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Ask Rufus: The long history of Columbus air bases

 

Air Corps personnel at a 1943 dance in Columbus. Airmen who dated Columbus girls often gave them their insignias—or wings—and even “sweetheart jewelry” such as this bracelet made from silver wings.

The Drop-in Hangar at Whitehall was a servicemen’s hang out in Columbus. Some of its decorations were provided by Walt Disney Studios and autographed by Disney.

 

Rufus Ward

 

This week Columbus Air Force Base will be celebrating its 70th anniversary. The base follows a 199 year tradition of military installations in the Columbus area. During the War of 1812/Creek Indian War there was the 1813-1814 Fort Smith at Plymouth Bluff. The Civil War turned Columbus into a major Confederate hospital and supply center. Payne Field, was a World War I Army pilot training base located at West Point. With the growing threat of war, Columbus was selected in June 1941 as the site of one of the Army Air Corps' new flying training schools. 

 

In September 1941 construction began on the new air field at Columbus. Army personnel began arriving in late January 1942 and the base was named Kaye Field after noted World War I aviator captain Sam Kaye of Columbus. However, because of confusion of the name with Key Field in Meridian the name was changed to Columbus Army Flying School and later to Columbus Army Air Field. 

 

The people of the Columbus area had always supported and tried to provide a touch of home to military personnel stationed here. In 1814 supplies mentioned as being provided at Ft. Smith included "whiskey." During the Civil War, homes in Columbus took in the overflow of wounded from the military hospitals and homes were opened for social events to entertain troops. During World War I, Payne Field pilots would fly to area farms and communities, landing in pastures, to go hunting or attend barbecues. 

 

The community response was no different during World War II. World War II was a time of national unity. Communities poured out their support for the military. Support for Columbus Army Air Field came both from local citizens and an unexpected place. 

 

There was an Aviation Cadet Club in downtown Columbus that was available for Air Base personnel, and T.C. Billups provided a servicemen's hang-out called the Drop-in Hangar in the basement of Whitehall, an antebellum home on Southside. There were also dances held at the City Auditorium, now the Trotter Convention Center.  

 

Parties were held at private homes and one of those events was even featured in Life Magazine and the London Illustrated Magazine; however, the party that was featured in Life Magazine was actually a staged event for the magazine. Many of the parties were at the Aviation Cadet Club, which was in a house across from the present downtown location of Fred's. There were also many dances on base. 

 

Often on Sunday afternoon there were dances at the base Officer's Club. Music at the dances would be performed by bands such as Don Taylor and his Biltmore Boys from the Tuwiler Hotel in Birmingham.  

 

Churches also did their part to bring a taste of home to the base's personnel. A good example was First Baptist Church, whose Camp Service Committee had semi-monthly parties that were "popular with the men at the local base and local people as well." One of the church's parties was described in the April 10, 1942 Commercial Dispatch. The account stated that "...many from the Columbus Army Flying school were present... The affair was in the form of a "Mother goose" party and all of the activities of the evening including games, stunts and decorations, featured mother goose ideas...The social opened at 7:30 with variations of the grand march." 

 

The third Columbus Pilgrimage was held in April 1942 and many base family members participated in it. Mrs L.C. Mallory, the wife of base commander Col. Mallory, was featured on the front page of the Commercial Dispatch while serving at Whitehall. Major Joseph Duckworth was residing in Magnolia Hill which was listed as a "Star Home." 

 

Support for Columbus Army Air Field also came from an unexpected source. Columbus native Joshua Meador was supervisor of animation effects for Walt Disney Studios during the 1940s. 1943 saw the Disney Studio attempting to assist in the war effort. In an attempt to help servicemen and their families, Meador often would go to military hospitals where he would draw caricatures of patients that they could send home. Josh was also one of the animators for the feature "Victory Through Air Power" and he was the animator for several of informational shorts, such as "Theory of the C-1 Autopilot Part 1 Basic Principles," which Disney produced for the army. 

 

Meador sent T.C. Billups five animation cells, including two from "Victory Through Air Power" that had been autographed, "Happy landings at Whitehall, Walt Disney." They were hung in the "Drop-in Hangar" along with other memorabilia from across the country. 

 

Seventy years ago the people of Columbus rallied around Columbus Army Air Field and continued a practice that had begun over a hundred years earlier.  

 

Rufus Ward is a local historian. Email your questions about local history to him at rufushistory@aol.com.

 

Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at rufushistory@aol.com.

 

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