Reactivating a closed base was a big job for these Pennsylvania veterans

It was January 1951, and war was raging on the Korean Peninsula. North Korean forces were threatening South Korea, and Americans everywhere were concerned about Communist aggression.

To ramp up American defenses, the Pennsylvania Air National Guard’s 148th Fighter Interceptor Squadron at Reading Airport was ordered to active duty Feb. 1 with orders to reopen Dover Air Force Base. They knew they’d be gone almost two years, but their efforts turned a run-down, mosquito-ridden backwater of an airfield into one of the busiest military bases in the world.

Just a lot of old buildings’

“We walked into a bare base,” the late Col. George Spuhler recalled during a 2013 interview. “They had a holding detachment there, run by a second lieutenant with about 13 enlisted men.

“They were there pretty much there just to keep the base warm, so to speak.”

Like many military posts at the end of World War II, what then was known as Dover Army Air Field had been inactivated, supposedly on a temporary basis. By 1951, the officer in charge was Lt. (later Brig. Gen.) Francis A. “Pat” Humphrey who had been transferred from New Castle Air Force Base.

Evelyn Short, of the nearby town of Milford, married Humphreys while he was stationed at Dover. One of the civilian women employed at the base, she remembered it as a collection of motley wooden and concrete block structures.

“Everything that was there had been left over from World War II. There were just a lot of old buildings,” she said.

But others saw greatness in Dover’s future. U.S. Sen. J. Allen Frear, long known as a defense hawk, reported the base “was to become an important military installation for the defense of the Middle Atlantic area.”

However, news of the pending reactivation was met with some concern on the part of local officials.

Dover City Manager Owen B. Agner worried there would not be enough housing for the troops and their families. Dover’s city council acted quickly, passing a resolution beseeching landlords to practice “restraint and moderation” when setting property rental prices.

Land owners were asked to “take no advantage” of the overcrowded housing conditions in the city when renting to airmen, and were asked to keep rental prices “at the lowest possible level.”

During their first month, officers and enlisted men alike underwent hours of ground training. Pilots honed their flying skills as often as the winter weather permitted, but found time in the training simulator limited because of a lack of heat in the training building. Flying also suffered because of a lack of spares for the Mustangs. During the first month at Dover, only 72 percent of the unit’s aircraft were considered airworthy.

One stove in the barracks

The unit housed its aircraft in Hangar 1301, now the Air Mobility Command Museum, which had been used during World War II as a top-secret rocket research facility.

Enlisted personnel and officers lived only a short distance from the hangar, retired Master Sgt. John S. Brown Jr. said when he was interviewed in 2013.

“Our barracks was right near the hangar,” he said. “You could walk there to work from the barracks.”

Like the men, officers lived in open bays with a pot-bellied stove at one end.

“That stove was there, supposedly to heat the whole barracks,” Spuhler said, “but it didn’t really do the job.”

The move to Delaware was somewhat jarring to the men of the 148th. Although Dover was the state capital, it was a languid little town with a population of about 6,000 souls. The area was flat, totally unlike the rolling hills around Reading, which was a bustling town of more than 100,000.

Other than the American Legion hall just north of the base, there was nothing but farmland between the base and the city.

“Dover hasn’t too much to offer the airman in the way of relaxation and good food,” noted the unit history.

Because the 148th’s mission was defense of the eastern seaboard, the unit kept two aircraft on runway alert at all times. Pilots stayed with their airplanes while support personnel were stationed nearby.

“You never knew when the alert would sound,” Brown said. “We had five minutes to get the airplanes into the air, although we’d usually do it in three or four minutes. We’d strap the pilots in; they’d start, you’d get the chocks and off they’d go.”

As uncomfortable as conditions were, things got worse as the weather warmed up. During summer rains, many of the base’s unpaved roads quickly turned into a morass of mud. Airmen used boardwalks to get from place to place but sometimes were forced to walk through the muck.

In October 1951, Congress approved a $26 million expansion project that marked the beginning of the base’s current status as a trans-Atlantic air terminal. The money was earmarked for utilities, storage construction, road paving and refueling facilities. Barracks space, housing for bachelor officers and money for lengthening Dover’s runways also was included. Dover also was chosen as a cargo transfer site because it was near East Coast seaports, it was as close as possible to the European theater it would serve, and it was far enough south to avoid shutdowns because of winter snowstorms.

In the meantime, the 148th gave up its propeller-driven Mustangs, trading them in for the jet-powered F-84C Thunderjet, which soon gave way to the F-94B Starfire.

‘We did a good job’

Its 21-month tour of duty concluded, the 148th FIS returned to Reading in November 1952. It was succeeded by other fighter units, which maintained the base’s round-the-clock interceptor mission until January 1973, when the last unit was deactivated.

The men of the 148th were extremely proud of their time at Dover and of their role in turning it into what is now the largest military air terminal in the Air Force.

“My most vivid memory is of turning that base around, that we walked into a bare base and got it up to Air Force standards,” Spuhler said. “We worked a lot of long hours, but we did a good job, taking a bunch of buildings scattered all over the place, modifying them to our needs and turning it into a functioning Air Force base.”