After being waylaid by an accident last month, I had my first outing Thursday evening. It was to a gathering at Columbus Air Force Base of the Base honorary wingmen to say goodbye to Col. Seth Graham, commander of the 14th Flying Training Wing.
Col. Graham’s two-year tour as base commander will soon end. He has done a remarkable job during two tough years, and he and his leadership will be greatly missed by both the base and the community.
Col. Graham and I both enjoy history, and the topic arose that it was 80 years ago in 1942 that the air base opened and began training pilots. The base has a fascinating history that actually began 10 years before it became a reality.
It was in the early 1930s that community leaders in the Columbus area began pursuing an air base. Capt. Sam Kaye, Herman Owen and T.C. Billups were among the first to promote an air base or airport to be located at Columbus. Billups helped secure the full support of his old college friend, Congressman John Rankin, but that initial effort was unsuccessful.
As the European conflict intensified in 1940, Columbus and Lowndes County approved the issuance of $30,000 in airport bonds. Then in February 1941, citizens from Columbus and surrounding towns, including Starkville, West Point, Macon, and Aberdeen, met to work toward securing defense related industries. Ed Kuykendall was elected chair of the new association.
Mississippi’s congressional delegation provided its support, and Congressman Pat Harrison learned Columbus was one of eight sites under consideration for an air base. Although unsuccessful, the earlier efforts had been remembered by the Air Corps. A local site committee, chaired by William Propst, suggested three possible locations for the air base.
In March 1941, Ralph Webb, Birney Imes Sr. and Ed Kuykendall contacted General Walter Weaver at Maxwell Field in Montgomery, Alabama, and arranged for him to come to Columbus to inspect the possible sites. Gen. Weaver liked a site nine miles north of Columbus on Highway 45. Columbus then passed a bond issue to purchase the needed land, most of which sold for $22 an acre.
On June 9, 1941, the War Department approved the location and construction of an Air Corps base at Columbus. Congress authorized funds totaling $4,123,943 for the construction of the base. Actual construction began on July 23, 1941. Highway 45 went through the middle of the base site, so it was relocated to its present location east of the base.
Col. Louie Mallory was the first base commander, assuming command of the still under construction base on Oct. 21, 1941. He served as commander until April 5, 1945. By mid-January 1942, the base was basically completed at a cost of more than $7 million. On Jan. 22, 1942, the new base was named Kaye Field after highly decorated World War I Columbus aviator Sam Kaye. Within a few days of the base being named, 1,000 troops and 41 aircraft arrived, and Kaye Field was designated an advanced training school.
It was not long before a serious problem arose with the base’s name. It was so similar to Key Field at Meridian that airplanes were landing at the wrong base. On April 6, 1942, the name was changed to Columbus Army Flying School and then, on April 28, 1943, the name was again changed to Columbus Army Air Field.
During World War II, 7,412 pilots earned their wings at Columbus with the first class of pilots graduating on March 6, 1942. In addition to training pilots the base played a major role in the development of instrument flying.
During early 1942, the Army Air Force was experiencing an excessive rate of pilot training accidents and fatalities at all of its training bases. At the twin-engine advance flying school, which the Army had just opened at Columbus, base commander Col. Louie C. Mallory decided to do something about the problem. He assigned his training director, Major Joseph B. Duckworth, to figure out the problem and fix it.
Duckworth did just that. Among the problems he found was a deficiency in instrument flying training and started the “full panel attitude system of instrument flying.”
Between May and October 1942, the number of students at Columbus doubled, but the number of accidents decreased by 44 percent. Soon, instructor pilots from bases as far away as the Pacific coast were sent to Columbus to be evaluated. Then, in November 1942, Major General Ralph Royce put newly promoted Lt. Col. Duckworth’s system in place throughout the entire 56-station Southeast Training Command.
The innovative success story of Mallory and Duckworth was then featured in a Nov. 30, 1942, Time Magazine article titled “Teaching the Teachers.” Later Duckworth, known by his friends in Columbus as “Joe Duck,” flew a T-6 through the eye of a hurricane and the weather readings that were obtained inspired the creation of the Hurricane Hunters of today.
During the Korean War, the base became a California Eastern Airways contract pilot training base, and in 1955 the base became a Strategic Air Command base with a B-52 and a KC-135 squadron placed there in 1958. In 1965, during the Vietnam War, B-52 bombers and KC-135 tankers of Columbus’ 454th Bombardment Wing were deployed to the Pacific and Southeast Asia as part of the Strategic Air Command combat force.
In 1969 Columbus Air Force Base again became a pilot training base. It is now the home of the 14th Flying Training Wing and is one of the busiest, if not the busiest, airfields in the U.S. Air Force. During Col. Graham’s time in Columbus, he has provided the leadership that has enabled CAFB to continue to produce the world’s best pilots. He will be missed.
Rufus Ward is a local historian.
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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