Flying StrongFor 60 Years, the U.S. Air Force has Protected Our Country and Helped Define the Emerald Coast’s Growth
By Scott Jackson
Barely two years after the conclusion of World War II, President Harry Truman reorganized the U.S. Department of Defense with a peaceful stroke of his pen, signifying a major restructuring of our armed forces. On Sept. 18, 1947, Truman’s signature on the National Security Act of 1947 also formally established the U.S. Air Force as a separate arm of the Department of Defense.
In its previous incarnation, the U.S. Army Air Forces already had established itself as the preeminent master of air power, having proven itself through two world wars, thousands of lives lost and 42 Medal of Honor recipients. In recognition of the growing importance of air power in the battlefield, however, it was necessary to establish the Air Force as an independent service in order to properly organize, equip and train its forces.
Air Force units worldwide have been commemorating the 60th anniversary in a variety of public events throughout the year.
In the Florida Panhandle, Eglin Air Force Base, Hurlburt Field and Duke Field all have been a key part of the Air Force’s rich history. These installations currently employ more than 26,000 military, civil service and contractor personnel and provide an annual economic impact of $5.4 billion to the Emerald Coast. Each of these installations has helped shape the Air Force into its present-day preeminence.
In 1931, Army Air Corps personnel were looking for a site for a bombing and gunnery range and discovered the potential of the sparsely populated forested areas surrounding Valparaiso, Fla., and the vast expanse of the adjacent Gulf of Mexico.
Local businessman James E. Plew leased 137 acres to the city of Valparaiso; an airport was established on the site in 1933. The next year, Plew donated 1,460 contiguous acres for the bombing and gunnery base. This leasehold became the headquarters for the Valparaiso Bombing and Gunnery Base, activated on June 14, 1935, and later designated Eglin Field in honor of Lt. Col. Frederick I. Eglin.
Eglin Field and adjacent areas were selected in April 1939 as the most suitable location for an armament proving ground. The transfer of nearly 400,000 acres of the Choctawhatchee National Forest from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1940 gave Eglin Field the space to construct bombing and gunnery training and testing ranges.
Today, Eglin Air Force Base is the largest Air Force base in the free world, encompassing 724 square miles of land and approximately 130,000 square miles of airspace over land and water ranges. It is the home to the Air Armament Center, which oversees testing of all aircraft armament, and is the home base of the 33rd Fighter Wing’s F-15 fighters.
Hurlburt Field, named for 1st Lt. Donald W. Hurlburt, originally was one of Eglin’s auxiliary fields for testing. It was home to myriad special-operations aircraft and units supporting numerous campaigns and covert operations.
Hurlburt saw an upsurge in growth, equipment and resources in the wake of the aborted rescue attempt of U.S. hostages in Iran in 1979. Using stealth, the cover of darkness, detailed planning and all available resources, the special operations – or “Air Commandos,” as they call themselves – have supported other operations, such as the capture of Panamanian dictator Manual Noriega, Operation Desert Storm, Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The Air Force Special Operations Command and the 16th Special Operations Wing are based at Hurlburt and fly AC-130 and MC-130 aircraft, as well as the MH-53 helicopter and the new CV-22 Tiltrotor aircraft.
Duke Field also was one of Eglin’s auxiliary fields and was named for 1st Lt. Robert L. Duke. This field supported a variety of aircraft and units over the years, including several special-operations units. Most notable was the use of Duke Field as a backdrop in April 1949 for the filming of 20th Century Fox’s “Twelve O’Clock High” starring Gregory Peck.
Duke Field now is the home of the 919th Special Operations Wing and the 728th Tactical Control Squadron. The 919th has about 1,300 reservists and 250 active-duty members to support the MC-130E aircraft and its mission.
To learn about news and events commemorating the Air Force’s 60th anniversary, visit www.af.mil/library/usaf60.asp