September 22, 2013 12:11:21 AM
Rufus Ward - [email protected]
Friday night the Trotter Convention Center was filled with our nation's finest, for it was the annual Air Force Birthday Ball. Seventy years ago, predating the birth of the Air Force as a separate service, there were also pilots and other servicemen dancing at the Trotter which was then called the City Auditorium. It was a different time but the same place with different men and women but with the same sense of duty and commitment to our country.
The Air Force Birthday Ball is now one of Columbus Air Force Base's social highlights of the year. Its roots, however, extend back over 70 years to dances held during World War II. In 1942, Kaye Field was established at Columbus but was later renamed Columbus Army Air Field and finally Columbus Air Force Base. Probably the most popular base social activity during World War II were dances.
With so many of the young men of Columbus enlisted in the military and serving away from home there was no shortage of local girls for the young men on base to take out, when busy schedules allowed. Dances were very popular and at least one a month was held at the Officer's Club on base. There was a USO club downtown known as the Aviation Cadet Club and it also hosted regular dances. Larger dances, often sponsored by the USO, were held at the City Auditorium, now known as the Trotter Convention Center. That is the same location at which the Air Force Ball is now held. While the ground floor of the Trotter now contains meeting rooms, in the 1940s it served as the local National Guard Armory.
Buses were provided for the transportation to and from the dances. If the dance was on base Columbus girls would ride a bus to the base to meet their escorts and when dances were in town base personnel would ride a bus to the dance. A photo of one of the Columbus dances even appeared in the Illustrated Magazine in London, England, in May of 1943. It was a hoopskirt party and the photo's caption read, "They danced rumbas and minuets. Hoopskirts didn't hamper cheek-to-cheek dancing." The dances extended into the night with the music most favored locally being swing and jazz played not only by the Base band which was called the "Rhythm Flyers" but also by regional bands such as Don Taylor and his Biltmore Boys from the Tuwiler Hotel in Birmingham.
Friday night's Air Force Birthday Ball was totally funded by private donations and ticket sales. In late summer there was a fundraising social event held at the Columbus Club on base and the sale of tickets to the ball began. This year's ball commenced with Commander of the 14th Flying Training Wing, Colonel James Sears Jr., hosting a pre-reception honoring former Air Corps and Air Force personal who had been prisoners of war. That was followed by a dinner with the keynote speaker being Lt. Colonel (retired) Gene Smith, a former Vietnam prisoner of war. The evening concluded with a dance on the same floor where airmen have danced for over 70 years.
While the Air Force Ball was a delightful fun-filled evening there remains the realization that there are airmen from the base in harm's way deployed to the Middle East and pilots who gained their wings at Columbus flying combat missions. The reality of the fun-filled evenings contrasted with the risk accepted in service to our county is exemplified in a story my mother told me. During World War II she worked at the base hospital. One night she and her cousin, Southworth Kimbrough, had a double date with two pilots from the base and they had talked about going out together again. The next morning she was working at the hospital when news arrived that both pilots had just been killed in a plane crash.
The ball's pre-reception hosted by Col. James Sears Jr. was another reminder of the sacrifice by other Air Force or Air Corps personal, for it honored former Prisoners of War. To those who danced the night away and to those who had danced before them, we owe a debt of gratitude we can never repay.
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]