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A glider comes in for a landing at South Plains Army Air Field during WWII. Lubbock's municipal airport was transformed into the training base..

Into the blue

World War II helps Lubbock achieve a goal of obtaining a military airfield

BY Doug Hensley
For the Avalanche-Journal

Lubbock’s desire for a connection to the wild blue yonder dates to 1932, when the growing South Plains city made its first pitch for a military airfield.

The dream, as big as the wide-open West Texas skies, came to fruition nine years later, when construction began on the Air Corps Advanced Flying School. A few months later in February 1942, the Lubbock Army Flying School opened — and an enviable partnership that would last 56 years was born.

Almost immediately, the base began training military pilots for their roles in World War II.

“Things moved pretty fast in those days,” Perry Bell, a member of the first graduating class, which numbered 73 pilots, told The A-J in a 1997 interview. “In seven months and two days, we learned to be a soldier, an officer and a pilot.”

The early pilot classes became experts in handling a number of aircraft, including models such as the North American AT-6 Texan, the Curtiss AT-9 Jeep and the Beechcraft AT-10 Wichita. The facility, which was renamed Lubbock Army Air Field on April 26, 1943, closed just more than two years later, having trained 7,008 bomber, fighter and transport pilots for the war effort, according to an A-J article. Through the years, pilots honed their skills on a dozen aircraft.

The story could have ended there. The base was deactivated in 1945, but the partnership between the city and the military never waned. Thanks to the efforts of a number of Lubbock leaders, including former longtime Chamber of Commerce General Manager A.B. Davis, Spencer Wells and A-J Editor Chas. A. Guy, the installation was reactivated in August 1949 to train pilots.

The group convinced the Air Force to see the merits of reactivation and made several promises that included paving Fourth Street between the base and the city. Lubbock also bought and leased to the government for $1 a year the land on which the base was located.

In October 1949, The A-J received a telegram from Texas Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson informing the city that the facility would officially be renamed Reese Air Force Base in honor of First Lt. Augustus F. Reese Jr., a Shallowater native who was killed in 1943 while flying a voluntary combat mission over Italy.

Longtime Lubbock U.S. Rep. George Mahon announced in 1950 that Reese had been named a permanent installation, and the base went about building a reputation as a training ground for some of the best military pilots for the next 47 years.

But that wasn’t the only air base near Lubbock during the war years.

Lubbock’s municipal airport became the South Plains Army Air Field, and it was there that several thousand glider pilots received their training. While Reese trained pilots on twin-engine aircraft, the South Plains facility was home to the advanced glider school.

“Through the years the facility was open, 79 percent of more than 5,000 glider pilots received their wings at the South Plains Army Air Field,” said Eddy Grigsby, assistant museums manager for the city.

“A lot of soldiers were coming through here for training. Not only did they train here, but they also trained at Abernathy Auxiliary Field, and they did soaring training in Lamesa at an airfield just north of there.”

World War II-era planes line up along a runway at the Lubbock Army Flying School. The school was a training ground for pilots before they entered combat areas during the war. The flying school eventually evolved into Reese Air Force Base, which remained in operation until 1997.

The glider program, which is perhaps one of the lesser-known chapters of World War II history, was instrumental in the war effort, Grigsby said. The engineless planes were used in major campaigns throughout Europe as well as several campaigns in Burma.

“The glider wasn’t a secret weapon because other countries had glider programs,” Grigsby said. “This was before the helicopter, and it was an aircraft that could literally land anywhere.”

Grigsby said gliders were capable of carrying 13 fully armed troops in addition to a pilot and co-pilot. Likewise, they could transport howitzers, jeeps and munitions. The contributions of glider pilots are recognized at the Silent Wings Museum, which opened in 2002 in the original terminal building of Lubbock International Airport.

The facility, Grigsby said, is the only museum in the world dedicated to the glider program.

The legacy of Reese is similarly secure. The base officially closed Oct. 1, 1997, having trained more than 25,000 pilots, including, for a short while, the crown prince of Iran. The 64th Flying Training Wing flag was sheathed during inactivation ceremonies.

“Although the wing and base are inactivating, the spirit of both will remain a part of the Air Force forever,” Maj. Gen. Kurt B. Anderson said in an A-J article.

Wing commander Col. Henry W. “Kodak” Horton paid homage to Lubbock and the spirit of partnership that resonated between the facility’s military personnel and West Texans who understood Reese’s importance.

“Reese may be closed, but its legacy will live on forever,” he said.

The final group of trainees — 18 pilots who comprised class ’97-04 — spent 51 weeks at the base learning to fly T-37s, T-1s and T-38s, according to an A-J article. Each pilot logged more than 200 hours of flight time, and members of the class understood their place in history.

“Every class that went through here tried to be the best that it could be; that’s if you’re the first class or the 50th class — that doesn’t change,” 2nd Lt. Jason Costello, a member of that final class, told The A-J.

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The A-J Remembers The Most Important People in Lubbock's History

SPECIAL SECTIONS: 1909-1933 / 1934-1958 / 1959-1983 / 1984-PRESENT | PRINT VERSION