepwater naval base and naval aviation field at Argentia on the Avalon Peninsula. The northeast coast of Newfoundland and the strategically important Strait of Belle Isle were left exposed, therefore military planners sought to establish an army air force base on 8,159 acres (33 km²) of land at the northeast end of St. George's Bay near the coastal hamlet of Stephenville. The 76th Congress approved the 99 year lease and in April 1941, construction began on a deepwater port and adjacent air field.

The air force base was originally referred to as Stephenville Air Base. On September 1, 1943, the Newfoundland Base Command transferred control of the Stephenville Air Base to the North Atlantic Wing, Air Transport Command. The base was actively used throughout the war and was one of the largest U.S. military airfields located outside of the continental United States; it was capable of landing the largest cargo aircraft in the world at that time and the base became a frequent stopping and refueling point for USAAF aircraft crossing the Atlantic. Stephenville Air Base was renamed Ernest Harmon Air Force Base on June 23, 1948, in honor of Captain Ernest Emery Harmon. Capt. Harmon was a U.S. Army Air Corps ace who was killed in an air crash in 1933. The deepwater port which supported the base was named Port Harmon at this time.

Ernest Harmon AFB was transferred to Northeast Air Command in October, 1950. In April 1957 with the rising threat of nuclear war, the Strategic Air Command assumed control of the base for use as a forward refuelling point. Ernest Harmon AFB became home to a fleet of KC-97 Stratotankers which were kept on alert in order to meet and refuel nuclear armed B-52 bombers in the skies over western Newfoundland. The base also saw use as a refueling stop for transatlantic military flights and the base supported three Air Defense Command units. In 1957, the Canadian Department of Transport constructed an airport terminal to accommodate Trans Canada Airlines (now Air Canada) commercial flights; Ernest Harmon AFB being the only air field in western Newfoundland.

Cold War expansion and Road construction

The Cold War expansion of the base in the early 1950s coincided with the Korean War and the rise in nuclear tensions with the Soviet Union. The USAF sought to build more roads in the area to serve the base and nearby Pinetree Line early warning radar site and to patrol the immediate area for security; the roads would also act as a means of dispersing personnel in an emergency. One of the more important projects was a bypass road around the base, known as the Hanson Memorial Highway.

In 1953, the 347th (Engineer Aviation) battalion was assigned the immense task (along with 2,502 contractor personnel) of completing the 62 line construction projects at Ernest Harmon AFB. The base, situated on 8,159 acres (33 km²) of land at the northeast end of St. George's Bay was leased from the British government for 99 years in 1940 and closed down in 1966. Originally named Stephenville Air Base, it was renamed on June 23, 1941 in honor of Capt Ernest Harmon.

The construction projects consisted of: completion of major runways of up to 222,000 square yards (186,000 m²), taxiway and aprons of up to 421,000 square yards (352,000 m²), and bomber aprons of heavy duty pavement up to 351,000 square yards (293,000 m²), the runway complex was so large that the existing harbor facilities had to be demolished to give proper clearance for aircraft; construction of fighter aircraft hangars and three boat docks and dredging of the existing harbor, which, when completed was 8000 feet (2,400 m) long, 200 feet (60 m) wide, and 35 feet (10 m) deep; a flight control tower was built in September 1953 along with four petroleum tanks with a capacity of 25,000 to 125,000 barrels (4,000 to 20,000 m³) of fuel. The runway is now an auxiliary emergency runway for space shuttles.

Four hundred and forty-four 347th Engineers were already working on the base and were joined by the 750 engineers of their Battalion, who had left Florida and arrived at Harmon on June 23, 1953 to construct three of the projects: a bypass road Hanson Memorial Highway to prevent civilian access through the base (in progress since April, 1943), a base salvage yard, and a trailer park for Harmon personnel. The battalion was made up of four companies; three line companies and one H&S (Headquarters and Service) company. Company A was responsible for construction of the salvage yard and Company B and C were responsible for the construction of the bypass road with a budget of $583,000.

The salvage yard, which was situated near Noels Pond on 30 acres (121,000 m²), was finished to partial occupancy by the fall of 1954 and completed in 1955. Thirty Butler Buildings were located on the property. The machinery which constructed the bypass road was buried at the end of the property when it became over used and obsolete in 1959/1960, under the supervision of Warrant Officer Ebb Higdon, Company A. They were later dug up to be sold for scrap but were found to be useless and reburied. This equipment had come up from Florida in Liberty ships, with the battalion in 1953.

In 1986 when this information was made available to the town of Stephenville via a series of articles in the [ Georgian Newspaper] several doubters and curiosity seekers, armed with metal detectors, swarmed over the site and located the buried equipment. Company B and C began work on the bypass road by working towards each other. Company C, under the command of Capt. Claxton Ray began at the Stephenville side and worked towards Company B which began construction near Cormiers Village and worked in two directions towards Long Gull Pond and towards Stephenville. It was necessary to begin construction of the road at Cormiers Village and work back towards Stephenville pending the finalizing of property agreements. Company B was under the command of Captain Gomez. The H&S Company split operations equipment and men between the three Companies.

The eleven mile (18 km) long construction began with a line of corduroy roads comprising one half of the road and when Long Gull Pond was reached in the fall of 1954, the other half was constructed. The road followed the existing rail road line. It was necessary to build three access roads approximately two miles in length in order to facilitate construction of the bypass road. These roads were built to the same specifications as the bypass road as they were used constantly for heavy hauling. The concrete bridge over Cold Creek was built in 1954 and the 60 foot (20 m) concrete bridge over Warm Creek was programmed for completion in 1956. Not counting equipment, 90,000 cubic yards (70,000 m³) of fill. 30,000 cubic yards (20,000 m³) of crushed rock and 15,000 cubic yards (10,000 m³) of earth were used before the final 19 inches (0.5 m) of paving was laid down. Equipment and material were stored at the Gull Pond site. The bypass road was officially opened to the public in October 1957 and named The Hanson Memorial Highway. The third construction operation was cancelled.

The 347th (changed to the 823rd in 1954) Engineer Aviation Battalion was disbanded in 1960 and most of the men went back to the US. The two battalion commanders at the time were, Colonel Germain and Major Truet. The medical officer was V.H. Berry and the ground safety officer was Lt. Arthur Everitt. The general construction on the base (buildings, roads and runways) was done under the base supervision of Colonel Koski and Colonel Bailey. J.A. Jones held the construction contract from 1954 to 1959. From 1956 to 1959, Major Ray was the superintendent for the asphalt, rock crushing and concrete operations for J.A.Jones and was responsible for the construction of 200 on base houses, two seven-story barracks for 1500 airmen, additional runways and the Central Heating (steam) Plant. Colonel Koski died in 1989 and Lt. Colonel Ray died on New Year's Eve, 1989. The two barracks are now residences for the College of the North Atlantic and as a hotel in the off season.

Base facilities

Base schools

The first educational institution in the St. George's Bay area was established by the Roman Catholic Church. Bishop John T. Mullock established the first church at Sandy Point in 1848 when the population of the area numbered approximately 2,000. Local priest Father Sears established a church in the coastal community of Stephenville and by 1884 there were four Catholic schools in the parish. One at Sandy Point, one at the Highlands, one at Port aux Basques and one at Campbell's Creek.

Protestant schools were subsequently established in the St. George's Bay area as settlements grew. It should be noted that Newfoundland and Labrador maintained their separate denominational schools until the late 1990s. The huge influx of US military personnel and their families to the region required separate schools and a curriculum approved by the US Air Force. Such cultural and institutional changes were revolutionary for Newfoundland at that time, however the development of education facilities would take many years.

The first educational institution at Ernest Harmon AFB was an elementary school established in 1948 using a small clap-board building that housed 28 children and 3 teachers. The first high school graduating class (1957) matriculated in 1953 with all of the students beginning their educations at St. Stephens High School in Stephenville. A new elementary school was built near the base entrance in 1955 and was formally opened in May 1956 by former base commander, Colonel Richard Fellows and the school principal, Mr. Gerald Brennan. In 1956 there were 19 teachers and 62 children.

On September 4, 1956 the base high school officially opened in building number T-394, the old elementary school building. In 1958, the same year that Stephenville received its first traffic light and television celebrated its first birthday, Harmon High established its own newspaper, "The Harmon Highlight". In June 1960 the elementary school was located to a building with large play areas for the children. There were 29 elementary teachers and Mrs. Anna Barnett was the secretary. Joseph C. McCormack was the high school principal in 1961 and Mr. Harvey Bodiford was the superintendent of both Harmon and Goose Bay US military schools with his main office at Goose Bay.

In 1961 Cecil Haddox was promoted to superintendent of schools at Ernest Harmon AFB and he was also appointed principal of the junior-senior high schools. Mr. Haddox had previously taught at Pepperrell AFB from 1957-1960 before being transferred to Harmon that year. In 1961 several new programs were started due to his perseverance and the National Honor Society was formed as well as several new classes such as art, music and physical education.

The base's civilian dependent population continued to grow during the early 1960s and the schools expanded along with them. A new high school (now being used by Newfoundland and Labrador's community college, the College of the North Atlantic) was opened and in 1962/63, the high school teaching staff increased to 25 while the elementary-middle school staff of teachers jumped to 42.

By 1965/66, the last year of military operations at Ernest Harmon AFB, the total school population had now grown to over 1000 elementary students and 38 teachers and the high school had a population of 171 junior high and 235 high school students with 28 teachers. When the base closed in 1966, so did the school system, which had 1175 elementary students and 43 teachers and 405 junior and high school students and 26 teachers upon closure.

Extra curricular activities

S/Sgt. Jack Prekup formed the first Boy Scout troop on the base and had lots of priority events because of the "brass" liking Scouting. Scouting was quite active in the elementary and high school levels. Trips were made to Corner Brook, Fox Lake, Indian Head, the Port au Port Peninsula, Kippens, the Humber River to fish for Atlantic Salmon, and other locations. Boy Scouts became Lone Scouts after leaving the base if they so desired, in other communities. Ed Zeidler and Sgt. Henry Erben were the last Scoutmasters. Sgt. Erben was the Troop 6 survival trainer and had worked with the first 7 US Astronauts in survival techniques.


Stephenville Air Base and later Ernest Harmon AFB was quite an isolated posting during its early years as a United States Army Air Forces and later United States Air Force base. Newfoundland itself was, and still is, considered isolated but during the 1940s and 1950s, when roads were virtually non-existent and surface travel was limited to the slow narrow-gauge passenger trains of the Newfoundland Railway, which linked to small coastal steamships or ferries to the mainland at North Sydney, Nova Scotia, the sense of isolation could prove overwhelming. In addition, the airfield's location at the head of St. George's Bay was one of the more geographically isolated parts of the island, being surrounded by the Long Range Mountains and the coastline of the island's west coast being dotted with tiny outports. In addition to USAAF/USAF aircraft, the only other option for travel was the railway and ferries/coasters, or exploring the limited local road network which stretched along the coast and into the uninhabited interior of the island.

Despite its early isolation, morale on the base was high. The base also precipitated an economic boom of sorts on Newfoundland's southwest coast during the 1940s. Corner Brook to the north had been considered the major population centre for the region, given its industrial base, harbour, and nearby recreational opportunities in the Humber Valley. With the investment of the USAAF in Stephenville, the St. George's Bay area began to flourish and grew rapidly. The village of Stephenville grew from a hamlet of several hundred people with no paved streets, side walks, water or sewage system in 1941 into a modern town of over 5,000 by the mid 1950s. By the time Ernest Harmon AFB closed in the mid-1960s, the town had more than doubled in size, partly as a result of the provincial government's forced resettlement policy toward residents of outports.

Recognizing the link between geographic and social isolation, the base command incorporated a number of recreational facilities into their programs and building projects, making Ernest Harmon AFB a leader of sorts among USAF facilities. By the mid-1950s, thousands of service men and their families were making use of these activities monthly. In the area of Hobby Shops there was space available for leather craft, ceramics, amateur radio, lapidary, woodworking, automotive shops, model airplanes and photo labs. Sports facilities and groups were set for softball, baseball, bowling, golf, picnicking, archery and guns. The Stephenville area was located near good hunting and fishing grounds, thus the base established a fishing lodge at Camp 33 with eight large cabins, a 40 man bunk house, along with a mess hall and kitchen. Camp 33 was owned by the Bowater Pulp and Paper Company which had a mill in Corner Brook, although the camp was leased to the base during the spring and summer months.

Along with outside activities a number of service clubs were built and the University of Maryland University College extension courses were set up for those wishing to continue their education while on the base. A local broadcasting station and commercial free radio station was in operation by the mid 50's with as many as six live shows a week being broadcast as well as live theater and plays being made available and a movie theater. A large gymnasium was built in 1956 with a seating capacity of 500, two squash courts and four wall courts. The base chapel accommodated up to 1500 worshippers of many religions and faiths per week. The library was also one of the most frequently used facilities with an average book lending rate of 1000 books every month. The most popular recreational feature of the entire base was the Base Theater which ran a new movie every night except Sundays and Mondays. There were four shows a day and a matinee on Saturdays.

Given its size and importance, as well as the large number of personnel assigned during the height of the Cold War in the 1950s, the base managed to attract many celebrities to visit and/or perform, including Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope. In the early years of the base, recreational activities off base, in the town of Stephenville were very limited and some were often restricted. In some of the pamphlets released by the base to its airmen, they went as far as giving the names of women and particular houses and taverns that no base personnel were to be in or near as well as rules about fraternizing with the local girls.

Base entrepreneurship and controversy

The Hanson Memorial Highway bypass project resulted in what has been referred to as the "Fight for Long Gull Pond". During the bypass road construction activities of 1953/54 the 347th Engineer Aviation Battalion used the beach area of Long Gull Pond as a storage yard for their equipment while the were building the road. The bypass road or Hanson Memorial Highway as it was later to be called, ran along the same route as the convert|7|mi|km|sing=on narrow gauge branch rail line from the base to the Newfoundland Railway main line at White's Siding, east of Stephenville Crossing.

In June 1953 one of the officers overseeing construction, Captain Claxton Ray, took it upon himself to discover the ownership of a tract of land encircling the head of the lake nearest the rail line. It was listed on their maps as being part of Reid Lot 21.

The only means of access to Long Gull Pond was by the military rail line from Ernest Harmon AFB to White's Siding, or by walking for five miles (8 km) through the rugged terrain. The construction of the bypass road continued through the summer of 1955 and there still was no evidence of the ownership history behind Reid Lot 21. The engineers had been dealing with the woods manager at Bowater's Pulp & Paper Limited, Mr Cyril Parsons, concerning land acquisition rights along the right of way of the bypass road. Major Ray (since promoted) was informed that Bowater owned the parcel of land in question and that they would entertain the idea of selling it for two purposes only: agriculture or tourist development.

On July 19, 1955 an application to purchase the 67 acre (271,000 m²) site was considered by Bowater and they informed the US military that the sale had been approved with one clause added " will be required to resell to the company the land which you are now acquiring at its original purchase price [$20 per acre (4,900/km²)] together with the cost of any improvements which you may have made, should you desire to sell the property within a period of ten years".

In 1956 Major Ray made preparations to be relieved from active duty with the engineers as of April 30. He returned to Stephenville as a civilian wishing to engage in private enterprise and drew up plans for a tourist development on the Long Gull Pond site. What he had proposed for the site was a 55 room hotel with motel units, a dining room, swimming pool, skating rink and services for hunters and fishermen on the four mile (6 km) long lake. Bowater leased 2,000 acres (8 km²) of surrounding land for the recreation venture, reserving the timber rights for themselves. Because the road construction was incomplete at this time and winter was setting in, the actual purchase transaction did not take place until May 16, 1957. The bypass road was still under construction and was not completed until the fall with opening ceremonies taking place in October.

During the summer of 1957, rumors were abounding in the town of Stephenville that an American had purchased property with a great potential to the area. The Western Star in Corner Brook had printed a report on a chamber of commerce meeting where it was proposed that since Stephenville had used the Long Gull Pond site for a park for many years, that it should be acquired for recreational purposes under the Provincial Parks Act before individuals gobbled it up for their own profits. Bowater was placed in an embarrassing position: they had sold Canadian land to a foreigner, before the local population realized they had lost a valuable piece of property.

Major Ray realized that Stephenville had neither the funds nor the coordinated efforts required to construct a park in the Long Gull Pond area. Stephenville had over $40,000 in water and sewage bills due at the time and these had not been collected. The town (outside the base) had only one paved street and the others were inadequately lighted, snow removal was inadequate during the winter, there was no water filtration plant at this time and the only local police force was a local RCMP detachment. With all this in mind, Major Ray made an announcement in The Western Star(reference cited) on August 20, 1958:

:"I find it most strange that the Stephenville Town Council is seeking to acquire control of my property along Long Gull Pond, off Hansen Memorial Highway, in order to operate a public park several miles from its legal boundaries. In recent months the Council and the Department of Mines and Resources, has requested me to sell my property to establish a so called 'provincial town park'. In each of the three letters offering to buy the property a ridiculously low price is used. The only organizations which have publicly declared themselves are the Town Council and the Stephenville Lions Club."

:"It is most difficult to understand why I am being victimized, and current activities have every mark of an organized group attempting to overthrow the rights of an individual... After I had recognized the value of the property, and spent over a year developing it, clearing building sites, fencing it, then and only then, did others come forward and attempt to acquire it. If a town park is needed miles from the center of Stephenville, why did the council wait so long?"

:"I am convinced, and sources of other people agree with me that a tourist resort will be of far more benefit to the St. Georges- Port au Port districts than a public park operated by a town council whose reputation as able administrators must obviously be in doubt when it acknowledges tax arrears of $40,000 or more..."

:"At the best of times an individual is hard pressed to maintain his rights in the face of constituted authority, no matter how honest or sincere such an authority is in its actions. It is for this reason that we have laws to protect individuals and minority groups. My position is even more vulnerable to attack since I am an American-born citizen who is seeking a new career in Canada as a Canadian Immigrant. I can still be called a foreigner although I have permanent establishments, business and property investments in Newfoundland."

:"Three organizations are involved in trying to force me off land I legally own — Stephenville Town Council: Stephenville Chamber of Commerce: and Stephenville Lions Club. It was the Chamber of Commerce in 1957 that called for the setting up of a civic park at Long Gull Pond. It is a whisper campaign, to make people believe I am standing in the way of progress, that I am stubbornly refusing to sell my land thus robbing the people of the west coast their own born-right to boil the kettle on their chosen spot of summer scenery. This argument is full of holes. Firstly, I have stated publicly that a first rate section of my land including frontage along the beach of the pond has been reserved and placed solely at the disposal of all comers without cost. I have offered to make such an arrangement permanent by entering into a proper contract with the appropriate authority. This fact, plus the fact that land is still available elsewhere on the pond, shows that more than just a park is involved."

:"I have spent thousands of dollars on plans, clearing, materials and construction of a tourist resort under the regulations of the Newfoundland Tourist Development Board in order to provide a much needed attraction for this area. Clearly, It should be supported by the general public who should see that the individual does not suffer in false progress."

In the Fall of 1958, Mr. W.J. Keough, Minister of Mines and Resources stated that there was no chance, at the present time for the provincial or municipal governments to purchase any property near Stephenville for a park. The Indian Head Rod and Gun Club went ahead that same year with construction of buildings on property bordering Major Ray's, which they had leased from Bowater.

The controversy died after Major Ray didn't develop the Bowater-leased property on the lake as a resort, instead allowing public access to the property until it was sold to the Indian Head Rod and Gun Club in 1987. Ray had turned his efforts to other ventures and in August 1953 he had received permission from the United States and Canadian governments and the town of Stephenville to construct and operate a trailer park as off-base housing for Ernest Harmon AFB servicemen. He built and serviced 46, 28 by 60 foot (9 by 18 m) lots on three acres (12,000 m²) of land along Queen St. In 1956, Ray, along with Telesphore White, created another 50 lots on three and one half acres (14,000 m²). Mr White bought the property in 1965 for $20,000. In 1956, Ray began the first coin-operated laundromat and dry cleaners in Newfoundland (one of only five in Canada at the time), as well as a flower shop. He lived on the base until 1960 and raised a family with his wife, Gay, a teacher at the Harmon Elementary School. The flower shop on the base was situated next to the tailor shop run by Moe and Rita Clayman. When the Ray's moved off the base in 1965, to Woodstock, Ontario, the Claymans had become such good friends with the Ray's that they moved to Woodstock and set up a tailor shop there the next year.

Archives information

Records in possession of the author of this article, pertaining to: Lt. Colonel Claxton Ray (1916–1989) are now located in the Centre for Newfoundland Studies archives at Memorial University, St. John's, Newfoundland. A microfilm reel is available with all the archival material mentioned.

These records contain information pertaining to the following: Clay County Alabama (Ashland, Alabama, Lineville, Alabama and environs): where he was born, raised, attended high school, married and raised a family. Georgia Tech: where he attended before entering the US Army. Reverend and Mrs. S.C. Ray of Clay County Alabama: Manuscripts and correspondence related to his book: Some Thoughts on the Bible as the Word of God.

Letters. World War II records: 360th Engineers, 1053rd Port Construction & Repair, personal correspondence, diaries and manuscripts. Korean War records: [ 809th Engineer Aviation Battalion] . Ernest Harmon Air Force Base, Stephenville Newfoundland: 1953–1965. 347th/823rd Engineer Aviation Battalion. Military, business, educational and personal records. Additional records are kept at the Scott Library Archives, York University, North York Ontario as part of my archival collection. Woodstock Ontario: 1965–1989. Correspondence and records pertaining to family and business.

Legal Status

Newfoundland and Labrador was admitted to Canadian Confederation in 1949, but the agreement enabling the creation of the base was with the UK government and the base remained within Newfoundland and Labrador. The base became a "de facto" enclave of United States territory within Canada, because United States military personnel stationed at the base were subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, part of United States law.

ee also

*Fort Pepperrell
* Eastern Air Defense Force (Air Defense Command)



External links

* [ Town of Stephenville]

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