Eglin Celebrates 75 Years
Photo courtesy the State Library and Archives of Florida
Eglin Celebrates 75 Years
As Eglin Air Force Base reaches a milestone anniversary, we reflect on the history of this amazing contributor to the welfare of the Emerald Coast By Scott JacksonFlorida Secretary of State Robert A. Gray (far right) with Braden Ball (middle), former publisher of the Pensacola News Journal and director of the St. Joe Paper Company, and Perry Marsh look at 2,000-lb. M66 aerial bombs in front of a B-29 Stratofortress bomber at Eglin AFB, 1947. Previous page: Aircraft of the U.S. Air Force inventory on the Eglin AFB flight line, 1959. Photo courtesy the State Library and Archives of Florida
Carved from the heart of the ecologically vibrant Choctawhatchee National Forest, the seed of Eglin Air Force Base’s existence was planted in the waning shadow of the Great Depression nearly 80 years ago. From that seed has grown a national treasure — and a cornerstone of our nation’s defense.
This June 14 will mark the 75th anniversary of Eglin. The date will be formally recognized at the base’s open house in April, along with events honoring local military veterans.
In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was in his first term in office, attempting to right a nation ravaged by economic chaos and an unemployment rate of 20 percent, while Americans found solace in music, movies and sports. “Mutiny on the Bounty” was the best picture of the year, while Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers sang “Cheek to Cheek.” Detroit won both the World Series and the national football championship.
The crew of the first aircraft of Doolittle Raiders, including pilot Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle, second from left, 1942. Doolittle Raiders photo courtesy National Museum of the U.S. Air Force
In that same year, the generous land offerings of a Chicago businessman and airplane aficionado, James E. Plew, led to the official creation of what is now Eglin Air Force Base.
The last B-25 bomber resides at the Air Force Armament Museum to honor troops led by Doolittle in the first attack on Japan following Pearl Harbor. B-25 bomber photo by Scott Holstein
On June 14, 1935, the U.S. Army Air Corps, with the blessing of the local civilian communities, activated the Valparaiso Bombing and Gunnery Range airfield in Northwest Florida. It has evolved over the past 75 years into modern-day Eglin Air Force Base, and its extensive auxiliary fields and water, land and air ranges have in turn become a crown jewel of the U.S. Department of Defense.
“Coming of age during World War II, Eglin played a major role in the testing of weapons and equipment, and the training of air and ground combat crews,” said Maj. Gen. Charles R. Davis, commander of Eglin’s Air Armament Center. “Eglin continued to make significant contributions during (every U.S. military campaign), including the current war on terror. It has come full circle in the 21st century by continuing the same critical training and testing missions with its international and joint partners as it also continues the positive relationships with the local civilian communities.”
Today, Eglin Air Force Base is the largest Air Force base in the Western world, encompassing 455,000 acres of land and approximately 130,000 square miles of airspace over land and water ranges. Eglin is home to the Air Armament Center, which oversees testing of all aircraft weaponry, and is destined to become the future home base of the new, state-of-the-art F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter.
Eglin’s testing and development of armaments has provided technologically superior weapons for our fighting forces. The evolution of the “smart bomb” developed there, leading to more precise accuracy for guided missiles and minimizing civilian casualties. Other developments in recent years include the “bunker buster” bombs developed from scratch just six weeks before being employed against Saddam Hussein’s hardened bunkers in Iraq.
Smart bombs now employ GPS and inertial navigation systems to sharpen their aim. The 10-ton Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb dubbed “MOAB,” or “Mother of All Bombs,” was the single largest precision-guided conventional bomb ever developed and tested at Eglin. When detonated in a test, the mushroom cloud it produced could be seen 20 miles away.
The Early Years
In 1931, Army officials seeking a bombing and gunnery range were attracted to the forested areas around Valparaiso, as well as the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Plew, the land owner and businessman, saw the potential to boost the local economy and leased 137 acres to Valparaiso to build an airport in 1933. The next year, he offered the U.S. government 1,460 contiguous acres for the bombing and gunnery base. This leasehold became the headquarters of the Valparaiso Bombing and Gunnery Base, which was activated on June 14, 1935. The base was named Eglin Field in honor of Lt. Col. Frederick I. Eglin of the U.S. Army Air Corps, who was killed on Jan. 1, 1937, in an aircraft accident.
McKinley Climatic Laboratory has the ability to reach temperatures as low as negative 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Photo courtesy Eglin AFB
In 1940, the U.S. Forestry Service ceded an additional 384,000 acres of Choctawhatchee National Forest. The following year, Eglin became the site for Army Air Corps fighter-pilot gunnery training, as well as a major testing center for aircraft, weapons, equipment and tactics.
The vast range complex and its equipment have been used for other military and humanitarian purposes over the years, while Eglin military units have served in every U.S. military campaign.
In 1942, one of Eglin’s auxiliary airfields, now Duke Field, became a major training location for the Doolittle Raid on the Japanese mainland during World War II. The 24 crews selected and led by Lt. Col. James “Jimmy” Doolittle picked up modified North American B-25B Mitchell medium bombers in Minneapolis and flew them to Eglin. Doolittle’s 72 officers and 75 enlisted men received intensive training for three weeks in simulated aircraft-carrier takeoffs by U.S. Navy pilots from nearby Naval Air Station Pensacola.
In 1944, the Germans were bombing England with V-1 missiles, also known as “buzz bombs.” As part of the Allied response to find a means to destroy Germany’s bomb-producing sites, Eglin constructed replicas of the German V-1 missile site on what is now Four Mile Village near Sandestin. Code-named “Operation Crossbow” by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the bombing tests began immediately following construction. The sleds and bunkers are still visible today. Two of these sites are included on the National Register of Historic Places.
By the end of World War II, Eglin Air Force Base had made a recognizable contribution to the effectiveness of the American air operations in Europe and the Pacific, and continued to maintain a role in the research, development and testing of air armaments.
Tactical training at Eglin Air Force Base. Photo by Senior Airman Ali Flisek/U.S. Air Force
The Perfect Storm — McKinley Climatic Laboratory
Construction of the McKinley Climatic Laboratory was completed in 1947. As a result of lessons learned in World War II, when Army Air Forces pilots found themselves fighting in every type of environment, it was imperative to see how aircraft, armament systems and people performed in widely diverse types of climates. The laboratory has the ability to reach temperature extremes between 70 degrees below zero and 165 degrees Fahrenheit, as well as create rain, sleet, wind, snow, fog, dust and sand conditions. Over its 63 years, the lab has grown in size and scope, especially through a $75 million expansion in the mid-1990s. The cavernous facility now spans approximately 3.3 million cubic feet, is four stories tall and is large enough to hold a 747 jumbo jet. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Son Tay Prison Raid
During the Vietnam War, 70 American prisoners of war were thought to be held at the Son Tay prison camp, which was surrounded by 12,000 North Vietnamese troops. In 1970, Eglin Air Force Base served as the secret training site for the Son Tay Raiders, the group that made the daring attempt to rescue the POWs. A replica of the prison camp was constructed for raid rehearsals. Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. LeRoy Manor, a resident of Shalimar, commanded the task force for the operation.
“Security was a prime consideration, and the Eglin area was well suited because it is a vast area,” Manor wrote for the Son Tay Raiders Web site. “It is an area where seeing military personnel wearing different uniforms does not create any speculation that something unusual is being planned. Also, the needed air resources were located primarily at Eglin and nearby Hurlburt Field.” The real-life mission ultimately failed when it was discovered during the raid that the prisoners had been previously moved to another camp.
Tent City — Extending a Helping Hand
In 1975, after the fall of Saigon, Eglin Air Force Base served as one of four main U.S. Vietnamese Refugee Processing Centers. Base personnel housed and processed more than 10,000 Southeast Asian refugees at Eglin’s Auxiliary Field Two, located 10 miles north of Eglin’s east gate. Eglin again became an Air Force refugee resettlement center in April and May of 1980, processing more than 10,000 Cubans who had fled north to the United States.
An F-15C Eagle from the 33rd Fighter Wing flies during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Photo by Master Sgt. Mark Bucher/U.S. Air Force
During Operation Desert Storm, Eglin’s 33rd Fighter Wing, the “Nomads,” flying F-15s and employing missiles developed and tested at Eglin, scored the first air-to-air kill — one of 16 in all. This was more than any other unit as Saddam Hussein’s air force was decimated or fled to Iran. The 33rd also flew the most combat sorties and hours for any F-15 squadron (1,182 and 7,000); had the most pilots in one squadron with a kill (12); had the most pilots from one squadron with multiple kills (four); and destroyed the most Mig-29s in the air (five) of any unit.
Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Nomads provided armed air patrols throughout the United States, securing two presidents, multiple space shuttle launches and other high-visibility events.
The 33rd Fighter Wing closed its operations with the F-15s in September 2009 to make room for the F-35 training wing in 2011.
Khobar Towers Bombing
On the night of June 25, 1996, terrorists detonated a truck bomb in front of Khobar Towers, an eight-story building in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, used to house foreign military personnel. Twelve of the 19 personnel who lost their lives during the bombing were deployed from Eglin’s 33rd Fighter Wing. They represented a cross-section of the wing as crew chiefs, expediters, weapons loaders, mechanics, production superintendents, program managers and technicians. President Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary Clinton, attended the memorial service and consoled family members.
Visit by President Bush
In 2002, President George W. Bush, joined by his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, visited Eglin and addressed service members and families in King Hangar on the importance of Congress approving his budget.
“We’re unified in Washington on winning this war,” Bush said. “One way to express our unity is for Congress to set the military budget, the defense of the United States, as the No. 1 priority and fully fund my request.” Bush later dined with Eglin service members.
Eglin on the Big Screen
Eglin’s vast range and facilities have been settings for major movie productions over the years. “Thirty Seconds over Tokyo,” released in 1944 and starring Spencer Tracy, chronicled the Doolittle Raids. “12 O’Clock High,” released in 1950, starred Gregory Peck as a general leading a bomber group in World War II. “Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” was released in 1964 with Peter Sellers in several roles and contained footage shot over Destin Harbor. And John Wayne portrayed fictional Col. Mike Kirby in the 1968 Vietnam War movie “The Green Berets.”
Preservation of our Heritage
Eglin and its surrounding communities have continuously supported the preservation and promotion of the base’s heritage. While ensuring that the equipment and armaments are archived, there are other programs to preserve and honor the memories of those men and women who have served.
In 1974, the Air Force Armament Museum was created, becoming the only museum in the world dedicated to the collection, preservation and exhibition of artifacts and memorabilia associated with Air Force weapons and the aircraft that carry them. Because of inconsistent financial support in its early years, the Air Force Armament Museum Foundation, a philanthropic nonprofit organization, was established to help fund and perpetuate the museum. The museum contains Eglin’s history and sits just outside of the base’s west gate. It is open to the public.
Two military heritage events coinciding with Eglin’s 75th birthday include an “Honor Flight” escort of World War II veterans to visit war memorials in Washington, D.C., this spring, as well as a visit to the Emerald Coast in June by “The Healing Wall,” a scaled replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
The Honor Flight Network program provides air transportation and escorts of World War II veterans to Washington to see the memorials. The program was conceived by Earl Morse, a physician assistant and retired Air Force captain who wanted to honor the veterans he had taken care of for 27 years.
The inaugural Honor Flight took place in May 2005 when six small planes flew out of Springfield, Ohio, taking 12 World War II veterans on a visit to the memorials.
On Nov. 12, 2007, U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller announced the formation of the Emerald Coast Honor Flight program.
“With a congressional district that includes the largest number of veterans in the country, I knew we needed to bring the Honor Flight to the Panhandle,” Miller said. “Emerald Coast Honor Flight is important because our Northwest Florida World War II vets have earned the right to see their memorial. Emerald Coast Honor Flight has now given over 500 World War II vets from across our district this opportunity, and I am proud of all of the people who have made this program such a success.”
Cinnamon Holderman, executive director of Emerald Coast Honor Flight, credits the congressman with giving the program a jump start in the local community.
“He organized a board,” Holderman said, “and from there, the media, community, local businesses, families and friends all joined forces and began raising money to send these great men and women to see their memorials.”
The program relies totally on donations to fund the trips. Each trip costs about $80,000, according to Tom Rice, secretary and treasurer of Emerald Coast Honor Flight. Rice, who helps train the volunteer guardians who accompany the veterans, says a lot of the money comes from the efforts of the schoolchildren who attend the public schools the veterans visit.
“We just finished a visit by three veterans to Florosa Elementary School,” Rice said. “The bond they make is amazing.”
Eglin defense contractor InDyne Inc. recently contributed $25,000 to the cause.
“InDyne is proud to support our veterans and in some small way give back to those who sacrificed to keep our country and the world free,” said Don Bishop, the company’s president and CEO.
The inaugural flight for Emerald Coast Honor Flight was April 20, 2008. According to Holderman, there have been five flights to Washington with a total of 514 veterans on board. Additional flights are scheduled for April 14 and May 5.
Retired Air Force Chief Master Sgt. William P. Zell, 88, was one of those on the Honor Flight on Oct. 21, 2009. Zell served tours of duty in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. He recalled the visit as an emotional experience.
“I was overwhelmed in two areas,” Zell said. “There were 103 of us on the flight. When we got to the Marine Corps War Memorial, every one of us wanted to have our picture taken in front of it. That was heartwarming. It means a lot to be there with fellows who have been there and done that.”
Zell and his group were not prepared for the next emotional moment, which occurred on their arrival home.
President George W. Bush’s visit to Eglin Air Force Base in 2002. Photo by Scott Jackson — PhotosFlorida.com
“When we landed at Pensacola, we assembled and went through the airport,” he remembered. “We were greeted with clapping, hollering, whistling and crying — every emotion in the world. That was heartwarming too. I was pushing a guy in a wheelchair, and he was in tears.”
Army Veteran Dr. William Thompson, 89, was equally moved by the experience.
“We laughed some and cried a lot,” Thompson said. But for Thompson, who, after his service, became the third doctor hired at White-Wilson Medical Center, the most poignant moment was orchestrated by Rep. Miller’s staff.
While contemplating whether to walk over to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, one of Miller’s aides approached Thompson and told him she wanted him to get in the wheelchair behind him. Thompson balked at first.
“I don’t need to get in a wheelchair, I can walk that far,” Thompson said. After the aide insisted, Thompson relented and was wheeled toward the memorial. On the way over, Thompson’s cell phone rang.
“It was my great-granddaughter asking me where I was,” said Thompson, who thought she was back home. “I told her that I was almost to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and asked her where she was. She said, ‘Well, if you would lift your head, you will be looking right at me.’ There was my great-granddaughter and my great-great-grandson standing in front of me.”
Inside the Air Force Armament Museum: Master Sgt. Mabris Dillard, Senior Airman LaRose Bacani and Maj. Scott Porterfield are all active duty military personnel currently stationed at Eglin. Photo By Scott Holstein
‘The Wall That Heals’
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is the most visited memorial in Washington, with more than 4 million visitors each year. Yet many veterans and families are unable to make the trip to see it.
On Veterans Day 1996, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund unveiled “The Wall That Heals,” a half-scale replica of the memorial in Washington, designed to travel to communities throughout the United States.
From June 17 to June 20, 2010, the wall will be at the Fairgrounds in Fort Walton Beach, hosted by the Heritage Museum of Northwest Florida to honor Eglin Air Force Base’s 75th anniversary, according to the museum’s executive director, Michelle Severino.
“The mission of the Heritage Museum of Northwest Florida has always been to collect and preserve the history of the region, and to educate the public about that history through research, exhibits and public education programs,” Severino said. “‘The Wall That Heals’ is also accompanied by a mobile museum that tells the story of the war, the wall and the era.
“A computerized information center allows visitors to search for information about those named on the memorial,” she said. “The exhibition will bring the experience of Vietnam to the region and will provide an opportunity for the public to gain a heightened awareness of the impact and legacy of the Vietnam War while honoring veterans in the region.”
Veterans arrive home after taking the Emerald Coast Honor Flight to Washington, D.C. Photo By Michael Duncan — duncanmccall.com
Celebrating The Future
Maj. Gen. Davis is optimistic about the future of Eglin Air Force Base.
“During the past seven-and-a-half decades, Eglin has assisted the U.S. Air Force to grow from a fledgling independent military service to the world’s premier air and space force and the world’s leader in aerospace technology and air supremacy,” he said. “As our flight plan takes us (through) 2010, I look forward to sharing our celebration on our Eglin 75th anniversary.”
For a list of events commemorating the 75th anniversary celebration of Eglin Air Force Base, visit eglin.af.mil.