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Library > Fact Sheets > Lajes Field History - The U.S. Enters the Azores


Posted 6/6/2006 Printable Fact Sheet

The British use of the Azores was only one half the contribution Lajes Field had during World War II. As early as May 1941, the U.S. recognized the importance of the Azores as a staging post for bombers and air transports to Europe. However, Portuguese neutrality prevented its use. After the British Forces arrived at Lajes Field, Portugal did grant permission for a handful of U.S. military advisors to give technical assistance to the British at Lajes Field.

On 1 December 1943, British and U.S. military representatives at Lajes Field signed a joint agreement outlining roles and responsibilities for U.S. military presence at Lajes Field. The plan set forth guidelines for U.S. ferried and transport aircraft to make a limited number of landings at Lajes Field. In return, the United States agreed to assist the British in improving and extending existing facilities at Lajes. On 9 December 1943, the first U.S. bomber, a B-17, was ferried through Lajes Field. As Portuguese approval looked imminent, the U.S. designated Lajes Field as Station Number 15 in the North Atlantic Wing.

Finally on the last day of 1943, Premier Salazar gave his consent to the arrangement with the understanding the Americans would be under British control. It has been stated that America came into the Azores "through the back door."

The first American unit, the 96th Naval Construction Battalion (a non-combatant force of 600 technicians) arrived at Angra Harbor on 9 January 1944 aboard the SS Abraham Lincoln. This unit was largely responsible for the development of the harbor basin in Praia, the unloading of vessels, the laying down of the gasoline pipeline in Praia Bay and the construction of two taxiways adjacent to the runway.

Eight days later, the 928th Engineer Regiment and 801st Engineer Battalion (U.S. Army) with 800 more personnel arrived aboard the SS John Clark with 4,064 tons of machinery and building material with the mission to "build an air base." In addition to construction of facilities, roads, a fuel tank farm, supplying water, and power plant generation, the army engineers constructed three paved runways in an "A" shaped form. One of these runways was over 10,000 feet long, the longest in the world at this time. On 24 January 1944, Colonel Albert D. Smith assumed command of all U.S. Army Forces in the Azores. Wind, rain, and mud -- common in the Azores in January -- severely tested the frail pup tents that were first used by the Navy men. The Army units then erected pyramidal tents, but these were replaced as rapidly as possible by Nissen huts and later by wooden structures.

The U.S. engineers could not have accomplished the amazing feat of building an air base without the help of the Portuguese. Portuguese workers worked side by side with U. S. engineers during the building of Lajes including the massive construction of the runways.

Transient aircraft through Lajes Field began immediately after the agreement was signed. In fact the first regularly scheduled cargo plane under Air Transport Command control to use Lajes Field carried five sets of pontoons, shipped at the urgent request of Lt. Gen. Mark Clark, Deputy Commander Allied Forces in North Africa, together with other cargo for the Mediterranean theater.

Air Transport Command traffic through Lajes Field increased from approximately 90 planes in January 1944 to more than 600 planes in June 1944. By the end of June 1944 more than 1,900 American aircraft had passed through this Azorean base. In order for aircraft to operate on schedule, a 45-minute period was the average time limit allowed to service the aircraft after landing at Lajes. Incoming planes were met and dispatched with as much haste as possible as American facilities for messing and billeting were not sufficient nor adequate during the early days of 1944. If mechanical trouble prevented planes from leaving on time, personnel were accommodated in tents in the British area. The crews usually preferred to sleep in their planes. This all changed by mid-to late-1944, when Army engineers completed messing and billeting facilities.

By using Lajes Field in the Azores it was possible to reduce flying time between the United States and North Africa from 70 hours to 40 hours. This considerable reduction in flying hours enabled aircraft to make almost twice as many crossings per month between the United States and North Africa and demonstrated clearly the geographic value of the Azores during World War II and throughout Lajes history.

From November 1943 to June 1945, 8,689 U.S. aircraft departed from Lajes including 1,200 B-17 and B-24 bomber aircraft being ferried across the Atlantic. Cargo aircraft flights carried vital personnel and equipment to North Africa, the United Kingdom and, after the allied gained a foothold on mainland Europe, to Orly Field near Paris. Flights returning from Europe carried wounded servicemen. Medical personnel at Lajes handled approximately 30,000 air evacuations en route to the United States for medical care and rehabilitation. The United States, however, needed a second base. Prior studies revealed Santa Maria Island as the best choice. President Salazar allowed the United States to construct a supplementary base on the island of Santa Maria.

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