Malmstrom’s history: how Great Falls got an Air Force Base

Posted at 3:38 PM, Oct 09, 2018
and last updated 2018-10-09 18:13:15-04

GREAT FALLS – Malmstrom Air Force Base has been a cornerstone in Great Falls for decades.

Malmstrom Museum director Rob Turnbow said Malmstrom’s history began in 1937.

“The civic leaders felt the need for a military presence here. Things were starting to heat up around the world so they approached the Airport Commission,” Turnbow said.

It was not until 1939 that the commission determined that it was a good idea. Then, Montana’s senators became involved. Two years later in 1941, the Engineering Corps visited Great Falls to survey two plots of land for a military base.

“But in 1942, that is when the Army Air Corps decided they were going to actually put a base in,” Turnbow said. “They broke ground for the Great Falls Army Air Base in May of 1942.”

And over the next six months, contractors broke records while building the military base on the east side of Great Falls although many training bases during that time were being built in six months.

“The first mission of the base was only going to be a yearlong. It was a one-year long training mission,” Turnbow said.

The mission was for B-17 training before crews headed to North Africa and Europe in support of World War II.

What made the mission unique, however, is the Army Air Corps built three auxiliary bases to help support the B-17 training mission.

“The wing and groups were going to be headquartered here at the Great Falls Army Air Base. Then they were going to be a squadron at each location: here, Cut Bank, Glasgow, and Lewistown all had Army airfields,” Turnbow said.

This would help simulate conditions that airmen would face in North Africa and Europe.

There was also a secret mission happening at the same time and it was known as the Soviet Lend-Lease Program. Turnbow said the mission did not stay secret for long.

“That was receiving aircraft from manufacturing places around the U.S., where Rosie the Riveters were getting them all assembled. Then they were getting ferried in here by civil service female pilots, we know as Woman Air Service Pilots or WASP,” Turnbow said.

Their mission was based at Gore Field, the Civic Center, and Montana ExpoPark. But soon they would move their mission to the east side of town.

“When our training mission wound down, they decided that since this was a bigger base and we had room to expand, they could start transferring operations out here. From 1942 to 1945, over 8,600 aircraft came through Great Falls, Montana to go through the Soviets,” Turnbow said.

In 1947, the base broke off and became a part of the United States Air Force and was renamed to Great Falls Air Base.

The base would be re-named a few short years later in honor of a colonel who died in a plane crash.

“In October of 1955, it was officially renamed Malmstrom Air Force Base, after Colonel Einar Axel Malmstrom,” Turnbow said.

Then in 1959, Malmstrom was selected to be the first Air Force base to receive Minuteman missiles in the United States.

But it would be another four years of research and development before the first missile went on alert.

“26th of October of 1962, the first Minuteman missile went on alert in the world in the United States right here in Montana at the Alpha Six site,” Turnbow said.

President John Kennedy credited Malmstrom Air Force Base with helping end the Cuban Missile Crisis due to his “Ace in the Hole.”

Throughout the years, the base has seen several missions come and go.

“It is a very quiet Air Force base in respect to most. We have a mission that only three other bases in the entire Air Force can do. It still requires a lot of people to do that job and it is an extremely important job,” Turnbow said.

Reporting by Margaret DeMarco for MTN News