The roots of the U.S. Air Force run very deep in the Golden Triangle. Columbus Air Force Base opened in 1942 as Kaye Field of the Army Air Corps but the town had been seeking an air base since the early 1930s. Even earlier, nearby West Point was home to Payne Field, a World War I pilot training base. Other military sites date back to 1813. The area has played a role in several of the great moments of military aviation history.
The last couple of days have been extra special at Columbus Air Force Base. Special Undergraduate Pilot Training Class 14-14 graduated and the annual Air Force Birthday Ball celebrating the 67th birthday of the United States Air Force was held. The theme was Heritage to Horizons and focused on both the unbelievably talented people who have passed through the base and the new, soon to be great, pilots who just graduated. Guest who spoke at events included Gen. Mark A. Welsh III and Lt. General Stephen Wilson Commander, Air Force Global Strike Command. General Wilson had previously served as wing commander at Columbus from 2004 to 2006.
It was in 1918 that Payne Field opened on 533 acres about four miles north of West Point. The field in its short two-year existence trained about 1,500 pilots in its 125 Curtis JN-4 “Jenny” aircraft. Airplanes were new to the town’s people who were said to have called them “buzz wagons.” The base closed in March of 1920.
During its short life Payne Field played an important role in an aviation milestone. In January 1919, Maj. Theodore Macauley made the first transcontinental round trip flight. His airplane was a de Havilland DH-4. Major Macauley was accompanied not by a co-pilot but by Private Staley, a mechanic. The airplane’s propeller was damaged flying through a thunderstorm in Alabama and it landed at Payne Field where the field’s “propeller shop” fabricated a new propeller enabling the flight to continue.
The area was also home to a number of World War I pilots. Among them was Capt. Sam Kaye of Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker’s famous 94th “Hat in the Ring” Squadron. By the end of the war Kaye commanded the squadron’s First Flight. Kaye’s Spad airplane became known as his “Acrobatic Easter Egg,” as he had painted it light blue with white and red polka dots. Columbus Army Air Field was first named Kaye Field in his honor but the name was change because of confusion with Key Field in Meridian. Upon learning of the change, Rickenbacker, then president of Eastern Airlines, wrote a letter expressing his disappointment that the field was no longer named after his old friend.
Col. Wilfred Beaver was a World War I British pilot turned World War II American pilot who settled in Columbus after World War II. As a British pilot he was credited with 19 confirmed victories over German aircraft. He was awarded the “British Military Cross” at Buckingham Palace by King George V in 1918. The citation called him “a patrol leader of great dash and ability.” He received the award not long after he had survived being shot down over his own airfield by one Freiherr von Richthofen, the “Red Baron.”
On Oct. 8, 1924, the first transcontinental airship flight passed over Columbus. It was the silver, two-and-a-half city block long navy Zeppelin, the USS Shenandoah. Just west of Columbus the airship passed over Crawford. A reporter for the National Geographic was on board and wrote about the warm greeting the Shenandoah received there with people even waiving white tablecloths at them. The older citizens of Crawford recall the day they thought they were being attacked by a ship from outer space and white cloths were waved in surrender.
One of the most interesting people to have served at Columbus was “Joe Duck.” Col. Joseph Duckworth, then a major, was assigned to “Air Corps Advanced Flying School, Kaye Field, Columbus, Mississippi, in early 1942 to serve as “Director of Training.” He quickly became active in the life of both the base and Columbus. Local residents called him “Joe Duck” and he and his wife lived in “Magnolia Hill,” a still surviving c. 1830 home on 12th Street North in Columbus.
While at Columbus, Duckworth was assigned by Col. L.C. Mallory, base commander, to investigate an Air Corps wide problem of excessive training accidents. Duckworth not only discovered the cause, he fixed it. The story of what Duckworth had done resulted in he and Mallory being featured in the Nov. 30, 1942, issue of Time Magazine and Duckworth becoming known as the “father of Air Force instrument flying.” The Base Operations building is named after Col. Duckworth and a main aircraft maintenance hangar is named after Mallory.
In 1943, while commanding at Bryan Field in Texas, Duckworth was the first pilot to admit to intentionally flying through the eye of a hurricane, and twice in one day in an AT-6. He was accompanied on the second flight by the base weather officer. The observation proved to be of such value that the flight inspired the creation of the Air Force “Hurricane Hunters.”
Construction of what is now Columbus Air Force Base began in 1941 and the base opened as Kaye Field in the spring of 1942. It then became known as Columbus Army Flying School. During World War II, nearly 8,000 aviation cadets [students] received pilot training at the base. During the Korean War the base was a contract flying school and in 1955 the base became a Strategic Air Command base with a B-52 and a KC-135 squadron placed there in 1958. The base again became a pilot training base in 1969.
Columbus and the Golden Triangle area share with Columbus Air Force Base a long history of military heritage. It is a history that began with Fort Smith in 1813, broke aviation ground in 1918 with Payne Field, and is marked today by Columbus Air Force Base.
Two days ago that tradition continued with the graduation of a new class, Class 14-14, of the world’s best pilots followed by the always delightful Air Force Ball. The ball was held in a hanger named for the base’s first commander, Col. L.C. Mallory. Inside two airplanes were parked side by side and provided the Heritage to Horizons focal point, One was Gary Dedeaux’s 1942 AT-6 Texan I and the other a present day base T-6 Texan II.
This was a ball like no other. It was an evening that began with the posting of colors, the singing of the Star Spangled Banner and a standing toast to the flag of the United States. It was a wonderful mixture of patriotism and good fun that celebrated both our heritage and our future.
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]