Presque Isle Air Force Base was crucial launch point for Europe-bound aircraft during major wars
PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Throughout the 1940s and again during the 1950s and early 1960s, the former Presque Isle Air Force Base served as the final stop for thousands of U.S. pilots and crew members before they soared into the skies above the Atlantic Ocean, bound for European lands thousands of miles away.
“Presque Isle was the primary base used for all aircraft traveling to Europe. There were thousands of planes and thousands of servicemen that came through the base during its time here,” said Nate Grass, president of the board of directors for the Presque Isle Air Museum.
Wednesday, June 12 marked the 20th anniversary of the formation of the Presque Isle Air Museum, located in Presque Isle International Airport. Today the airport sits on land known as the Skyway Industrial Park, where the former Air Force base was located. The mission of the Air Museum is to “document, preserve and display the history of the Presque Isle Airport and to honor the men and women who served there.”
That history is one that Grass is always willing to share with folks who stop in to view the hundreds of photographs and original memorabilia that the Air Museum showcases.
The museum focuses on the airport’s history from its humble beginnings as a small commercial aircraft hangar in the 1930s to a U.S. Army airfield, then a base, to an industrial park that includes numerous industrial-based companies, Presque Isle Middle School and Northern Maine Community College.
Due to northern Maine being the land mass in closest proximity to Europe — specifically to Moscow, Russia — Presque Isle was considered to be one of the most important bases in the United States.
Originally the base existed as the Presque Isle Army Air Field from 1941 until the end of World War II in 1945. The U.S. government reactivated the base as the Presque Isle Air Force Base in November 1950, with the mission of providing “air defense of the northeastern U.S. and Loring Air Force Base” in Limestone as the threat of missile strikes from the Soviet Union loomed large during the Cold War.
The base became the home of the 702nd Strategic Missile Wing on July 1, 1959, the country’s first Intercontinental Missile Base that was equipped with the SNARK Missile. SNARK was a high-altitude missile that was capable of delivering a nuclear bomb. Although the missiles were never used for battle, the possibility was always there if the Soviet Union chose to strike anywhere in the world with their own weapons.
“The distance from Presque Isle to Moscow is 10,000 miles,” Grass said. “The range of the missile was 10,000 miles.”
The Presque Isle Air Force Base also has both historical and modern connections to the D-Day invasion of Normandy, France, that occurred on June 6, 1944. On Sunday, May 19, a squadron of 11 C-47 planes landed at Presque Isle International Airport to greet visitors, offer plane tours and refuel before heading to Europe for ceremonies related to the 75th anniversary of D-Day.
Following D-Day in 1944, more than 425,000 Allied and German troops were injured or killed during the two-month-long Battle of Normandy. In Presque Isle, the area that is now the NMCC campus was where the hospital for the Air Force base sat.
“The same planes that visited Presque Isle recently were the type of planes that flew the casualties of D-Day to Presque Isle to be treated at the hospital,” Grass said.
During World War II, the base became a common stop for many famous actors and performers, including Bob Hope and Frances Langford, who were on their way to Europe to entertain troops as part of tours with the United Service Organizations, or USO.
Famous actors such as Clark Gable and Jimmy Stewart, who were serving in the Army, Air Force and Air Corps, also spent time on the base and in the Presque Isle community.
“When Gable was in the Air Force, his plane broke down and so he stayed at the base for about a week,” Grass said. “He would go downtown to the hotel lounge and, from what I understand, he might’ve dated some of the ladies in town.”
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy declared the missile base “obsolete,” leading to the closure of the Air Force Base, which brought an estimated $8 million to Presque Isle and surrounding communities.
The Presque Isle Industrial Council soon formed in order to transform 440 acres into the Skyway Industrial Park and provide economic growth for the region.
The Presque Isle Air Museum board of directors continues to expand the museum’s collections and recently received a donation of four photographs from local photographer Paul Cyr.
The photographs are of various military planes that have flown over Presque Isle throughout the past five years, including one of the C-47s that visited in May. To accommodate the photographs and other future donations, the board hopes to one day find a larger space to set up the museum.
In the meantime, Grass hopes that folks from both near and far will visit the Air Museum and learn about the unique role that the Presque Isle Air Force Base played in world history.
“It’s even more important for us to preserve this history because over time people tend to forget,” Grass said. “We have to keep it going so that people remember.”