By Hope Good
From 1957 to 1968, the Glasgow Air Force Base served as an integral part of the World War II effort and operated as a Cold War deterrent to Soviet air invasion coming over Canada. At that time, the primary military threat to our nation was from Soviet bombers attacking from the north, and construction of the installation was based on the need to counter this threat with fighter interceptors located along our northern border.
The influence of the Glasgow base to the local area cannot be understated. Its development led to a growth in population and jobs in the area, directly impacting the community. Glasgow Air Force Base also benefited local companies that received a military contract to build several buildings at the base.
The U.S. Air Force selected the site because of its clear skies, flat terrain, and its strategic northern location, 25 miles north of Glasgow and 48 miles south of the Canadian line. Construction began in 1955 on the massive airfield and Air Force Base, which included large ramp areas and 67 buildings (including numerous hangars). A town was constructed to house the projected 7,000 airmen and their families. Both single and multiple family housing units with garages were available to house base personnel.
The Glasgow Air Force Base was activated in 1957. It initially operated from a single 8,900-foot runway. Glasgow was the home of the ADC 476th Fighter Group from 1957 to 1960 and the 13th Fighter Interceptor Squadron from 1959 to 1968, which was equipped with the F-101 Voodoo.
The air base became a town larger than Glasgow. Thousands of military personnel and their families moved into rows of ranch-style houses surrounded by contemporary, modernist public buildings. The community had its own post office, school, library, fire station, community center, chapel, bowling alley, movie theatre, general store, and 50-bed hospital, along with sewer and water systems. (An additional 1,000 people associated with the base lived in Glasgow and other nearby communities.) Approximately $4 million from the base operating budget was spent in the local area on procurement of items such as food, services, and utilities.
The base’s mission expanded in 1960 to include the Strategic Air Command, which took over the base, and the fighter interceptor squadron remained as a tenant unit. The runway was significantly extended to 13,500 feet in order to handle huge B-52 bombers and tankers.
The base was constantly in flux. In 1961, the 326th Bombardment Squadron, equipped with B-52C aircraft, was reassigned to the base from Fairchild AFB, Washington, as the nucleus for the organization of the 4141st Strategic Wing. In its first year, this became the top wing in the Fifteenth Air Force.
The B-52C aircraft were transferred to the 322nd Bombardment Squadron, 91st Bombardment Wing, which has stood up at Glasgow AFB to train for global bombardment and aerial refueling. The wing also received and converted to B-52D aircraft, and its 907th Air Refueling Squadron received KC-135A aircraft.
Except for a small rear echelon, the 91st Wing headquarters staff, tactical aircraft, and 322d Bomb Squadron crews, most support personnel integrated in the Strategic Air Command
Stability changed when the 91st was taken off alert status and declared not tactically operational May-June 1968. The wing was subsequently inactivated on June 25, 1968 and became the 91st Strategic Missile Wing, operating Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles at Minot AFB, North Dakota.
Glasgow AFB was closed in 1968, with this massive facility having been open for only 11 years. The impact was enormous, as thousands left the Glasgow area seemingly overnight. Contractual operation and maintenance of the base was assumed by AVCO Economics Systems Corporation in the following year. Although Glasgow was intended to be used as an Army Safeguard Anti-Ballistic Missile depot to support construction of a second ABM complex northwest of Malmstrom AFB, this was never completed.
Economics in maintenance and the area’s severe winter weather conditions (which made aircraft maintenance more difficult) were among the reasons given for closing the base. The rationale was that in closing Larson AFB in Washington and Glasgow AFB and merging operations into a single base (March AFB, California), it would generate an annual savings of $12,655,000 and eliminate the requirement for 1,651 military and 288 civilian employees.
The residents of Valley County had viewed this new “town” as a permanent part of their landscape, so they were not prepared for the closure. Senator Mike Mansfield, local citizens, and Montana’s congressional delegation fought hard against the federal government to find use for the abandoned Glasgow Air Force Base. It took twelve years before the Air Force finally announced its decision to make the base available for community ownership.
Glasgow AFB was reactivated as a SAC dispersal field operations base 1972-1976, and a major project was completed in 1973 to rehabilitate the runway surface, control tower, and navigational aids. When the base was closed by the military for the second time in 1976, it was so isolated and without business advantages that it sat idle for years. Eventually, the Boeing Company began testing aircraft here, and new houses were rebuilt and sold.
After the base closed and its military residents were shipped elsewhere 1968-1971, infrastructure within the community crumbled. Efforts to repurpose were pursued by the military at first, then by private developers. Eventually the commercial buildings and runways were sold to the county and the area’s 1,223 housing units were put up for sale.
In the 1980s, investors found financing and began to build what they envisioned as a retirement community they named St. Marie. The plans for St. Marie were never fully achieved due in part to tax increases by the county, among other obstacles. Today, less than a third of the houses are occupied (approximately 250), mostly owned by military retirees and maintained by a condominium association. The community is a surreal mix of nice homes with manicured lawns and houses in decay.
A sign at the town entrance states: “Welcome to St. Marie, home of the adventurous.”
The former Glasgow AFB reopened as a civilian airport named “Valley Industrial Park” Airport for a time in the late 1970s. At an unknown date, the base began to be reused by a subsidiary of Boeing named Montana Aviation Research Company (MARCO). The Boeing Company continues to own most of the former Glasgow AFB, and it is now known as the Boeing Glasgow Flight Test Facility. The facility supports Boeing Technology Services (BTS) customers and is maintained and operated by MARCO. The remote and quiet area makes for great airspace and noise testing.
Population growth around Glasgow and Valley County has waxed and waned over the years but stayed resilient and stable after boom and bust events. Before the Glasgow AFB, the advent of the Fort Peck Dam construction from 1933 to 1941 furnished employment during the Depression. At that time, local communities felt the effects when the nearly 10,000 people who had been employed during the peak of construction abruptly moved on after the dam was completed. Today, the dam and reservoir are a multi-purpose facility that provides public water supplies, power generation, irrigation, and recreation. The Glasgow AFB as MARCO has become the center of Boeing’s initiative to create new technologies to help future generations in collision avoidance.