The U.S. Air Force has turned 68 but its roots in the Golden Triangle run much deeper. Friday night the Trotter Convention Center was the scene of a most festive occasion. It was the Air Force 68th Birthday Ball. Keynote speaker for the occasion was Maj. Gen. Richard M Clark, Commander of the 8th Air Force. This years Ball appropriately celebrated the Air Force’s “tradition of honor a legacy of valor.”
As festive and enjoyable as the occasion was, it was also POW-MIA remembrance day. The evening began with a ceremony honoring Prisoners of War and those Missing in Action. In front of the dozens of tables set for the evening meal was a single round table set with an unoccupied place of honor beside which an Airman stood at attention. The table setting included a slice of lemon to remind us of comrades’ bitter fate, of salt symbolic of a family’s tears, a Bible representing strength through faith, an inverted glass for those who can not join in the night’s toasts, a candle for the light of hope and an empty chair for those not there. It was an extremely moving ceremony.
Following the poignant POW-MIA ceremony there were toasts to America and its armed services followed by the evening meal. A festive mood quickly took hold of the gathering. The evening concluded with the traditional dance.
The Ball continued a 200-year tradition of celebrations at U.S. military installations in the Columbus-West Point area. During the War of 1812/Creek Indian War there was Fort Smith at Plymouth Bluff across the river from present day Columbus. When news arrived in the spring of 1815 that a peace treaty had been signed with England and war was over, a celebration was held with the firing of the small fort’s cannon. The cannon exploded upon firing and John Pitchlynn responded by saying: “Well we have no further use for her – she has served through the war and busted in telling us the news of peace.”
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. In June 1941, Columbus was selected as the site of one of the Army Air Corps’ new flying training schools and shortly afterwards construction commenced. In January 1942, military personal began arriving at the new base..
Over the years, Columbus developed a tradition of military balls and parties. Balls were held to entertain troops during the Civil War and in 1918 and 1919 dances for Payne Field were held not only in West Point, but also in Columbus. It was during World War II that several military balls in Columbus caught national and even international attention.
During World War II 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. Larger dances were held at the City Auditorium, now the Trotter Convention Center — the site of Friday night’s ball. Coverage of those Columbus dances even included Life Magazine and the London Illustrated Magazine.
Many of the dances were at the Aviation Cadet Club, which was in a house across from the present downtown location of Fred’s while other dances were on base. Often on Sunday afternoons there were dances at the base Officer’s Club. Music at the dances would be performed by bands such as Don Taylor and his Baltimore Boys from the Tuwiler Hotel in Birmingham.
Friday night’s Air Force Ball continued a centuries old tradition of celebration while focusing on the very real legacy of honor and valor.
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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