The Stratojet Years
Tom Hildreth

Of the Cold War's many symbols, none was more recognizable than the Berlin Wall. Torn down by the city's residents in a widely publicized event in late 1989, the crumbling of the wall became a precursor to the huge military drawdown that followed. The lessening of the ideological struggle between east and west made possible the retirement of ageing weapons systems such as the FB-111A medium bomber. These factors quickly rendered Pease AFB in Portsmouth, New Hampshire to the status of Cold War artifact.


During the 1950s, the U.S. Air Force grew from a fledgling branch of the military to a global force of great strength and influence. The backdrop of this growth was the arms race, which was running at full tilt. The Air Force's B-47 Stratojet program produced more than 2,100 of the Boeing medium jet bombers, and SAC officials looked hard to find real estate from which to operate this burgeoning fleet. Nearness to Europe and the North Atlantic air routes made New England a prime choice for new base construction.

On October 7, 1954, the Air Force opened a liaison office in the Portsmouth area. To the Air Force planners, the existence of the Portsmouth airport was merely coincidental. Their sights were set on a large, sparsely populated tract of land nearby which had the development potential needed to support a huge bomber base. Situated between Great Bay to the west, the Piscataqua River to the north, and Portsmouth to the east, this acreage was easily reached by rail, highway and water.

Up to that point, the Portsmouth Municipal Airport had played only a small role in the Granite State's development of aviation. Airline passenger service was inaugurated on the Boston-Bangor Amber Civil Airway No. 7 on August 11, 1933, with Portsmouth designated as an auxiliary landing field on the route. During part of World War II, the airfield came under Army Air Force jurisdiction, but was not used as a military airbase.

In December 1954 the 4018th Air Base Squadron was assigned to Portsmouth to oversee the initial phase of base construction. On January 1, 1955, Col. Andreas A. Andrea took command of the project. The new base was officially named Portsmouth AFB in February. Land clearing and construction gained momentum as the year passed.


On January 1, 1956, the 100th Bomb Wing (BW) was activated at Portsmouth AFB under the command of Col. James W. Chapman, Jr. This establishment had the distinction of being the thirty-third and last B-47 wing to activate, and was comprised of the 349th, 350th, and 351st Bomb Squadrons (BS), of 15 aircraft each. The base was far from complete physically, but this did not slow organizational expansion. The 100th Air Refueling Squadron (ARS), which operated 18 Boeing KC-97 tankers, was assigned to the 100th BW on August 15, 1956.

The growing seacoast facility was renamed Pease AFB in honor of Capt. Harl Pease, Jr. on September 7, 1957. Pease and his crew successfully bombed an enemy airfield during a 1942 mission over Rabaul in the Pacific. Enemy fighter opposition was heavy, and although the B-17's gunners downed several of the enemy planes, the bomber failed to return to home base. Harl Pease posthumously received the Medal of Honor for this action.

Construction of a badly needed 1,100-unit Capehart housing project was begun in 1957. The importance of these and other expansions to Pease AFB became obvious on July 1, 1958, when the 509th BW arrived on permanent assignment from Roswell, New Mexico. This new organization was a descendent of the 509th Composite Group, which had dropped the atomic bombs on Japan in 1945. The wing's 393rd, 715th, and 830th Bomb Squadrons had flown the B-47 for several years, and were quickly joined by the 509th ARS, a tanker unit that had been at Pease for several months on temporary assignment to the 100th BW.


The New Hampshire SAC installation was very busy in early 1959. On March 1, each wing gained a fourth squadron, when the 418th BS was assigned to the 100th BW, and the>661st BS was assigned to the 509th BW. This augmentation was needed to support SAC's One-Third Alert program. The program reached its objective in May 1960 when one-third of the nation's bomber and tanker force assumed 15-minute ground alert status. The program reached one-half alert status in July 1961. The 100th Bomb Wing operated from Pease AFB for ten years. In official parlance, the establishment "...performed global strategic bombardment training and air refueling missions." One of the most significant overseas temporary duty assignments took place during the first four months of 1958, when the 100th participated in the last full wing B-47 deployment. During this time, the B-47s from New Hampshire operated from RAF station Brize Norton, in the United Kingdom. Subsequently, overseas deployments involved the simultaneous participation of several bomb wings.


As SAC missile forces grew in size and capability, the planned phase-out of the medium bomber force gained momentum. Some B-47 wings converted to the larger B-52 Stratofortress, but many others were inactivated. In October 1965, the Air Force initiated Project Fast Fly to oversee the inactivation of the last five B-47 wings and supporting tanker squadrons. The 100th ARS retired its last tanker on December 21, 1965, when aircraft 53-0282 flew to the boneyard in Arizona. The following day the 100th ARS inactivated. The 100th BW retained its ground alert commitment at Pease until December 31, 1965, and inactivated on June 25, 1966.

In late 1965, the 509th Bomb Wing was also in the phase-down mode for inactivation. However, on April 2, 1966, it was redesignated as a heavy bomb wing, and reequipped with the B-52 Stratofortress and KC-135 Stratotanker. For the next three years the 509th contributed to SAC operations in Southeast Asia.


On April 1, 1991, after 36 years as a bomber base, Pease was closed as an active Air Force installation. Most of the apron at what is now called Pease International Tradeport is empty. Guilford Transportation Industry's Pan American Airlines occupies the large DC hangar. Other than the immense size of the place, today's activities offer no clue to the operational tempo of the base during the Stratojet years. Then, when this flat expanse of concrete was alive with men and machines, there was scarcely an inch to spare.


52-0374 was a 100th BW Stratojet built by Lockheed at Marietta, GA. The demand for
B-47s during the Cold War buildup was so great that the bomber was built by Boeing, Douglas and Lockheed.

C-47 42-93185 operated by the 100th OMS, (Organizational Maintenance Squadron), a unit of the 100th BW. This aircraft was built by Douglas at Oklahoma City and delivered to the Army Air Force in April, 1944.

Shield of the 100th Bomb Wing. This establishment was assigned to Pease AFB from 1 January 56 to 25 June 1966. The Stratojet in this photo was one of 274 built by Douglas at Tulsa, OK.

Boeing produced a total of 592 KC-97G tankers for the SAC fleet. These piston engined aircraft were the mainstay of the Pease tanker fleet during the first 10 years of the base's existance.

B-47E 52-0584 on the wintry ramp at Pease late in 1965. The warm sunshine of the Arizona boneyard would soon greet this aircraft and her 100th BW sisters. Note KC-97 in the background on the downwind leg for runway 34.

B-47 pioneered many of the aerodynamic concepts later used on the B-52 such as tandem main landing gear, outrigger wheels, high flexible swept wing, fighter-style canopy, and podded jet engines. 52-0184 in this photo taken at Bradley Field, CT is a 509th BW Stratojet.

The atomic cloud in the 509th BW shield denotes lineage from the 509th Composite Group that dropped the Hiroshima and Nagasaki weapons.

B-47E 52-0283 wearing the diagonal tail stripe of the 100th BW. Color of stripe indicated to which of the wing's several squadrons the aircraft was assigned.

Lt. Col. James B. Price sets B-47 down on foamed runway at Pease on July 21, 1965. Bomber had circled Portsmouth for many hours the previous night burning off fuel after the landing gear had jammed. Note the crowded flightline in this photo contributed by Ron Godin

Insignia of the 100th Organizational Maintenance Squadron, a unit within the 100th Bomb Wing. Insignia and inscription "Pease AFB NH" was applied to vertical stabilizer of base C-47 hack.

Pease AFB control tower during the Stratojet years. Photo taken by Don Bristol courtesy of Curt Lenz