Oregon’s Naval Activity
The US Navy was very active in Oregon during WWII. Three Naval Air Stations, a blimp base, and the US Navy Armed Guard were important aspects of our defense of the Northwest Coast.
Prior to World War II, Tongue Point Naval Air Station (NAS), Astoria, was established primarily as a seaplane training base. PBY (patrol bomber) Catalina flying boats conducted coastal patrols. The facility was also a site for pre-commissioning and commissioning Liberty Ships and escort aircraft carriers or “baby” flattops of the classification CVE, built in Portland-Vancouver area shipyards. Naval ships were taken to the Astoria Naval Base, where they were readied for acceptance and commissioned as the latest addition to the U.S. Navy fleets. “Plank owners”, original crew members of a ship being commissioned, would join their ships in Astoria. From August 1943 to July 1944, nearly one escort carrier a week was commissioned at Astoria. One carrier, the U.S.S. St. Lo (CVE-63) was the first ship ever sunk by a kamikaze (Battle for Leyte Gulf). After World War II, the NAS was converted into a Ready Reserve site.
Klamath Naval Air Station: In 1942, Klamath Falls Airport became a Naval Air Station; it was transferred back to civilian use in 1945.
Tillamook Naval Air Station
Blimp bases were established around the U.S. perimeter. Primary mission was reconnaissance, to look for enemy ships and submarines. Tillamook’s location was chosen because it was sheltered by surrounding hills, near to the Columbia River and Pacific Ocean, and the northern-most site in which snow and icy conditions were not a hazard.
NAS Tillamook, commissioned 12/1/42, occupied 1,765 acres; the blimp base, an additional 200 acres. Wood and concrete were the basic construction materials for Hangars B (first completion) and A because of the lack of steel; they were the world’s largest wooden clearspan structures. K-class non-rigid airships (blimp class) housed at the base could hover and operate at low altitudes and slow speeds, thus detecting numerous enemy submarines as well as assisting in search and rescue missions. Crews of 8-10 were armed with depth chargers and 50-caliber machine guns. The techniques for air-sea rescue were developed at Tillamook Naval Air Station. Squadrons of FM-2's used the Naval Air Station Tillamook (NAST) as a refueling and re-arming facility. The first blimp, K-31, arrived before construction was complete; while temporarily tethered outside for about 2 months, a strong gale tore it from the tether and destroyed it.
Blimps housed at the Tillamook base patrolled and defended ship lanes from California to the San Juan Islands; they were supplemented by squadrons of fixed-wing aircraft. Blimps could stay aloft approximately 48 hours, cruising at 50 – 67 knots. One blimp was assigned to intercept and destroy balloon-delivered, Japanese-launched incendiary bombs. The non-rigid blimps, affectionately called ‘poopey bags’, were very reliable, rarely needing repairs; and Tillamook was rated as an excellent blimp station and airfield. In 1945, the blimp base was reduced to functional status; two months later, the last two remaining blimps were moved to Moffett Field. NAS Tillamook became a repository for surplus aircraft.
US Navy Armed Guard
WWII's 'unsung service' was the US Navy Armed Guard, the unit charged with defending all armed merchant vessels, in virtually every WWII theater. Size of Armed Guards units was determined by ship size; they served alongside the Merchant Marines on many ships built in Portland-area shipyards. In 1996, there were 108 members of the Armed Guard in the Portland area.
The ships built or commissioned in Oregon carried cargo, moved troops, attacked with their planes, and dropped their bombs or torpedoes in a contribution to end the war. Oregon sailors fought and died, at least 15 at Pearl Harbor; Navy ships were named for 12 of them. U.S. Navy ships with Oregon names, such as the U.S.S. Astoria, fought the enemy to their very end. Oregon’s contribution to the war was inextricably tied to the U.S. Navy.