Driving into Millville Airport, currently a general aviation facility in Southern New Jersey, is like entering a World War II time portal: several cinder block buildings and barracks, characteristic of the war, stand eerily silent and vacated, as if the area had once provided the stage for some vast performance, but its players had long since departed. The runways still routinely field take offs and landings, but mostly of single-engined Cessnas and Pipers. Yet, the location had been an integral part of World War II and therefore remains historically significant.
Sparked, like numerous war-necessitated air fields, by the prospectively destructive capability of the advancing airplane design, as evidenced by German and Japanese combat missions in Europe and Asia, it had been one of 900 defense airports ordered by the US government to be strategically located round the country in order to be immediately convertible from civilian to military application and to train counterforces in the event of war. Unlike the others, however, Millville Army Air Field had been the first one and therefore had been dedicated as “America’s first defense airport” by local, state, and federal officials when it had opened on August 2, 1941 amid a 10,000-strong ceremony.
Still in a spartanly constructive state, it had only featured a few runways from which civilian aircraft operations had been conducted, but the December 7, 1941 Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii had rapidly ignited its transition to military status, the 56th Fighter Squadron of the 33rd Fighter Group temporarily relocating from Philadelphia Municipal Airport for a three-week period to commence Curtiss P-40 Warhawk training, at a still nascent facility only able to accommodate its crews in tents.
One of World War II’s most effective fighter-bombers, the aircraft, based upon the P-36, had been intended as a modernized successor which had initially appeared with a 12-cylinder, V, inline, liquid-cooled Allison V-1720 piston engine, but high-altitude operations had quickly dictated the need for the gear-driven, supercharger-equipped V-1710 version. Although the Army Air Corps had hitherto used its fighters for coastal defense and ground attack missions, it had nevertheless evaluated the aircraft because of its superior performance, the prototype, a converted P-36A airframe redesignated XP-40, first flying on October 14, 1938 with the modified powerplant.
The low-wing monoplane, powered by the single, 1,160-shp Allison V-1710-19 engine and equipped with two 0.50-inch Colt-Browning M2 guns in its wings, had been flown by a single, canopy cockpit-accommodated pilot and could climb at 3,080 feet-per-minute, attaining 342-mph speeds. Featuring a 6,787-pound gross weight, it had a 950-mile range.
The initial contract, for 524 Curitiss P-40 Warhawks, had been made by the US War Department on April 26, 1939, and the Eighth Pursuit Group, based at Langley Field in Virginia, had been the first to transition to the type.
Production, which had subsequently included progressively higher gross weight variants with upgraded engines and increased armament and protection, had ceased in December of 1944, at which time 13,738 P-40s had been made.
The type, however, had only provided interim equipment at Millville Army Air Field, which itself had virtually blossomed from the ground: sporting a “mini-city” of permanent, cinder block structures by September of 1942 and a fleet of convoy trucks from Langley the following January, it had featured full-scale mock-ups of trucks, trains, tanks, ships, and bridges south of it for aerial target practice.
The 58th Fighter Group, the first unit to have been based there, had quickly discovered that the newly-acquired P-40s had been incompatible with northeast winder conditions and the type had been replaced by the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt when the 353rd Fighter Group had relocated to the New Jersey base. The aircraft was soon to become synonymous with Millville.
Succeeding the Seversky P-35, it had been the result of Army Air Corps requirements, which had included a 400-mph airspeed, a 25,000-foot service ceiling, at least six.50-caliber machine guns, armor plating protection, self-sealing fuel tanks, and a minimum fuel capacity of 315 gallons.
Designed round the new 18-cylinder, two-row, 2,000-hp Pratt and Whitney Double Wasp XR-2800-21 radial engine, then the largest, most powerful of its type, it had been intended to offer ultimate, high-altitude performance partly attained by its tail-installed turbo-supercharger, which had considerably increased its power production in rarefied air.
The XP-47B prototype, for which a contract had been awarded on September 6, 1940, had first taken to the skies the following May and orders for 171 P-47Bs and 602 P-47Cs had been subsequently placed, the latter of which had featured external, range-increasing fuel tanks and a longer fuselage to improve maneuverability.
The P-47D, numerically the most popular version, had had a 36-foot, 1.75-inch overall length and a 40-foot, 9.75-inch wingspan which had resulted in a 300-square-foot area. Powered by the 2,000-hp Pratt and Whitney turbo-supercharged R-2800-63 piston engine, whose four-bladed, 12-foot-diameter propeller could only be given sufficient ground clearance with a nine-inch telescoping, retractable main landing gear, the 19,400-pound aircraft, armed with eight.50-caliber, wing-mounted machine guns and 2,500 pounds of bombs, could cruise at 428 mph at 30,000 feet, yet attain 42,000-foot maximum ceilings. Range had peaked at 1,700 miles.
The Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, which had dwarfed all other aircraft, had been the world’s largest, heaviest, single-engine, single-seat strategic World War II fighter, offering unequaled dive speeds.
First entering service with the USAAF in 1942, the type had been deployed in the European theatre the following April, initially performing high-altitude escort and flight sweep missions in skies whose only other counterpart had been the single-pilot, radial-engined Focke-Wulf Fw-190A. The aircraft appeared in the Pacific theatre two months later, in June.
The final version, the P-47N intended for long-range bomber escort sorties, had featured extended wings, an additional 100 gallons of fuel, and a 20,700-pound gross weight (or more than double the weight of the P-40s the type had replaced), and had been deployed in the Pacific late in the war.
The P-47 Thunderbolt which, with 15,579 built, had attained the highest production total of any previous US fighter, had flown more than 546,000 combat missions and destroyed some 11,874 enemy aircraft, 9,000 locomotives, and 6,000 armored vehicles and tanks between March of 1943 and August of 1945. The first piston aircraft to exceed 500 mph in airspeed capability, it could outdive any allied or enemy aircraft and is considered the forerunner of today’s multi-role fighter.
P-47 Thunderbolt pilot training at Millville Army Air Field had entailed two types of units. Operational Training Units (OTU), the first of these, had been created in accordance with Air Corps standards to prepare qualified pilots for newly-formed combat units or fill vacancies in existing ones. In 1939, the number of such authorized Air Corps groups had been expanded from 25 to 84, and the 33rd Pursuit Group, the first in the Millville area, had initiated an uninterrupted flow of combat unit-fed pilots to all four branches of service.
The Replacement Training Unit (RTU), the second of these, provided replacement pilots for those killed, captured, or returned after a 12-week curriculum taught at a Combat Crew Training Station. The 327th Fighter Group, located in Richmond, had been the first to transition to this status in the fall of 1943 when it had been directed to supply personnel to the 87th Fighter Group, whose 536th and 537th Fighter Squadrons had relocated to Millville the following January, bringing their P-47 Thunderbolt fleet with them. By April 10, 1944, all units had been amalgamated into the newly-created 135th AAF Base Unit and the advanced portion of the Replacement Training Unit had been taught at Millville, entailing navigation, formation flying, and aircraft recognition.
With the German and subsequent Japanese surrenders, World War II’s curtains had been effectively closed, obviating the need for Millville Army Air Field and resulting in its temporary closure in October of 1945. It became permanent the following month. Nevertheless, more than 10,000 men and women had served in both ground and flight operations capacities here, of which some 1,500 pilots had received advanced fighter training in Curtiss P-40 Warhawk and Republic P-47 Thunderbolt aircraft. Fourteen had perished during airborne training, along with another five enlisted men.
After the facility had been declared excess in 1946, its ownership had reverted to the City of Millville, and 128 of its buildings, attempting to alleviate the area’s housing shortage, had been concerted into 102 apartments. The 887-acre field, along with some 30 structures and ancillary equipment, had been sublimated to civilian use in June of the following year, at which time its gunnery range had been acquired by the state of New Jersey for hunting and its runways had been periodically used by nearby Naval Air Station Atlantic City Navy pilots for carrier landing practice.
A $2.5-million federal grant, received in 1974, had enabled the airport to draft a master plan, entailing runway repaving, taxiway construction, and field lighting installation, and a subsequent rezoning, occurring a decade later, had enabled it to create a 100-acre Airport Industrial Park.
The current, 923-acre Millville Municipal Airport, New Jersey’s second-largest general aviation field, sports an instrument landing system (ILS) and an FAA Flight Service Station (FSS), the City of Millville leasing its administration to the Delaware River and Bay Authority.
Today, the airport echoes of its World War II role. Of the 100 buildings occupying the site during the four years between 1941 and 1945, 20 remain and constitute the world’s largest collection of original, war-era structures, and the preservation, of the core acreage, two hangars, and 18 buildings, has been ensured by their inclusion on the New Jersey and National Registry of Historic Places.
The Henry H. Wyble Historic Research Library and Education Center, one of them, is located in one of the base’s original warehouses and sports an extensive, war-related book collection, videos, historic documents, and aircraft models, and serves as a large-screen theater. The facility, which opened in 2007, features two eight-by-ten foot, “faux,” partially-opened door murals painted by local artists on its façade.
The Link Trainer Building, hailing from 1942 and requiring two years of restoration, houses one of only five still-operational link trainers. Designed by Edwin Albert Link at his family’s organ-building business in Binghamton, New York, to provide instrument training to World War II pilots during poor visibility and night conditions, the device, borrowing the organ bellows to simulate climbs, descents, and banks, had accounted for 6,271 sales to the Army and 1,045 to the Navy and is presently available for visitor usage for a small fee.
A vintage aircraft collection, privately owned by Thomas Duffy and stored in one of the two historic hangars, includes the P-47 Thunderbolt “No Guts, No Glory,” one of only ten still-airworthy aircraft and the very type for which the air base had been created.
The original Pilot Ready Day Room, constructed in 1943, now houses the Ops-Air Crew Lounge of Big Sky Aviation.
Nucleus of the historic field, however, is the Millville Army Air Field Museum housed in the original Army Air Force World War II Gunnery School Administration Building used between 1943 and 1945 and restored in 1988. The museum, founded by Michael T. Stowe to preserve US military aviation history, mostly displays artifacts, equipment, photographs, and engines contributed by air base veterans.
A Pratt and Whitney Double Wasp twin-row radial engine, which had powered the P-47 based here along with several other Army and Navy designs, emphases the sheer power of this mighty engine and is a highlight of the displays. A ceiling light had measured cloud height, while a directional gyro had served as a pilot navigational training aid.
The metal, interlocking Mardson Mat, designed by the British, had facilitated take off and landing operations at ill-equipped locations. According to George Canning, a current Millville Army Air Field Museum affiliate who had enlisted in the Army Air Corps in December of 1941 and had served in the South Pacific, “it’s the best invention of the whole war. Put it together and you have an instant runway!”
The Philadelphia Seaplane Base Museum, founded in 1915 by the Robert Mills family and relocated to the current site in 2000, displays aeromarine wings, struts, and pontoons.
A Nordon bombsight, the mahogany nose of a Curtiss Flying Boat, an aircraft model collection in memory of Robert Wilinski, photographs, a uniform collection, and a typical Army barracks set up complete the internal displays, while two aircraft are featured outside. The first, an A-4F Skyhawk, had been assigned to Attack Squadron 192 aboard the aircraft carrier USS Orskary in 1968 during its Vietnam War combat tour, while the second is a Short Brothers SD3-30 named “Kwajalein Atoll.”
The paltry collection, according to museum Administrative Assistant Joyce Lazarcheck, is one of the museum’s deficiencies. “I would love to have more planes!” she had wished, and eagerly looked forward to the realization of that goal.
Aside from the exhibits, the museum fields World War II pilot reunions, films, school educational programs, aircraft fly-ins and air shows, and veterans’ events.
Millville Army Air Field, time portal to World War II and once a significant gunnery pilot training facility on the east coast with a fleet of P-47 Thunderbolts, is a living history experience which transcends the past and tells its story to the visitor in the present.