Hill Air Force Base — which is celebrating its 80th anniversary in 2020 — could have had a different name.
The original Utah proposal was to name the base “Dern Field,” after Utah’s sixth governor, George Henry Dern, who served from 1925-1933.
Dern was later the secretary of war under President Franklin Roosevelt from 1933 until his death in 1936.
According to the Davis County Clipper of Jan. 24, 1990, it was U.S. Representative J.W. (James William) Robinson, a Democrat from Utah, who made the suggestion to name the air base after Dern.
This wasn’t just to honor the late governor/secretary for his high political offices. According to the Ogden Standard-Examiner of Feb. 4, 1940, Dern had “made an inspection” in 1935 of the potential air base land in northern Utah and “became very sympathetic towards its potential possibilities.”
This led to the Department of War securing options on 4,135 acres of land in the area that the Ogden Chamber of Commerce was promoting as ideal for a future air base and ordinance depot site.
Although most Utahns likely agreed it was a good idea to honor Dern with the base name, it apparently did not square with Army Air Force policy.
According to the 1990 Clipper story, Army Gen. H.H. Arnold responded to Robinson’s naming proposal that the base “would probably be named after an army flier who performed distinguished flying service in Utah, or whose death occurred in that vicinity.”
Notwithstanding, the Hill Top Times newspaper of Jan. 1, 1946, stated, “War Department General Order No. 9 names site OAD ‘Hill Field’ in honor of Major Ployer P. Hill.”
(Hill Field was the base’s original name and it was renamed Hill Air Force Base on Feb. 5, 1948, shortly after the Army Air Corps became the U.S. Air Force.)
Maj. Ployer “Pete” Hill was killed while piloting the experimental Boeing B-17 (“Model 299”) bomber at Wright Field, Ohio, on Oct. 30, 1935.
However, Hill had no ties to Utah at the time and Wright Field was more than 1,600 miles from today’s Hill Air Force Base.
The fact that the sandy area where today’s Hill Air Force Base is actually located on a hill, elevated from much of the surrounding area, has made the title more appropriate over the decades though.
Yes, there is no indication of displeasure with the base’s name, or any known move to rename it. In fact, during its early years, Hill Field paid tribute to the daring test pilot on the anniversary of his death. “Field recalls tragic death of Major Hill. Army Base pays tribute to officer who died seven years ago,” was an Oct. 29, 1942, headline in the Standard-Examiner.
In addition, the base’s name finally had its late arriving Utah connection in the 1960s. The Standard-Examiner of Nov. 7, 1965, reported that Maj. Hill’s only son, also named Ployer P. Hill, served a tour at Hill AFB as a major, from 1964-1966, prior to a combat mission in Vietnam.
The younger Hill died on Jan. 21, 2008, at the age of 83 in Florida.
Yes, “Dern Air Force Base” doesn’t sound right after more than 80 years. It could have been, but the Hill name is both appropriate and deserving today.
More history: A glider experiment in Utah
The famous Wright Brothers flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903 had a big effect on one Utah resident — even some eight years later.
“Ogden aviator comes to grief” was an Oct. 19, 1911, headline in the Salt Lake Telegram newspaper.
“Fired by the accounts of the glider experiments of the Wright Brothers in North Carolina, Ray Irwin, 14 years old, constructed a biplane glider with a wingspan of 26 feet,” the Telegram reported.
The young man, with the help of others, took off from the sand ridge and glided some 300 feet and across the Weber River until it plunged to the earth and crashed in the sagebrush. Irwin escaped with minor injuries.
The Salt Lake Herald Republican newspaper of Oct. 19, 1911, hailed Irwin as “Ogden’s first aviator.” That newspaper said Irwin sprained his left leg on impact and that crash broke the framework of his glider. Some 300 spectators witnessed his short flight.
Lynn Arave worked as a newspaper reporter for more than 40 years. He is a retired Deseret News reporter/editor, from 1979-2011. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. His Mystery of Utah History blog is at mysteryofutahhistory.blogspot.com.