The heritage of the Air Force in the Golden Triangle runs deep.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the opening of Columbus Air Force Base in 1942. It is also the 70th anniversary of the creation of the Air Force as a separate branch military service. Next year will be the centennial of military aviation in the Golden Triangle as Payne Field, a U.S. Army Air Service pilot training base, opened near West Point in 1918.
In 2019, there will be the centennial of a DH-4 airplane on the first transcontinental round-trip flight landing at Payne field for repairs. The Columbus, Starkville, West Point area has played a role in several of the great moments of military aviation history. That heritage was celebrated in fine style Friday night with the Air Force Birthday Ball held at the Trotter Convention Center. It was a grand occasion with more than 400 people, military and civilian, gathering to honor the Air Force’s birthday and heritage.
The Wright Brothers in 1908 delivered the first airplane to the new Army Air Service. During World War II, an illustration of that airplane signed by Walt Disney was given to the Drop in Hanger Servicemen’s hangout at Whitehall in Columbus by Josh Meador, director of animation effects, Disney Studio. It was in 1918, only 10 years after receiving its first airplane, that the Army Air Service opened Payne Field on 533 acres of rolling prairie 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 townspeople, who were said to have called them “buzz wagons” and the pilots “birdmen.” 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. Its 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 to its completion.
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. Kaye’s Spad airplane became known as his “Acrobatic Easter Egg,” as he had painted it light blue with white and red polka dots.
Another early aviator of note was Col. Wilfred Beaver. He 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. In 1918 he was awarded the “British Military Cross” at Buckingham Palace by King George V. 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, 2 1/2 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 banners of greeting at them. The older citizens of Crawford recall the day they thought they were being attacked by a ship from outer space, and white sheets and tablecloths were waved as signs of surrender.
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 was named in honor of Capt. Sam Kaye, but the name was soon changed to Columbus Army Flying School because of confusion with Key Field in Meridian.
During World War II, nearly 8,000 aviation cadets 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. Today Columbus AFB is home to 233 aircraft and is the third busiest base in the Air Force.
Friday’s ball was one to remember. 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, fellowship and good fun that celebrated both our heritage and our future.
There was music provided by the 41st Army Band and an inspiring address by Maj. Gen. Mark Brown, deputy commander, Air Education and Training Command Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas. In his address Gen. Brown, who had previously served at Columbus AFB, wove stories of heroism and self-sacrificing community service by Columbus Air Force Base airmen around the words of the The Air Force Song, ” Off we go into the wild Blue Yonder, climbing high into the sun. Here they come zooming to meet our thunder, At ’em boys, Give ‘er the gun!”
Thinking of that song, I could not help but recall one of my earliest memories of my father who had served in the Army Air Corps during World War II. His B-17 had been shot down over Frankfurt, Germany, where he was captured and then spent a year as a POW in Stalag Luft IV. Sometimes, after a long day at work, he would come home, get a beer, sit down and play a 45 record of that Air Force song except his older version ended at little differently than what we sang Friday night. But the spirit was the same.
“We live in fame or go down in flame.
Nothing’ll stop the Army Air Corps.”
It was a mighty proud heritage that we celebrated.
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at email@example.com.
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