March 18, 2017 11:02:03 PM
Rufus Ward - [email protected]
In 1917 the Army began construction of a pilot training base on 533 acres in the prairie four miles north of West Point. On March 10, 1918, the base, named Payne Field, saw the first squadron of Curtis JN-4 "Jenny" airplanes arrive. By May 1, 125 Jennys were in the air around West Point.
In West Point people called the airplanes "buzz wagons" and the pilots "birdmen." The base football team even became known as the Birdmen. The early days of military aviation were a different time. The JN-4 "Jenny" airplanes at the base were not only used for training but for everything from flying to dove hunts, delivering newspapers and searching for moonshine stills in west Alabama.
The Jenny could, and the pilots would, land almost anywhere. Golf courses seemed to be popular for landing strips, as the Columbus golf course just across the Tombigbee from downtown and the "Country Club at Spring Hill" golf course near Mobile were both proposed landing strips for short- and long-range training flights. The size of a runway recommended for an auxiliary field was suggested to be 400-by-1,000 feet. The present runway at Golden Triangle Regional Airport, between Columbus and Starkville, is 8,000 feet long.
My grandmother, Lenore Hardy Billups, who lived at Billups Gate (on the railroad just south of GTR Airport) during World War I, told me stories about how she and my grandfather would go to parties at Payne Field and pilots would fly down to Billups Gate for dove hunts and barbecues. They would land in a pasture beside the house. The late Sam Kaye found a photo in his mother's photo album of Payne Field pilots and their airplane at a 1918 barbecue in Artesia.
The base newspaper, the Payne Field Zoom, was even delivered by "Jenny" to Columbus, Starkville, Macon, Aberdeen, Tupelo and Memphis subscribers. When planes were involved in accidents or crashes away from the base, medical personnel were flown to the sites to quickly render aid. The Jenny apparently could go almost anywhere.
Payne Field had what was considered to be a top-notch sports program. Under the direction of base athletic director Arthur Duffy, who "was the world record holder for 100 yards," an excellent sports program of baseball, basketball and football was established. The program competed with colleges in the area but had some practice games with local high school teams.
In the fall of 1918, the football team was considered one of the best teams in the south and defeated both Ole Miss and Mississippi A&M (Mississippi State) in games. In November, the football team played a practice game with Tupelo High School shortly before a scheduled game with Tulane. The Payne Field team flew to Tupelo High School in their Jennys. It was probably the first time a football team had ever flown to a high school football game.
In possibly a law enforcement first, federal authorities and the Columbus police used Payne Field aircraft to search for stills and moonshine operations in west Alabama and east Mississippi. The is no explanation given in several newspaper accounts of raids, none of which were in the Columbus city limits, as to why the law enforcement personnel involved in each raid were Columbus police officers.
The Memphis News Scimitar reported on December 19, 1918, about a recent raid stating: "Airplanes from Payne Field have been successfully used in locating stills in various portions of East Mississippi and West Alabama, and it is said that one of the aviators found the hiding place of the one raided yesterday, which was in a densely wooded section." Accounts of that raid described it as being about 15 miles north of Caledonia in a thickly wooded hilly area. However, accounts differed as to whether the still was in Alabama or in Monroe County, Mississippi. The raid which destroyed the still and 250 gallons of mash was conducted by Payne Field intelligence officers, lieutenants McLean, Neff and Wilburn with Columbus police officer Will Woods."
In researching this column, I came across a reference to an incident I had never seen mentioned in relation to a notable aviation first. I've written before about the first transcontinental round-trip by airplane stopping at Payene Field to have the propeller on one aircraft repaired. An AP article in the February 10, 1919, New Orleans Item reported the Army aviators had left Payne Field headed to San Diego by way of Fort Worth, Texas. I had not seen that the "squad" was short one "machine" as it had "wrecked" at Vernon, Alabama. The pilot, Lt. Worthington, fortunately was not injured.
Rufus Ward is a local historian. Email your questions about local history to him at [email protected]
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]