St. Marie, Montana: Past, Present, Future
Spectral, eerie, deserted. Only those who live in or have visited St. Marie, Montana know the feeling.
For those occupying the derelict Glasgow Air Force Base, home would be a better description. “I had a friend visiting and she said it was so quiet in here you could hear the worms escaping… we’ve always enjoyed our lives here.”
When the snow flies, an estimated 250 people live in St. Marie. Around the Ides of March 500 stream and there is no “Caution” sign.
Elinor Lindsay, a 33-year-old resident, lives on the base year-round.
“Your friends become your family, so to speak, because you’re not usually stationed where your family is.” The wife of a retired US airman is from Long Island, New York. The move to St. Marie was perfect for the couple having spent time in the South and southern Great Plains.
“It was marketed to military veterans.” She explained.
A once thriving and prominent military base – is a curiosity to those who hear the stories.
It is difficult to say what an important role the base played in the Soviet Union’s Cold War. Much of the story disappeared along with the service members stationed there. Historian of the 341st Missile Squadron at Malmstrom Air Force Base Troy Hallsell has a brief understanding of its placement during World War II.
“The Army Corps of Engineers came in to build Malmstrom Air Force Base. It also built smaller bases at Cut Bank, Lewistown and Glasgow.”
The United States Air Force was formed in 1947, almost exactly two years after the end of World War II. The Glasgow site was an Army Air Base, bomber training ground, along with other bases at Cut Bank and Lewistown. “The bombers would take off from their respective locations… if their destination that day was Cleveland, they would take off, form up, and fly to their target and turn around… and land back on their bases,” Hallsell said. The combination of Cutbank, Lewistown, Great Falls and Glasgow helped support the B-17 bomber training mission, which lasted less than a year in Montana. Between the heyday of Glasgow Base, the United States went through a transitional period of enemies; between the Korean War and the Vietnam Conflict. Command historian Brian Laslie of the United States Air Force Academy states: “The Western powers against the Soviet Union. The United States, Great Britain, France and Canada against the Soviet Union. We end up with this bipolar world with the United States and the Soviet Union.”
A new threat threatened the allies, especially from the north. From the base’s founding in 1957 until it was decommissioned in the late 1960s, St. Marie was essential to repelling a Soviet attack. “The alarm goes off. They would launch from Glasgow across the border towards Canada and intercept Soviet bombers as they came over the poles,” Laslie said. As the Cold War clash progressed, the 476 Fighter Group and 13th Fighter Interceptor Squadron were disbanded from Glasgow Air Force Base. The 13th Fighter Interceptor Squadron flew F101 and F101B Voodoo aircraft, single or double seater. The Air Force then commissioned a bombardment squadron that outfitted B-52 bombers and KC-135 refuelers. What the Air Force would call “detach and disperse,” placing bombing fleets on numerous bases instead of one.
“If there had been a World War III scenario in Fairchild (Washington State), it would have been destroyed. Not all of his bombers would be destroyed, right? In Glasgow it would still be 15. 15 at another base or 15 at another base.” Glasgow Air Force Base had a short tenure on its behalf. Leta Godwin, a historian at the Valley County Museum, gave a tour of the dilapidated homes on the western side of the base. “It’s one of the old houses for the military. Some live in four- and two-family houses in the area. Some of them have been sold and people live in them, and others are just abandoned.” The base, even in its disarray, was built for eternity. Laslie explained that many of Glasgow’s air stations are senior officers. The houses and facilities were first class. If a Soviet attack were to be carried out via the poles, it would certainly be a one-way mission. The Air Force wanted to ensure that those who risked their lives for the betterment of their country had comfortable facilities.
Residents of St. Marie and the surrounding area have speculated about the airfield’s current use. Some say it’s home to “nuclear weapons,” others say “aliens,” and the more plausible reason, testing and training for aircraft that aren’t open to the public.
What we do know is that Boeing bought the airfield and it is operated 24/7 by MARCO, Montana Aviation Research Company. Guard restricted areas throughout the property and prevent intruders from passing posted markers. “There were a few times that they would allow people to come and they would practice skydiving and stuff,” said Elinor Lindsay.
For those who live on the property, the term “ghost town” doesn’t change the fact that St. Marie is their home.
“You know someone who can remember Glasgow Air Force Base as a kid, to them, you know, ‘Hey, I lived at Glasgow Air Force Base. That was something for me. It was always a home.’” Laslie said
Lindsay adds with a laugh, “As long as my house lasts as long as I do, that’s all I can ask for.”
Questions or comments about this article? Email the reporter at [email protected].