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Military Presence at T.F. Green Airport

The military presence at Rhode Island T. F. Green International Airport began in August 1939 when the 152nd Observation Squadron, the first air unit of the Rhode Island National Guard, took over a portion of Hangar 1. The move created issues between the competing interests of civil and military operations regarding the allotment of limited space at the facility. State Director of Public Works Frederick W. Waterman recommended that the state build a separate National Guard hangar. The Division of State Airports stated that it was “absolutely necessary to immediately provide proper and adequate facilities for the military operation . . . Under present conditions any possibility of further expansion of civil aviation in the Port is stopped . . .” The Division of State Airports recommended that National Guard activities be restricted until the proper facilities could be made available.

The National Guard tenancy issue was addressed in July 1940 when President Roosevelt approved $344,011 in WPA funds for construction of a new hangar for the National Guard. Construction of the National Guard Hangar (Hangar 2) was expected to take less than six months; however, it did not begin until November 1940. During this time the airport was handling passenger flights for Southern New England Airways, Narragansett Aviation Service, Inc., E.W. Wiggins Airways, Inc., and Allen Airways. The increased volume of passenger traffic strained its capacity to the point where the 1933 Terminal Building had become inefficient and a new passenger terminal was needed. The 152nd Observation Squadron‘s occupation of Hangar 1 during construction of the National Guard hangar exacerbated the overcrowding and continued to be a source of aggravation for the civilian airport authorities. The issue was seemingly resolved in 1941 when the 152nd Observation Squadron transferred operations from Rhode Island T. F. Green International Airport to Fort Devens in central Massachusetts. Hangar 1 resumed its original intended role as a civil aviation facility, but only for a short time as the exigencies of war soon required an even larger military presence at T.F. Green.

Almost immediately after the United States entered into World War II in December 1941, the U.S. Army began taking over civilian airfields throughout the nation for training and aircraft ferrying missions. The U.S. Army Air Corps leased Rhode Island T. F. Green International Airport from the State of Rhode Island on April 1, 1942, and renamed the facility Hillsgrove Army Air Base. All unscheduled civilian aircraft were prohibited from flying in a zone around the airport on August 3, 1942. American Airlines was granted limited access to the airport for scheduled commercial flights, but all other civilian use was subject to military authorization.

The construction of the National Guard Hangar continued throughout the spring and summer of 1942. On October 11, the hangar was officially dedicated during a formal ceremony led by Governor J. Howard McGrath. It was named in honor of Lieutenant Gerald P. Kennedy, the first 152nd Observation Squadron member to be killed during the war. Kennedy‘s plane crashed during training exercises at Fort Devens.

Hangar 2 was similar to, but slightly larger than, Hangar 1, with a large hangar at the center, an administrative section on the south (runway) side, and long projecting shop wings on the north side. It was relatively unadorned compared to the adjacent Art Deco Hangar 1, but incorporated Art Moderne features including porthole windows, prominent vertical piers with rounded caps, and streamlined curved elements including entry awnings and observation deck railings. Throughout the war, Hangar 1 served as a support facility for military operations at the airport. Wartime improvements to the airport also included expansion of runways, taxiways, and the apron area. All three runways were lengthened by 1,000 feet, making them each 4,000 feet long. The expansion was made to the east and southeast on land acquired for the purpose by the State of Rhode Island in 1941. Two new 50 foot wide taxiways were built, with Taxiway 7 parallel to the northeast side of the southeast end of Runway 16/34, and Taxiway 6 on the north side of the east end of Runway 10/28. Taxiway 7 was later removed by construction of its replacement (the southeast end of Taxiway B). A section of Taxiway 6 survives as part of Hangar 2 cargo handling facilities. The terminal apron area was extended east, with 150 foot wide areas west, south and east of Hangar 2. Hangar 2 remains largely unaltered and is in use as an air cargo terminal today.

Hillsgrove Army Air Base served as a fighter pilot training base for the U.S. Army Air Force. From 1942 to early 1944 it was a transition base, where pilots received combat instruction after graduating from flight school, and refresher instructions were given to pilots returning from overseas. At Hillsgrove Army Air Base, pilots received training in flying in formation, aerobatics, celestial and instrument flying, navigation, gunnery, and scramble training. Hillsgrove was the training base for the U.S. Army Air Corps 325th Fighter Group, activated July 30, 1942, under the 15th Army Air Force. The unit reached its full quota size in April 1943, and was first stationed in Italy with the 15th Army Air Force. The 325th was composed of three squadrons—the 317th, 318th, and 319th, although the 318th operated out of Grenier Field, New Hampshire. The unit first flew Curtis P-40 Warhawks, then Republic P-47 Thunderbolts, and ultimately Lockheed P-51 Mustangs in many European theaters including Tunisia, Sicily, Naples-Foggia, Anzio, Rome-Arno, Normandy, Northern France, Southern France, North Apenines, Rhineland, Central Europe, and the Po Valley. Between April 1943 and May 1945, the 325th, known as the “Checkertail Clan” for their distinctive black-and-yellow tail identification paint scheme, amassed an impressive combat record, with 537 enemy aircraft confirmed destroyed, 60 possibles, and 89 damaged in the air, and 350 aircraft destroyed on the ground. The Unit performed a fighter-bomber role, destroying 264 locomotives, 101 trucks, and 148 freight cars. The 325th boasted 27 aces with 202 combined destroyed enemy aircraft. The Unit received two Distinguished Unit Citations, four Distinguished Service Crosses, nine Legion of Merit medals, 28 Silver Stars, 15 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 19 Soldiers Medals, 45 Bronze Stars, and many Purple Hearts.

The Army Air Corps decommissioned the Hillsgrove Army Air Base following the end of World War II, and returned the airport to the State of Rhode Island on September 26, 1945. After the lifting of the civilian flight ban and the removal of World War II temporary buildings on the property, the airport resumed civil operations on March 1, 1946.

During the Cold War period, beginning later in 1946, the Rhode Island National Guard returned to Hangar 2, once again raising the issue of overcrowding in airport facilities. In 1950, 55 percent of Hangar 2 was turned over to the National Guard, and 10,000 square feet was used as the airport’s main terminal. During this time, the National Guard also built Hangar 3 to provide additional space. In 1955, the 143rd Air Resupply Group, an air transport unit with large, propeller-driven aircraft similar to commercial passenger planes, occupied Hangar 2. Once the new passenger terminal was completed in 1961, the Rhode Island Air National Guard occupied the entirety of Hangar 2. This arrangement remained until the Guard moved to a new facility at Quonset Point in 1980.

Source: Matthew A. Kierstead, National Register of Historic Places Nomination, Hillsgrove State Airport Historic District, Warwick, Kent County, Rhode Island, National Register #83000175, 2009.