by Jim O’Connell, 92d Air Refueling Historian
Above, a B-24 in flight, circa 1940s. Photo courtesy of Fairchild Airforce Base, 92d Air Refueling Wing.
In early 1942, the United States and its Allies were in a desperate struggle of survival against the foes of freedom. At the same time, the Spokane Army Air Depot was hastily being constructed. The primary mission of the depot was to repair aircraft and refurbish engines as quickly as possible to get them back into the fight.
The Spokane Army Air Depot required dedicated men and women to build and refurbish the equipment required for the battle. Spokane and the surrounding communities played a pivotal role in facilitating the war effort in establishing, building and manning the Spokane Army Depot. At its peak, the air depot had over 10,400 civilian workers – the Unsung Heroes of World War II. One such hero is a man named John Dowd. Like those who served during this time period, he felt that he was “just doing his job.”
Dowd served in a variety of roles in World War II, the Korean Conflict and peacetime. Originally from Helena, Montana, Dowd’s World War II service started in July 1942 when he was hired into the Mechanic Learner Program as a civilian and was assigned to the Spokane Air Depot. The Depot required mechanics, welders, electricians and many other skills for the workers. He earned $75 a month while attending the Spokane Trade School to learn how to repair B-17 engines. His previous experience working in a service station provided him a great foundation from which to excel. The Spokane Trade School was one of several local schools that opened its doors 24-hours a day to meet the demand for trained skilled workers for the depot. He completed his training in October 1942, and received a pay raise to $125 a month.
October was the same month that building 2050, the 12-acre, $3.7 million maintenance hangar, was completed and opened its doors for the workforce to begin working on the B-17s engines. The engine shop repaired 50-engines the first month, 150 the second month, and 350 in December. In all, nearly 11,000 engines were overhauled at an estimated savings to the government of $87 million.
During his time in Spokane, Dowd rented a room from a couple on the South Hill and shared his commute to work with another man working at the Depot. The couple adopted him and welcomed him into their family. Despite the fuel rationing, the couple would loan their car to him so that he could explore the local fishing holes.
In late 1942, he took a flight examination but did not expect to be accepted into the flight training program. As it turned out, he passed and was accepted into the Army Air Corps on his 21st birthday.
In June 1943, he moved to the University of North Dakota for initial flight training, then on to Ontario, California and finally to Pecos Army Airfield where he graduated from the Army Air Force Pilot School in September 1944 where he was promoted to Second Lieutenant. Lieutenant Dowd started training in the Boeing B-17 but was reassigned to the Consolidated B-24 Liberator. Because of its great range, the B-24 was suitable for the long over-water missions in the Pacific Theater. In April 1945, Dowd completed the B-24 Liberator check-out program at Tonopah Army Airfield, Nevada, before being sent to the Pacific Theater. Lieutenant Dowd’s unit flew missions out of New Guinea, Peleliu, Philippines, Marianas Islands and finally out of Okinawa prior the Japanese surrender. He spent several months in South Korea prior to being discharged from Ft. Lewis, Washington in March 1946. When he returned home to Helena, he worked as a bartender and then as a Veteran’s Administration representative working with veterans’ claims.
Dowd missed the camaraderie of the service and reenlisted in January 1948 as a Staff Sergeant, and was assigned as a Boeing B-29 flying crew chief for the 343rd Bombardment Squadron, 92d Bombardment Group at Spokane Air Force Base. On July 4, 1950, the unit deployed to Japan for the Korean Conflict. It didn’t take long for the Air Force to learn that he was a trained pilot, so while deployed, he was recalled and re-commissioned as an officer to fly cargo aircraft in support of the Korean Conflict. After Korea, Dowd continued to fly and became a supply officer. He was assigned to several bases throughout the United States and Europe. His last assignment was with the 3325th Instructor Squadron, Amarillo AFB, Texas, where he retired in the grade of Major in February 1964. A humble and unassuming man, he raised four children with his bride of 56-years. Upon his retirement, Dowd returned to Spokane. Even today, at the age of 91, he continues to enjoy the local fishing with his daughter.
Dowd played many roles during World War II and after – civilian engine mechanic, pilot, crew chief, supply officer and instructor. He is only one representative of the millions of women and men who selflessly served our country – in and out of uniform, especially those who were vital to our nation’s security working at the Spokane Air Depot in World War II. Those unsung heroes of the past are the prologue for today. That tradition of excellence and dedication to the mission established by those heroes continues today as our total force team– active duty, guard, reserve and civilians – unite to provide a foundation from which we fuel freedom.