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LAJES FIELD HISTORY - SANTA MARIA AND BEYOND|
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Even before the agreement for U.S. use of Lajes Field, military planners always had thought about another site in the Azores to construct an air base. One such site considered was Santa Maria Island. In June 1944, Premier Salazar granted the use of Santa Maria Island to US under the strictest secrecy. On 4 August 1944, the 1391st Army Air Force Base unit was activated at Santa Maria. Construction of what would become known as one of the best overseas facilities in Air Transport Command started in September 1944. A civilian construction company under direction of Army Corps of Engineers undertook what was called project 111. To uphold the base's secrecy and for diplomatic purposes Pan American Airlines fronted the construction of Santa Maria Air Base for the US Army Air Force. The base along with the three A shaped runways were completed on 15 May 1945. Movement of Air Transport Command operations to Santa Maria from Lajes Field commenced in April 1945.
On 16 April 1945, a new wing was created called the Central Atlantic Wing of the North Atlantic Division under Air Transport Command. Brig Gen. A. D. Smith became its commander. This Wing included all installations, bases and facilities used by Air Transport Command in the Azores. The 1391st Army Air Force Base Unit was discontinued and was redesignated as Headquarters, Central Atlantic Wing at Santa Maria Army Air Base. The new field replaced Lajes as the main base for passenger and cargo planes routed through the Azores, although U.S. operations at Lajes Field never ceased. Santa Maria's tactical value was limited because the war in Europe ended a week before the field was completed. However, operations began in time for the new base to play a highly important role in troop redeployment and the evacuation of wounded soldiers.
Green and White Project
The end of the war in Europe brought about a rapid demobilization of troops and equipment from Europe. With the war over, the post European operations mission of the two Azorean bases became known. Santa Maria would serve the enormous number of transport aircraft moving passengers and cargo back to the United States. The Green Project, as it was called, moved over 50,000 veterans of the war back home through Santa Maria. From May until September 1945, more than 7,000 C-54s transited through Santa Maria. Lajes, on the other hand, participated in the White Project servicing tactical aircraft from the European Theater to the Pacific Theater. Lajes set a record during the White Project when 600 U.S. aircraft landed in a single day.
The United States and the United Kingdom transferred control of both Lajes and Santa Maria bases to Portugal on 2 June 1946. The preliminary agreement between the U.S. and Portugal regarding bases in the Azores was terminated. The Portuguese resdesignated Lajes as Air Base 4 and assigned it to the air branch of the Portuguese army whereas Santa Maria was relinquished to civil control. However, talks between the U.S. and Portugal began about extending the American stay in the Azores.
It had become clear that U.S. flights across the Atlantic could not be abruptly halted. The decision was made by the Portuguese government on 10 July 1946 that if the Americans were to remain in the Azores it must be at Lajes Field. On 1 September 1946, the 1391st Army Air Force Base Unit and the Azores Base Command was transferred from Santa Maria Island to Lajes Field.
Nine days later a temporary agreement was reached between the U.S. and Portuguese governments giving the U.S. military rights to Lajes Field for an additional 18 months. In turn, the United States was required to maintain services and support operations at the base "in collaboration with and under the superintendence of the Portuguese authorities."
The relationship between the Portuguese and U.S. still exists today. Lajes Field remains Portuguese Air Base 4 under the direction of Headquarters Azores Air Zone commanded by Portuguese brigadeiro (equal to a U.S. two-star general). The U.S. military resides at Lajes under tenancy status. Although the Portuguese Air Force at Air Base 4 have a rich history conducting search and rescue missions, maritime patrol and medical evacuation, this history will focus on U.S. military activities at Lajes Field.
With the end of World War II, Germany was occupied by the four victorious allied powers. The city of Berlin also was divided, although it was 110 miles within the Soviet occupied area. Trying to force the Western Powers out of the city, the Soviet Union cut land routes between West Germany and Berlin. Two million West Berliners were cut off from supplies. On 26 June 1948, the U.S. and Britain began airlifting supplies to the city, beginning Operation Vittles. The operation lasted until 30 September 1949 when the Soviets reopened land routes. The Berlin Airlift became the largest humanitarian airlift in history and was a significant test for the young U.S. Air Force and the first major conflict of the cold war.
Although the Berlin Airlift is thought of as strictly a U.S. Forces in Europe operation, it was also a significant event for Lajes Field. Throughout Operation Vittles, C-47, DC-4 and C-54 aircraft transited Lajes Field en route to Germany. Lajes played one of the many supporting roles that lead to the success of the Berlin Airlift. More than 3,000 aircraft passed through Lajes during Operation Vittles. Lajes Field also supported Vittles personnel returning from airlift duties. Thousands were put up in base billeting and many base agencies were open 24 hours a day.
Perhaps one of Lajes Field's greatest contributions to the airlift was in maintenance and repair of Vittles aircraft. During the airlift, Lajes Field maintenance crews were often taxed with the task of keeping several C-47 and DC-4 aircraft flying. Maintenance crews were noted for quick turn-around of aircraft and in making repairs and obtaining parts. Lajes Field supported the airlift until its end in 1949. The station was never the same after.
At this time officials realized that Lajes was an important strategic link to counter Soviet aggression during the Cold War. This was seen in March 1949, when four KB-29 tankers staged from Lajes to refuel a B-50, (the Lucky Lady II) on the first non-stop around the world flight. Were the Berlin Airlift and the Lucky Lady II support a vision of the future use of Lajes Field? Major General Laurence S. Kuter, then commander of the Military Air Transport Service (MATS), thought so as he recommended open negotiations with Portugal for long-term rights to Lajes on 28 November 1949.
Expiration of the 1946 agreement was December 1949. General Kuter argued that by allowing the United States use of Lajes, Portugal would be contributing to the success of the North Atlantic Treaty Orgainization (NATO) of which Portugal was a founding member. During the negotiations, U.S. rights to facilities at Lajes were extended for two more years. Finally, on 6 September 1951, the Portuguese government announced in Lisbon a new treaty with the United States concerning use of the Azores based on NATO requirements. This 1951 treaty has been the foundation of all Lajes Field agreements since then.