By U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class John Tomlinson – Retired
Situated across the Columbia River from Portland, Oregon is the much smaller, humbler city of Vancouver, Washington. It is a town of no particular modern significance, even though it has a port, extensive rail yards and pleasant suburbs. But Vancouver’s biggest impact on the history of the Pacific Northwest has been its military role, which began in 1849 when the U.S. Army established its presence there at Vancouver Barracks following the 1846 division of the Oregon Country. This singular event opened the way for the beginning of American settlement on the West Coast.
Originally, Vancouver Barracks had been the site occupied by Fort Vancouver, a British fur-trading outpost of the Hudson’s Bay Company. It was established in 1825 when the United States and the British government agreed to share the Oregon country until they could determine a territorial boundary line. Fort Vancouver quickly established itself as the fur trading capital for the entire Pacific Coast until 1846, when the 49th parallel became the dividing line between Canada and the United States, at which time the Hudson’s Bay Company moved its operations north to Vancouver, British Columbia.
In the meantime, American settlers had been arriving since the 1830’s, quickly populating the Oregon Country; hence the arrival of the U.S. Army and the establishment of Vancouver Barracks. The post eventually became the Army’s principal administrative center for the Pacific Northwest until World War I, after which it became an important recruitment and training center.
Over the years, many important and historic army officers were stationed at Vancouver Barracks, including Phillip Sheridan, Ulysses S. Grant, O.O. Howard, Omar Bradley and George C. Marshall.
General Marshall at Vancouver Barracks
George C. Marshall assumed command of Vancouver Barracks in 1936, and he served there through 1938, seeing the post through that period of the Great Depression when Fort Vancouver was among the many centers for President Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps. Marshall was later known as the great understated genius who oversaw the operation of both theaters of World War II, but during his time at Vancouver Barracks, he later said it was his favorite command of a long military career, referring to the pleasant climate and scenic setting of the post, with its old stands of trees and classically-situated views of Mount Hood from the parade ground.
Pearson Air Field
Adjacent to the Barracks is Pearson Field, which is the oldest continually operating airfield in the United States, dating from the first aerial crossing of the Columbia River in 1905 by the blimp, Gelatin, which landed at the polo grounds on the Barracks.
The airfield, named after local pilot Lieutenant Alexander Pearson who flew the first commissioned aerial survey of the Grand Canyon, is historic for a number of reasons. It was an early forest patrol base and the original west Coast airmail service stopped here. Also, Pacific Air transport and Varney Airlines used the field, and their cooperative effort led them to later merge to form United Air Lines.
An Unexpected Event at the Barracks
In 1937 Vancouver Barracks, Pearson Field, and General Marshall were to become the center of the world’s attention for an unexpected and unprecedented event that made aviation history. On June 20 of that year, a Soviet-built ANT-25 monoplane landed at Pearson Field, completing what was claimed to be the first airplane flight from the Soviet Union to the United States across the North Pole. The landing in Vancouver at the Barracks was a complete surprise, but the flight itself had been tracked for several days around the world, and news agencies were following the progress of a flight which was promoted as the first to cross the Polar Regions from Moscow to San Francisco.
Three Soviet flyers crewed the plane, pilot Valery Chkalov, co-pilot Georgy Baidukov and navigator Alexander Belyakov. They were all experienced cold-weather pilots, and each was a Hero of the Soviet Union, having been awarded the Order of Lenin for their achievement of a pioneering flight in the ANT-25 across the Soviet Union’s frozen Siberian provinces to the Soviet Pacific coast.
Their trans-polar flight began at Moscow’s Shchelkovo airport at dawn on Friday, June 17, 1937. Since it was the nature of the Soviet Union to be secretive and paranoid, officials made no announcement of the flight, and it was only when the flight had been underway for some time before news leaked out. Over the Polar Regions, the aircraft’s compass became inoperable, and the crew was forced to employ dead reckoning and a solar heading indicator, with corrections made by regular sun and star observations.
Frequent storms, strong headwinds and dangerous icing slowed the aircraft’s progress and consumed fuel at an alarming rate, and the crew’s oxygen supplies were stretched to the limit. Engine coolant for the ANT-25 froze up, as did the crew’s supply of drinking water, so ultimately the only fluid that sustained the flight was the pilot’s own reservoirs of urine.
After crossing over the North Pole, the aircraft headed down over Canada, and eventually the Canadian Signal Corps picked up a radio signal. They forwarded word from the Russians that the flight would come down somewhere between Seattle and Oakland, California. South of Eugene, Oregon, the aircraft developed a problem with its fuel pump, so the crew turned back to Portland. Upon breaking the clouds over Portland’s Swan Island Airport, the crew was alarmed to see huge crowds surrounding the airfield, and aware of how unruly throngs had torn Charles Lindberg’s airplane apart in Paris, they decided instead to land at the military airfield marked on the map across the Columbia River.
Touching down at Pearson Field, only the regularly posted guards were on duty, because all the crowds were across the river in Portland. The three Russian aviators staggered out of the plane after having endured over 63hours in their cramped and cold aircraft and covering 5,288 miles from Moscow to Vancouver. Army personnel at the airfield were shocked to find an unexpected and potentially political situation on their hands, and General Marshall was immediately informed of the event. He drove straight across the post golf course to greet the Russians, and then he sequestered the fliers at his residence, away from the press and the curious public, awaiting word from higher command on how to best handle the affair diplomatically.
Relations at the time between the U.S. and Soviet Union were tenuous, because the U.S.S.R. was the world’s first communist nation, and the world looked at the fledgling nation suspiciously, well aware that the leaders of the new nation had murdered their king and his family and disposed of them in a swampy pit after destroying their bodies with acid. The nations of the world were shocked at the brutal crime and diplomatic relations were only beginning to warm up with the Soviets.
Because of Marshall’s deft handling of the unexpected arrival of the Soviets, President Roosevelt was impressed enough to later promote the General to Army Chief of Staff during the trying days of World War II, and he subsequently became Secretary of State under President Truman after masterfully architecting the famous Marshall Plan that rescued an economically devastated Europe.
Pearson Field is still an operating airfield to this day, and there is a prominent Chkalov monument on site to commemorate the historic trans-polar flight. Sadly, the U.S. Army pulled out of Vancouver Barracks several years ago after a continual presence there of over 150 years. The post is now privatized for commercial development, but all of the significant buildings remain, and the historic Army post is part of the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site.
We here at USA Military Medals salute the rich history of Vancouver Barracks and Pearson Field.