By mid-1951 the war in Korea had reached a stalemate, although fighting continued between the United Nations forces (with the U.S. as the major military contributor), and the Korean People’s Army of North Korea backed by the Chinese and the Soviet Union. The situation remained volatile until the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed on July 27, 1953, which created the Korean Demilitarized Zone that separates North and South Korea. This brought an end to the fighting, but without the closure of a peace treaty.
During this period of the Cold War, the American military focused on modernization and readiness. Grenier Air Force Base in Manchester continued to play a role in the national defense scheme. What the base had to offer were facilities that could handle a sudden influx of troops and planes, a factor that was important in early 1952 when it served as the temporary home of the 435th Troop Carrier Wing.
The 435th was a U.S. Air Force reserve unit that had been mobilized for active duty in 1951. Based at the Miami International Airport in Florida, the 435th was part of the Eighteenth Air Force of the Continental Air Command. The purpose of the unit’s deployment to Grenier was to engage in a joint Air Force-Army cold-weather training exercise called Operation Snowfall. This tremendous effort in January and February 1952 provided opportunities to practice paratrooper and heavy equipment airdrops, teach winter warfare techniques and air-ground coordination, and test winter equipment. In addition to Grenier, the host facilities were the Burlington Airport in Vermont and Fort Drum, an army post in northern New York. The bulk of the activity took place at and near Fort Drum.
This massive endeavor involved over 30,000 participants, including airmen of the 435th and other carrier wings of the Eighteenth Air Force, and troops from the U.S. Army’s 11th Airborne Division based in Fort Campbell, Ky. The airborne infantry units specialized in parachuting into battle zones with their equipment. The 11th had been active in World War II and had served during the occupation of Japan after the war.
The pilots and crews of the 435th flew Fairchild C-119 military transport aircraft. First produced in 1947, this twin-engine twin-boom plane had a cargo capacity of 10,000 pounds. Known as the Flying Boxcar, the plane was used frequently during the Korean War to transport troops and equipment. More than 30 C-119s from the 435th participated in Operation Snowfall.
Over 800 airmen of the unit’s tactical squad and more than 300,000 pounds of equipment, vehicles, tools, and spare parts were airlifted to Grenier, with the Boxcars flying back and forth between Miami and Manchester. According to the Miami Herald newspaper on Jan. 6, 1952, Maj. Stanley Drinkwater was responsible for ensuring that “all reasonable comforts will be available to the Miamians during their stay at the northern base. On arrival the men will find a hot meal and bunks in steam-heated barracks awaiting them.” Maj. Drinkwater was an officer of the 133rd Fighter Interceptor Squadron based at Grenier, and he was also the airbase’s material officer.
During Operation Snowfall each of the unit’s C-119s carried around 60 paratroopers wearing specialized cold weather gear weighing over 40 pounds. Alternately, the aircraft hauled heavy equipment that would have been used in battle. In early February 1952 at least two of these planes dropped paratroopers in practice jumps over a location near Grenier. Some of these men suffered minor injuries, including bruises and twisted ankles. The injured were carried by helicopters to first aid stations for treatment. An item in the Miami News on Feb. 5, 1952 reported, “Among the many comments heard by 435th Troop Carrier Wing photographers as they approached the falling troopers was ‘Oh, my aching back.’”
Operation Snowfall was the first major test of the C-119 under cold weather conditions. The experience of operating the Flying Boxcars in winter proved valuable for the airmen of the 435th. For several weeks beginning in April 1952, the unit provided airlift support for the construction of a joint American-Danish weather station in northeast Greenland, in a location that is inaccessible by land or sea. This facility evolved into Station Nord, which operates today as a Danish military and scientific post.
Next Week: Some last words on Grenier Air Force Base during the Korean War.