By Darrell Todd Maurina: CNJ staff writer
Local historian Don McAlavy is among the few Clovis residents who remembers what the city was like before an old civilian airstrip west of town became Clovis Army Air Base in June 1942.
The airfield started as Portair Field on June 28, 1929, when one of the predecessors of TWA began operations in Clovis. McAlavy said the owners built a large hangar to accommodate the new planes, and designed the roof to be a massive sign for incoming planes. The word “CLOVIS” was spelled out in letters 20 feet high, with the entire word running 45 feet along the length of the roof.
Although nearly new, the building was mothballed in October 1930 due to economic difficulties as the 1929 stock market crash touched off a recession that steadily grew worse. The hangar was originally intended to hold planes serving wealthy transcontinental travelers, but was used instead as a transient shelter for homeless families passing through to cities where they thought they might find a job. The hangar was later used for wheat storage.
“During the Depression there was nothing happening out there, but then we had the war,” McAlavy said.
World War II brought hardships for many families as young men were drafted and those left behind endured rationing of commodities needed for the war effort. As a farm family, the McAlavys were entitled to use special reduced-price gasoline for their tractors. That gas had a special purple tint and police were empowered to stop cars and check to make sure they weren’t using gas intended for farm production.
“If a policeman stopped you and checked your gas, you could get a big, big fine,” McAlavy said. “The other thing we had to watch was we used to go to town a lot before the war, but then they put a 35 mph speed limit on all the highways. The gas rationing and the speed limits were the big things that bothered me.”
For McAlavy’s family and many others in Clovis, World War II brought economic benefits despite the hardships. McAlavy’s father had been trained in motor mechanics before the war and went to Lubbock to become an aircraft mechanic.
“My dad needed extra work because crops sometimes weren’t so good,” McAlavy said.
As the teenage son of an aircraft mechanic, McAlavy once went onto the base and his father let him into a B-17 cockpit.
“I went up front, sat in the chair, saw all those levers and pedals, and it just about scared me to death,” McAlavy said. “I thought, who could ever fly one of these things?”
Flying a World War II-era plane didn’t just look difficult — it was difficult. Modern aircraft are filled with computers to correct problems. That wasn’t the case for the pilots of the 1940s, for whom a mistake could easily be a death sentence. Since Clovis Army Air Base was a training base, plane crashes by inexperienced pilots were common.
“About 1942 we heard a loud explosion; the table shook, and my books fell off. We heard that a B-17 had crashed and killed some airmen about six miles north of Clovis,” McAlavy said. “There was a big explosion and a fireball, and we weren’t allowed to go anywhere near the plane. We didn’t really think about the war much until that happened because it was far away, but then it became real to us.”
McAlavy said most people in Clovis generally treated the airmen well, except for one group — teenage boys who found airmen made stiff competition for dates.
“They overwhelmed our girls,” McAlavy said. “They were in uniform and everybody thought the soldiers were the best thing out there.”
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Key dates in Cannon’s early history
• June 28, 1929: Transcontinental Air Transport dedicated its new airport in Clovis
• July 8, 1929: Service officially began at Clovis with a flight by Charles Lindbergh
• October 1930: Clovis dropped from the route schedule
• Mid-1930s: Facility became Clovis Municipal Airport
• June 1, 1942: Clovis Army Air Base established as a glider training facility
• January 1943: 16th Bombardment Operational Wing arrived; base converted to bomber training
• April 8, 1943: Base renamed Clovis Army Air Field
• May 1947: Airfield deactivated
• July 1951: Airfield assigned to Tactical Air Command and reopened
Source: Don McAlavy and Cannon Air Force Base