Harmon Field, Stephenville
The establishment of an American air base at Stephenville during the Second World War saw the quiet, largely French-speaking farming village quickly transformed into a booming, largely English-speaking garrison town.
The change was accompanied by both prosperity and hardship as more than 200 people were removed from their homes – sometimes to find themselves living in crowded, unsanitary environments – while the area’s economy was simultaneously bolstered by the numerous employment opportunities generated by the base’s construction.
Under its Leased Bases Agreement with Britain, the United States had obtained rights to build the Stephenville air base in 1940. A board of American army and navy personnel arrived in Newfoundland on September 20 to scout for possible base sites. Upon noticing the excellent flying conditions on the island’s west coast, the board members recommended building an air base near Stephenville to stage aircraft through the Maritime provinces to eastern Newfoundland.
Although the base would eventually sprawl over 8,159 acres, it was a relatively small parcel of land consisting of 865 acres and separated from the rest of Stephenville by Blanche Brook that was selected for the initial construction site in 1941.
Dislocated property owners
About 40 families lived on the land, which was divided into farms. Originally, the Newfoundland government had planned to relocate the affected landowners to farmland in West Bay on the Port au Port Peninsula. However, the residents instead chose to receive monetary compensation for their land and resettle in Stephenville.
A team of American engineers arrived in April 1941 to appraise each property and determine how much the residents would be reimbursed for their land.
Land appropriated in Stephenville did not fetch as much as land appropriated in other places where American military bases were also being built. Cultivated land in Stephenville was valued at approximately $250 per acre, while the going rates in Argentia and St. John’s were about $300 and $400, respectively. To justify the difference, government officials argued that the American presence was more agreeable to Stephenville residents than it was elsewhere on the island. However, some historians suggest that the geographical and cultural distances separating the French-speaking Stephenville residents from the English-speaking, St. John’s-based government contributed to the lower compensation packages.
At any rate, government officials reported that by May 1941, all of the affected families had been relocated elsewhere with minimal objections.
In the coming months, Stephenville’s landscape changed both dramatically and abruptly as hundreds of acres of farmland, many of which had been passed down through generations, gave way to the military airstrip and its accompanying buildings.
Early plans for the Stephenville construction, which was underway by mid-March, had workers build living accommodations for 250 troops. In 1942, however, the plans were expanded to accommodate 2,800 troops and to include a permanent landing field. This project included the construction of three concrete runways, measuring 150 feet wide and between 5,000 and 6,000 feet in length.
Base construction immediately attracted workers from neighbouring villages and more than 1,500 Newfoundlanders quickly found work as tinsmiths, sheet metal workers, construction laborers and carpenters. Stephenville’s population, reported to be about 1,000 in 1935, skyrocketed to more than 7,000 by 1942.
Previously referred to as the Stephenville Air Base, the site was officially named Harmon Field on June 23, 1941 in honour of Capt. Ernest Emery Harmon, a pioneer in United States military aviation history who had served with the U.S. Air Corps during the First World War.
The following two years brought additional expansions to the base, which grew by 677 acres in 1942 and by 5,938 acres in 1943. The expansions brought much-needed employment to the area, but also meant that residents found themselves dislocated more than once. By 1945, the United States had paid out more than $800,000 to compensate the roughly 220 dislocated property owners in Stephenville.
The pattern resulted in the construction of temporary “shack towns” near the base that were often overcrowded and unsanitary. At a low point in 1943, sanitary inspectors were horrified to discover that even the shack town’s well water had been contaminated by sewage. The base’s expansion that same year resulted in the shack town’s demolition, which meant its residents had to once again relocate.
Harmon Field ready for use in 1942
Although the base was not ready for use when the Americans declared war on Japan on December 7, 1941, it was ready early the next year to receive emergency landings. In August 1943, Harmon Field was finally opened for heavy air traffic.
Stephenville’s strategic location in the north Atlantic, coupled with its nearly ideal flying conditions, turned Harmon Field into a vital refueling stop for aircraft transporting personnel and supplies to and from Europe. The base also accommodated three B-17 bombers that were assigned to Harmon Field to patrol the Atlantic for German U-boat activity between 1942 and 1944. By mid-1943, 17 U.S. military units and more than 4,000 American soldiers were assigned to the base
In September of that year, Air Transport Command took over Harmon Field from Newfoundland Base Command and assigned it the mission of servicing all aircraft moving troops and equipment from North America to Europe. For the next ten years, the base served as an important stopover point for transatlantic flights.
The end of the Second World War brought even more activity to Harmon Field as American troops poured back from Europe. While airfields at Argentia, Gander and Goose Bay were used to help American and Canadian aircraft return from Europe, Harmon Field’s mission was to accommodate personnel and supplies waiting for flights home.
Over the four-year period that bridged the start of base construction and the end of World War Two, the once obscure farming village of Stephenville had been transformed into a world-class airfield which, at its peak, saw approximately 30,000 troops pass through each year.
The American Air Force continued to use Harmon Field as a site for the air defence of North America until it closed in 1966. When the Americans left the base, all of its facilities, including the approximately 400 buildings, were converted to civilian uses.
Article by Jenny Higgins. ©2006, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site