When bi-planes plied the skies above EWR

Click on each photo to enlarge. Story appears below.


The photos of Newark airport, from 1928 through 1948, come from the private collection of writer Joseph G. Bilby and also the collection of the National Guard Militia Museum of New Jersey.

A woman is helped off a P47 fighter plane May 30, 1948.

A woman is helped off a P47 fighter plane May 30, 1948.

The first major airport in the New York/New Jersey area, Newark opened on October 1, 1928. Owned by the city, the airport soon became one of the busiest in the world, with over 90,000 passengers passing through in 1931. Competition from the New York Municipal Airport (LaGuardia), which opened in 1939, led to a significant loss of income, and Newark Mayor Meyer Ellenstein closed the airport in May 1940, although the NJ National Guard’s 119th Observation Squadron continued to operate at the location and a private company leased a newly built hangar.

The military took over the airport completely during World War II and it reopened under the administration of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey following the war. The National Guard’s air wing was a presence at Newark Airport from its beginnings until the post World War II opening of Maguire Air Force Base.

Click on each photo to enlarge.

Click on each photo to enlarge.

By Joseph G. Bilby

Today’s New Jersey Air National Guard has its roots at Newark Airport. In September 1928, the United States War Department assigned two regular army soldiers to help organize the state’s first aviation support unit for the New Jersey National Guard’s 44th Division. At the time, the air arm was part of the army, and known as the “Army Air Corps.” The regulars worked with New Jersey National Guard officers and enlisted men interested in flying. They had completed their training and organizational mission by the end of 1929, with the formal establishment of the 119th Observation Squadron.

New Jersey airfields were scarce in the 1920s, but the new unit had a home waiting for it at Newark Airport. Under the direction of the city’s mayor, Thomas Raymond, airport construction began on 68 acres of a 240-acre tract of marshland east of the city near U.S. Route 1 in late 1927. The airport site was also adjacent to Port Newark and major railroad lines, an ideal location for a military air unit as well as a commercial airline headquarters.

Newark Airport opened for business on October 1, 1928, and the 119th Observation Squadron became operational at the airport on January 30, 1930. The unit was assigned the numerical designation of the World War I era 119th Aero Squadron, and the War Department considered it the “reconstitution and consolidation” of that unit for lineage purposes, although the original organization had no formal connection with the state of New Jersey. Two hangers and an administrative office were built at the airport to accommodate the National Guard personnel and aircraft.

As an observation unit, the 119th was equipped with two seat biplanes, for a pilot and observer. The observer’s job was to photograph and record information and intelligence of tactical use to the ground forces in combat or to patrol the offshore waters looking for submarines. In the peaceful 1930s, however, the observer seat was occasionally filled by the sitting governor, particularly three term incumbent A. Harry Moore, who enjoyed flying and used the 119th for transportation to and from public events at Sea Girt, Camp Dix and other places. The governor had his own personal pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Robert L. Copsey of the 119th.

When Governor Moore was in residence at the National Guard Camp in Sea Girt during the summer, planes often flew down from Newark Airport to land and remain on the camp parade ground, ready for orders from the governor. They were there in September 1934, when the SS Morro Castle, on its way from Havana to New York, caught fire off the New Jersey coast. As the ship burned off Sea Girt, planes from the 119th, including one with Governor Moore aboard, helped direct rescue ships to the area.

Throughout the 1930s, the 119th Observation Squadron supported New Jersey National Guard activities. The unit participated in the 1931 “Mass Air Corps Maneuvers” and the 1935, 1939 and 1940 First Army Maneuvers. In September 1939, the 119th was ordered to fly to Cape May for a week of intensive training. Humanitarian missions for the squadron, in addition to the Morro Castle disaster, included assisting in search efforts for survivors following an airliner crash in the Adirondack Mountains.

Not all air operations ended successfully. On November 6, 1933, a plane from the 119th took off from Red Bank Airport on a return flight to Newark, crashed into a house on Peach Street in Shrewsbury and exploded. The pilot, Lieutenant George R. Johnson, his observer, and all five residents of the house, including two children, were killed in the accident. Johnson was a noted explorer of the era and considered “one of the best known aerial photographers in the world.”

In September 1940, with World War II on the horizon, the 119th Observation Squadron was called to active duty, and left Newark for points south. The unit participated in the massive Carolina Maneuvers of October and November 1941. Following Pearl Harbor, the 119th was detailed to coastal defense flights, looking for enemy U-Boats.

Although the 119th remained stateside, many members of the unit transferred to other outfits and served overseas. Perhaps the best known of these men was Donald Strait of Verona, an enlisted man who qualified as an aviation cadet and attended flight school at Maxwell Field, Alabama, in 1942. Rising to the rank of captain, he became an ace, credited with 13.5 aerial victories over German aircraft as a fighter pilot in the 356th Fighter Group. In the postwar era Strait served in the New Jersey Air National Guard, from which he retired as a major general in 1978.

In the spring of 1942, the army took over Newark Airport entirely, using the facility as a stopover point for fighter planes, including P40s and P51s, being ferried overseas. It was also a transit hub for wounded soldiers being transferred from a hospital in Staten Island to medical facilities closer to their homes.

During the war the army made significant physical improvements at the airport, including lengthening runways and building a new control tower, and in August 1945, held an air show featuring “Thumper,” the first B-29 bomber to return from the Pacific theater.

The 119th Observation Squadron never returned to Newark Airport. It was reconstituted as the New Jersey National Guard’s 119th Fighter Squadron, however, equipped with P-47 (later designated F-47) aircraft, and stationed at Newark in May 1946. The Air National Guard, now separate from the army as part of the Air Force, an independent branch of the service, maintained a significant presence at Newark Airport in the postwar era, including sponsoring a large air show in 1948. The Air Guard units eventually moved to Atlantic City and Maguire Air Force Base, but it is safe to say, however, that Newark Airport benefitted considerably from its years-long relationship with the New Jersey National Guard and the United States army and Air Force, which contributed much to both construction and public relations efforts in the airport’s early years.

Joseph Bilby

Joseph G. Bilby received his BA and MA degrees in history from Seton Hall University and served as a lieutenant in the First Infantry Division in Vietnam in 1966-1967. He is Assistant Curator of the New Jersey National Guard and Militia Museum in Sea Girt, a member of and publications editor for the New Jersey Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee, a columnist for The Civil War News and New Jersey Sportsmen New and a free lance writer, historian and historical consultant. He is the author, editor or co-author of over 400 articles and nineteen books on New Jersey, the Civil War, and firearms history, including Monmouth Courthouse: the Battle that Made the American Army, co-authored with daughter Katherine, which was a Military Book Club selection. His most recent work includes editing the award winning New Jersey Goes to War and co-authoring 350 Years of New Jersey History: From Stuyvesant to Sandy, Hidden History of New Jersey at War and On This Day in New Jersey History. Mr. Bilby has received the Jane Clayton award for contributions to Monmouth County (NJ) history, an award of merit from the New Jersey Historical Commission for his contributions to the state’s military history and the New Jersey Meritorious Service Medal from the state’s Division of Military and Veterans Affairs. 

  1 comment for “When bi-planes plied the skies above EWR

  1. September 23, 2016 at 10:45 pm

    This was the only original hanger left on the first airmail route between New York City and San Francisco, Calif. in a time when biplanes plied the skies and it took a 32 hours nonstop for the plane to make its way from coast to coast.

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