I first spotted the Tillamook Air Museum and its massive lettering when I was about a mile away, a telling indication of its scope and of its original purpose — that of a gargantuan World War II blimp hangar.
First flown commercially by the Germans in 1910, zeppelins were being positioned as a new and glamorous mode of travel, despite their myriad problems (susceptibility to inclement weather, flammability, and long travel times — a transatlantic trip from Germany to Lakehurst, New Jersey, took 112 hours). Although these rigid airships never made a dent in the travel industry, they served a much more efficient purpose in the military during the world wars, when the Germans used them for everything from detecting where the British were laying mines in the sea to bombing England, Scotland, and Paris.
It was their usability in combat that prompted the U.S. Navy to start constructing 17 hangars in the coastal states in 1942. The wooden hangars were built to house blimps that would escort convoys and scout American waters for German U-boats, with those floating out of Tillamook keeping guard over the coasts of Washington, Oregon, and California. Able to range up to 2,000 miles and stay aloft for three days, the blimps were integral to Navy operations, not only in U.S. territory, but also abroad: American blimps patrolled the Strait of Gibraltar, helping to sink German submarines and destroyers during the final year of the war.
Today, only a handful of these hangars remain, and Hangar B at the Tillamook Air Museum is one of them. As I entered the cavernous hangar, I spied lots of World War II aircrafts, including fighter planes decorated with nose art, a form of graffiti (very often a buxomy, curvaceous woman), painted on the front fuselage — a tolerated breach of military uniformity that helped the pilots and their crews express a touch of individuality while also reminding them of what was waiting for them back home once the war ended. I could only imagine the comfort the image of “Rose’s Raiders” or “Tangerine” may have provided as they hopped in their planes, never knowing if it would be their last mission.
A separate Exhibit Hall features artifacts from the war, from medals to uniforms, first-hand documents to archival photos. And for the mechanically inclined, the Engine Room and the Helium Room contain a collection of machines, tools, and equipment vital to the hangar’s war effort.
As interesting as all that was, I found the museum’s real attraction to be the hangar itself. This architectural marvel holds the record as the world’s largest wooden building, with a lattice-like support system and catwalks far above my head. The doors to the hangar were opened when I arrived, but “doors” seemed an inadequate word for them: They’re 120 feet high, divided into six sections, each weighing 30 tons, and operate on railroad tracks across a span of 220 feet. Constructed of wood (steel was scarce during the war), the hangar’s dimensions overwhelm any tiny human who enters it: 1,072 feet long, 296 feet wide, and 192 feet high (that’s 15 stories!), for a total area of more than seven acres. Nine blimps could have fit inside it. Six regulation football games could be played simultaneously within it.
Most of these hangars have disappeared, victims of fire or demolition, but Tillamook survives. Unfortunately, given the original purpose of this building, I was disappointed not to find a blimp or two here. Nevertheless, it offered a fascinating look at one of the Greatest Generation’s most curious — and successful — moments. Although largely relegated to a historical footnote today, the legacy of wartime blimps remains strong: Not one U.S. ship was lost in blimp-escorted convoys during World War II.