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Ernest Harmon Air Force base

Stephenville

Date Last Modified: July 7, 2017

Before World War II the small community of Stephenville was no more than a fishing village. At this time the settlement was known as the "Acadian Village" which came from its large population of Acadian families who immigrated here from Cape Breton.  The beginning of World War II changed everything for the small community. When the "Destroyers for Base Agreement" was signed between the United Kingdom and the United States in 19040, the town became host to the largest American Air Force Base outside the continental US. 

Ernest Harmon Air Force Base was built immediately after the signing. The communities wartime boom extended far into the Cold War until the base was abandoned by the US and transferred to local governments in 1966. Today the area is scarred with wartime buildings and structures. Many have been re-purposed for new uses while others have been abandoned or torn down. 

The History 

During the early part of World War II, the German army was pushing through Europe’s defenses and its navy fleet of U-boats was terrorizing convoy and support ships in the North Atlantic. Britain was losing the Battle of the Atlantic and needed more warships if it was to continue supplying the troop movement from its western allies. At the same time, the United States became worried that if England was overthrown Hitler’s Army would set its eyes on invading North America. This lead to the signing of the “Destroyers for Base Agreement” on September 2, 1940. In exchange for 50 destroyer warships, the United States would get 99 year leases for the construction of military bases on the island of Newfoundland (which of course was owned by Britain at the time). These bases would ensure protection of North America and act as a refueling station for planes and convoys travelling across the Atlantic Ocean.

It wasn’t long before the Americans had selected a number of sites in Newfoundland and in January 1941 engineering troops and civilian specialists began surveying an area of land near the small community of Stephenville to construct an airfield. The following month 150 members of the US Signal Corps arrived and began setting up temporary housing to be used during the construction of the base. Along with them was the 24th Coastal Artillery group to provide protection for the soon to be airfield. However, it was not until April that the US Congress gave the approval for construction of the 8159 acre airfield. Construction also began on a deep water port near the airfield site to help deliver supplies and fuel.

At this time the air base was referred to as the Stephenville Air Base. It was mainly used as a stopover and refueling point for Air Force aircraft crossing the Atlantic. , The base was the largest US military airfield outside continental USA and became even more important during the Cold War.

 

During construction of the base, the neighboring small village of Stephenville began to expand. Dozens of new buildings were constructed and the mass influx of military personnel resulted in huge economic benefits to the region.

After the war, the airfield continued to be used as a refueling point and on June 23, 1948 the base was renamed “Ernest Harmon Air Force Base” in honor of Captain Ernest Emery Harmon, an Army Air Corps pilot who was killed in an air crash in 1933. The deep water port nearby was also given the name Port Harmon at this time.

The Cold War

In 1950 the airfield was transferred to the Northeast Air Command and then again in April 1957 to the Strategic Air Command (SAC). By this time the Cold War had just begun and the threat of Soviet attack was high. Harmon was now being used as a refuelling point and housing a fleet of KC-97 Stratofreighters. These aircraft were used to refuel nuclear armed B-52 Stratofortress aircraft that were constantly in air on high alert in case of attack. To protect these fuel tanker aircraft and defend against the possibility of Soviet Aircraft flying over the North Pole, a squadron of F-102 Flight Interceptor aircraft was assigned to the base as well.

 

The Cold War resulted in many improvements and upgrades to the Harmon Air Force Base. As nuclear tensions rose between the US and the Soviet Union, Harmon was selected as one of the few sites in Canada equipped to store nuclear weapons.

In 1953 the 347th Engineer Aviation Battalion was assigned the task to upgrade the base. Along with 2500 personnel, they constructed:

  • 186,000 metres squared of runways along with 352,000 metres square of taxiways and tarmac

  • aircraft hangers and aircraft control tower

  • three wharves at Port Harmon and dredging of the harbour

 

Later that year, they were joined by an additional 750 engineers to construct a salvage yard, a bypass road named Hanson Memorial Highway that would prevent civilians from passing through the base, and further living quarters for base personnel.

Closure

As the tensions of the Cold War began to ease and technology advanced, the need for a large base at Stephenville declined. On December 16, 1966 the base was shut down for good. Although the lease for the base was for 99 years, after the closure of the base the property was transferred to the Government of Canada and subsequently transferred to the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador.

 

Following this, the Harmon Corporation was established. The corporation oversaw re-purposing and redeveloping the newly acquired land. Part of this was the development of the Stephenville International Airport which used a portion of the original air field.

Today, Stephenville still sees a lot of military aircraft every year. Many people from western Newfoundland have American family members because of this base and remember vividly Harmon Field Day, a celebration of the bases legacy including an airshow with members of the Canadian Air Force and American Air Force. 

What To See

Air Field Hangers

Along the older sections of the air field many of the original aircraft hangers are still intact and being used as storage warehouses. During the Second World War and the Cold War these hangers would have hosted some of the largest military aircraft.

Ammunition Storage Bunker

Tucked away in the hills and tress, far away from the air base is a large building resembling a modern storage unit building. The difference is the thick reinforced concrete walls and large, heavy steel doors protecting each of the small rectangular rooms. The building was located a distance from the air field to prevent it from being damaged or destroyed in the event of an attack from enemy aircraft or U-boat.

Crematorium

One of the most unique abandoned sites to see in Stephenville is the old Crematorium. Located behind the hospital, the Crematorium is a two storey building, distinguishable by its large chimney marked with 4 crosses. Exploring inside a set of stairs leads to the basement where shell of the old furnace can be seen. 

Sources

Base Colonies in the Western Hemisphere, 1940-1967 by: Steven High

Ernest Harmon Air Force Base

Heritage Newfoundland - Stephenville

For a more detailed history read "US Military Bases in Eastern Canada: Harmon Pepperrell & Argentia" by: Wayne Scott Ray