At the start of 1941, though the United States had not yet formally entered World War II, the U.S. military was anxious to shore up defenses along the eastern seaboard, which some considered a vulnerable target for a German attack. Early in the year, the Connecticut General Assembly approved the purchase of 1,700 acres of former tobacco farmland in Windsor Locks to lease to the U.S. Army to build a new air base. Because the new base was surrounded by mostly flat, rural farmland, the airfield’s engineers utilized a novel camouflage scheme to render it nearly invisible from the air, painting the runways and taxi lanes with a special patchwork pattern mimicking tobacco crops and dirt roads.
By late July, Windsor Locks Army Air Base was ready to welcome the first waves of military personnel and Army pilots. The atmosphere of optimism, camaraderie, and patriotic pride shared by the brand-new base’s inhabitants was dashed, however, soon after the first official training exercises began. On August 18, during a mock dogfight training exercise, 24-year-old Lieutenant Eugene Bradley blacked out after entering a steep dive in his P-40 Warhawk and crashed into the nearby woods, becoming the air field’s first fatality. Bradley, a recently married native of Oklahoma, had arrived at the base with his new bride only three days before the tragic accident.
An editorial in the Hartford Times called for the new air base to be renamed in honor of the patriotic young pilot. The Army brass agreed, and several months later, on January 20, 1942, the War Department announced it was changing the name of Connecticut’s newest air base to Army Air Base, Bradley Field. At the end of World War II, the air field was converted to a commercial airport for civilian use. Today, as Bradley International Airport, the Windsor Locks airfield still honors the World War II pilot in both its name and airport identification code (BDL), and serves as home to the Connecticut Air National Guard. A dedicated pilot remembered with a fitting memorial, on this day in Connecticut history.
Jerry Roberts, “Windsor Locks: Bradley International Airport,” Connecticut Explored
“Bradley Field and Eugene Bradley,” Grating the Nutmeg podcast
“Crash Site of Bradley Airport’s Namesake Pinpointed,” New Haven Register
“The Case of Lieutenant Eugene M. Bradley,” New England Aviation History