Buckley field in World War II: part I

  • Published
  • By Christopher McCune
  • 460th Space Wing Historian
On 14 June 1941, the US War Department designated Lowry Field’s auxiliary landing strip as Buckley Field. Named for 1st Lt John Harold Buckley, a pilot from Longmont who perished in World War I, the designation set the stage for the growth of Buckley into a technical and basic training center during World War II.

The story of Buckley Field begins in 1934 when the Army Air Corps’ leaders started looking for a replacement installation for Chanute Field in Illinois. Built in 1917 and converted into a training school for mechanics and aerial photographers in 1921, the schoolhouse’s facilities had grown increasingly dilapidated. It also lacked enough land for a suitable bombing range, which had grown into a significant need for the Air Corps as the concept of strategic daylight bombing became a core principle of its doctrine. A collection of Denver boosters, including Colorado Governor Edwin C. Johnson and the state’s Congressional delegation submitted a formal proposal in April 1934, and an Air Corps committee conducted a search of the Front Range the following month.

During their visit, the survey team became drawn to a site occupied by the Agnes Phipps Memorial Sanitorium, a former tuberculosis treatment center located near the Montclair neighborhood and Fairmount Cemetery that was owned by a former Carnegie steel magnate named Lawrence Phipps. Phipps had closed the sanitorium in 1932 and was looking to divest himself of the property. In March 1935, the Air Corps announced that Denver was the first choice to become home for the new base, and Denver voters quickly approved a $750,000 bond to purchase the 880-acre sanitorium site plus 960 surrounding acres, and an additional 64,000 acres (100 square miles) for a bombing range near the insallation. The Air Corps had investigated three sites for the range, including areas near Brush and Greeley, but ultimately decided on an area 25 miles southeast of Denver that included a 900-acre tract between Aurora and Watkins for use as an auxiliary landing strip. However, fierce opposition from Illinois’ congressional delegation prevented funding authorization from taking place, until a compromise was reached in August 1937 that allowed mechanic training to remain at Chanute while the new Denver airfield received the armament and photography schools. The Phipps site was quickly acquired and became known as Lowry Field in February 1938, after World War I pilot and Denver native 1 Lt. Francis B. Lowry.

Purchases for the bombing range and auxiliary field began in January 1938, and operations began there on a limited basis in March. Because bombers from Lowry could not carry live ordnance over Denver or Aurora, the field served as a loading area for the aircraft that was operated by a detachment from the 850th Ordnance Company. Facilities were extremely sparse, consisting of a guard shack, two dirt runways, three ordnance magazines, with some small living quarters and service facilities. Bombing operations were carried out to the southeast in an area that today roughly encompasses Jewell Avenue south to County Line Road, and Gun Club Road east to Arapahoe County Highway 129. Quincy Avenue, then known as Airport Road, served as the range’s main thoroughfare. For lack of a better name, the facility was known colloquially as “Lowry II” and referred to as such by the local press.

By 1941, activity at the auxiliary field had increased to the point that the War Department considered classifying it as a separate base, and on 14 June it was designated as Buckley Field in honor of 1 Lt John Harold Buckley. A native of Longmont, Colorado whose grandfather had helped found the city in 1871, Buckley was an honors graduate and a good athlete, playing basketball and serving as the captain of the track team. He enlisted in the Army Signal Corps as a pilot in April 1917 and was assigned to the 28th Aero Squadron in France in February 1918. On 27 September, during the Argonne offensive, he perished when his aircraft collided with another during takeoff maneuvers.

Following the entry of the United States into World War II in December 1941, Army Air Forces Technical Training Command notified Lowry Field officials that training operations for armorers needed to greatly expand in order to graduate over 20,000 students by January 1943. Buckley’s active airfield and wide-open land area provided an ideal training location to transfer the fighter armament school, and in January 1942 the War Department provided $7.5 million to transform it into a training base while the City of Denver donated an additional 1,250 acres on the east side of the auxiliary field. The school was officially activated on 1 April 1942, and classes began on 6 July following construction of barracks, administrative structures, and classroom facilities. Buckley’s training activities during the war will be covered in Part II next month.