|The following article was written by aviation historian Lou Thole and is reprinted with his permission. It is extracted from his book Forgotten Fields of America, World War II Bases and Training THEN and Now.|
Atterbury Army Air Field, Columbus, IN
Copyright© 1996 by Lou Thole
The rapid expansion of the Army Air Corps was well under way by the 1941 fiscal year; however, with the fall of France, the need for a stronger defense became even more apparent. As a result, Congress passed a succession of spending bills that ultimately would provide for the annual training of 70,000 pilots.
To speed the building of the needed bases, the responsibility for their construction was moved from the Quartermaster Corps (already overburdened with other military needs) to the Corps of Engineers. Procedures to locate the bases, approve the sites, and authorize the construction became less cumbersome, all in the interest of building the bases as quickly as possible. A sense of urgency eliminated much of the red tape associated with government projects; we needed the bases now.
There was no specific master plan for the arrangement of the expansion training bases, just guidelines. While many bases had similarities, most were unique, and were built according to the mission of the base. However, there were exceptions. For example, the pilot basic training base at Coffeyville, Kansas was duplicated very closely by another base just a few miles down the road at Independence, Kansas.
Structures were another story. They were generally the same in terms of construction and design. For example, there was a standard barracks type building, hangar, post office, mess hall, hospital, chapel, etc. This speeded construction and helped improve quality control. However, this was subject to local needs. For example, in the Northeast, a base used structures called "hutments" to house personnel instead of the barracks type buildings found on many bases. Construction material also varied, some bases used prefabricated siding for wood, and others used cinder blocks for some buildings.
The building idea was designed around the concept of "Spartan" simplicity. General Arnold noted in January 1942 that "all frills and nonessential items would be eliminated and only the bare essentials would be approved". What this meant was buildings were to be of a temporary type built of wood and tar paper. Airfield construction during this period employed three types of building construction; Permanent, Mobilization, and Theater of Operations. Permanent buildings were constructed of brick and mortar for those bases intended to be used for an extended time. As a result, there were few buildings of this type on the temporary bases built for air crew training. The Mobilization type of building was of wood frame construction, often two stories, and was generally heated centrally by a coal burning stove with a duct system to spread the heat throughout the building. The more common type of building constructed was the Theater of Operations. This building was little more than a tarpaper shack set on a concrete slab, and heated by a coal burning stove located in the center of the building. These buildings were bitterly cold in the winter, and offered little protection from the heat and dust of summer. They were cheap, easy to build, and went up fast. It was estimated they could be built in one sixth the time of the Mobilization type buildings, and were about one fourth the cost.
Probably the most enduring structures of the training bases were the hangars, typically built of wood with some steel and/or concrete. Some bases, where bombardiers were trained, were required to maintain a secure building to store the top-secret Norden bomb sight. Typically, a vault like structure to house the bomb sight, was built within the standard temporary building. The vaults were made of steel reinforced concrete, with heavy steel doors. As a result, many of the safe like structures are still standing, though the buildings that housed them have long since vanished.
Atterbury Army Air field is a good example of the construction process that went on during the rapid build up of the Army Air Forces in 1941, '42 and '43. During this period, frantic construction was going on all over the United States. Plants were built or converted for war time production, ship yards were constructed, as were major training facilities for Infantry, Marine, and Navy personnel. Also, there was a need for technical schools to instruct mechanics and specialists in radio/electronic repair, schools for instructors, and major facilities for the production of ammunition. As a result, materials and people were at a premium.
Atterbury Army Air Field was located about three miles north of Columbus, Indiana, just east of U.S. Route 31 and about 35 miles south of Indianapolis. Within a 30 mile radius were two other major military installations; Camp Atterbury, a 40,000 acre infantry training camp which also contained a large prisoner of war compound, and Freeman Field, an advanced twin engine training field. All were being built during 1942.
During this time, Mr. Stratton Hammon, a highly successful architect for twenty-two years and the owner of his own firm for thirteen years, took and passed the Army physical He later received a letter appointing him a Captain in the Corps of Engineers with orders to report to the Louisville District office. In his book, The Impact of World War II On A Citizen Soldier, Stratton wrote, "From the Corps of Engineers' point of view, I was, perhaps, the greenest officer ever to report for duty. At least I felt that way. One of the first things that struck me was that everything tables, chairs, boxes, whatever, was stamped 'USED.' Since they were obviously not new and were apparently used, it puzzled me why they had to be labeled in that manner. It was several days before I realized that it stood for 'U.S. Engineer Department'."
Stratton spent several months in the office, and later, on an airfield construction project learning about the duties of an area engineer and a little about the Army way of doing things. He also had to master the engineering knowledge necessary to build an airfield. A few months later, he was called back to the Louisville District office and was appointed area engineer, contracting officer, and commanding officer of an Army airfield to be built at Columbus, Indiana. This was on July 29, 1942, and he was given five months to build the field. Stratton's spending limit was one million dollars(in 1942 dollars) per day, and with a phone call to his boss, could have the limit increased to 10 million dollars per day. In today's dollars that would be about 130 million.
Hammon's only equipment was a small truck, some office supplies and a map to find Columbus. He drove there, borrowed a secretary from his friend who was building Camp Atterbury, and set plans to build the field. His first step was to visit the local Chamber of Commerce to ask for office space and clerical help. The C of C knew nothing of the project; however they were most helpful. At this time, the farmers living on the land did not know that they would soon have to leave. Some farms had been in the same family for generations as land grants since the Revolutionary War. Prior to Stratton being ordered to build the field, the Corps of Engineers Real Estate section surveyed the field and declared it suitable to build a training field. One of the earliest mentions of the field occurred in the August 15, 1942 edition of the Columbus Herald. The article reported "an Army base to be built one mile north of town."
Stratton's initial responsibility was to find an architect/engineering firm who in turn would hire a contractor to build the field. The contractor would submit a bid based on the architect/engineering firm's plans and specifications. This typically took about ten days. Stratton's job was then to insure quality control, meet construction time tables, handle labor issues, take care of local concerns, and make certain construction materials arrived on time and were of sufficient quality and quantity. He was also the official representative for the military and, as such, had considerable power to insure the field was finished within the required time.
One of the more difficult parts of the field's construction were the runways. They had to be poured to exacting specifications, and with the approaching winter, needed to be completed quickly. Adding to the normal difficulty of runway construction was the lack of material. Everyone was pushing suppliers to the limit for material. Before the start of runway construction, Stratton called a friend in Indianapolis with whom he had done business for years, and requested 10 rail cars of cement and 55 carloads of aggregates (sand and gravel) per day. The friend said unfortunately there simply was not that kind of quantity available, and in any case, Stratton was number 40 on the list to receive the material. Obviously, there wasn't time to wait, so Stratton called his Colonel in Louisville to tell him of the problem and ask if there were anything Stratton could do. His colonel pointed out that Stratton had the power of eminent domain and that he should simply take control of the company. So he did. Stratton marched in with two of his officers, announced he was taking control of his friend's company, and moved his name to first on the list. He got his material on time.
Before Atterbury was built, it was simply open farm land with a rudimentary road system. Roads had to be built and material found to build a rail siding onto the field. Stratton called the Pennsylvania Railroad requesting they build a rail spur into his field. They did not have the rails and again many construction projects were already waiting for a rail spur. Hearing of the necessary rails in an abandoned nearby coal mine, he sent a crew to get the rails. Unfortunately someone had already beat him to it. Here, Captain Hammon broke the chain of command and made a direct call to Mr. Donald Nelson, head of the War Production Board. Two days later, the Pennsylvania Railroad was building the spur onto his field.
Another time, he needed fire plugs, and was unable to get them because of the shortage. However, knowing where they were stored, he sent a truck over at night, broke through the fence of the storage yard, and took the necessary plugs. All was forgiven when he paid the bill. Someone else had to wait to get their fire plugs.
Winter was fast approaching, and the runways had to be put down if there was to be any hope of opening the field on time. Cold weather would complicate the process. Normally, concrete was not poured in freezing weather, but the option to wait for spring did not exist. It became necessary to pour concrete twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, but he got it done. Later, when talking about this with his colonel, Stratton asked, "Why did you assign the area engineers who had been architects to engineering projects, and the engineers from civilian life to architectural jobs?" He answered, "You all knew how to build, but by assigning you projects outside your disciplines, you did not know the jobs I gave you were impossible, so you did them." So the runways were put down, and it must have been done well, because they are still there.
Another challenge to overcome was an incredible labor shortage. Laborers from all over the country came into Indiana to work on building projects. Often, laborers had to work long hours in poor weather, and at a pay rate many felt should be higher. Strikes and work stoppages were not uncommon, and union problems existed from time to time. Workers frequently left for better paying jobs. A local Columbus paper, The Evening Republican, ran a headline story about construction worker problems at nearby Camp Atterbury. the story reported that a carpenter shortage was caused by wage conflicts, poor transportation facilities, and the possibility of new plant construction in Indianapolis. Often, union officials would visit the construction site, and provoke work slowdowns. One particularly troublesome union representative was causing a problem for one of Captain Hammon's foremen. So the foreman asked Stratton what he should do. Stratton said to lock him up, meaning just detain him for a few hours. Stratton went about his business and forgot the incident. About ten days later, Captain Hammon's boss called and asked if he were holding a civilian, Stratton replied, "Let me check." He did, and found the union official had been held in the field's jail for the past ten days. The foreman obviously misunderstood Stratton's suggestion. It turned out well however, because the official had been a fireman and was currently out of that job. So Captain Hammon appointed him the field's fire chief. Often union organizers would pose as workmen to gain entrance into the field. Since they appeared to be in excellent physical condition, Stratton asked the draft board in Indianapolis why these young men were not fit for military service. Soon these men began to disappear, and when the word got around, Stratton's union troubles were, for the most part, over.
The field was finished on time, and turned over to the Army Air Corps on December 31, 1942. It covered over 2,000 acres and, when opened, had about 139 buildings. Until may 1944, there was no significant, long-term use of the field. Units were briefly assigned, spent just enough time to organize, and do some training, then were transferred. These units included a reconnaissance group and some medium bombardment groups. However, in 1944, this changed when Atterbury was transferred from the 3rd Air Force to the Troop Carrier Command of the 1st Air Force.
During 1944, the Army was involved in a massive training program for glider pilots. Many fields in Indiana participated, including Atterbury. Almost 18,000 men were enlisted in the glider program, but only about 5,000 received their pilot wings. There were simply more trainees than the anticipated glider building program could provide for. Glider pilot trainees came from many sources including instructors at civilian flying schools, washouts from from the Air Corps Cadet programs, and men from other military units. Typically, they would solo in a small single engine plane, and then report for glider training with about 10 hours on the single engine ship. At this time, glider training was about 50 hours. After graduation, the trainees were commissioned as Flight Officers. Merton Wheeler was a C-47 pilot stationed at George Field near Lawrenceville, Illinois, and remembers it well. There wasn't room at Atterbury Field for the C-47 tow planes and the gliders, so the C-47s were kept at George Field. There were about 150 C-47s and C-46s at George field and about 30 CG-4A gliders at Atterbury. Since George Field was a short flying time from Atterbury, the arrangement worked well. Merton recalls flying in all kinds of weather, and some days when even "the ducks were walking." His only close call came during a particularly overcast day with extremely poor visibility. While towing gliders in formation, he heard a thud in his ship and it shook slightly. Since he saw nothing and the C-47 flew well, he continued with his training flight. After landing, while checking his plane, he noticed the astrodome had been smashed. To this day, he doesn't know what hit him, but assumes it was a glider being towed by a different C-47. After that incident, Merton was more careful to make sure his parachute was in its proper place.
There were no facilities during this period, but there were many landings in the fields around Atterbury. Getting the gliders back was a problem, because disassembling them to be trucked back was difficult and time consuming. As a result, a system was used that literally snatched the glider from the field into the air to be flown back to the air base. Here's how it worked. A tow line about 300 feet long was attached to the nose of the glider and laid out in front. It was then connected to a line stretched between two 12-foot poles. A specially equipped C-47 with a hook caught the tow line and "snatched" the glider into the air. Normally pilots flying from Stout Field in Indianapolis were called in to fly these missions.
Atterbury Army Air Field played an important role in the training of the first Black bomb group ever activated. In late 1944 and early 1945, when Atterbury had reached its peak personnel load of 1,400 officers and enlisted men assigned for training, the field was the training site for the 618th and 619th Bomb Squadrons of the 477th Bombardment Group(M). Although the Group was assigned to Godman Field, kentucky the two squadrons were to train at Atterbury for four, after which they were to return to Godman and be replaced by the other two squadrons. The training was First Phase (PreCrew) flying. Permanent crews had not been assigned primarily because of a lack of trained gunners. Gunnery training was taken elsewhere in places like Buckingham Army Air Field near Ft. Myers, Florida, and Yuma Army Air field, Yuma, Arizona. Besides flying training, instruction was also given in armament, bombsight, chemical warfare, communications, and navigation. In early january, several groups of trainees had returned from their aerial gunnery training, so radio/gunners, engineer/gunners, and armor/gunners were now available. Second phase (Crew Training) started; however within a few months all 477th training activity at Atterbury was transferred to other fields.
In early 1944, the War Department began the expansion of the existing hospital at nearby Camp Atterbury (an infantry training center). Eventually, it became one of the largest military hospitals in the United States. Atterbury Army Air Base was used to fly in wounded from Europe and Asia, who would then be transferred to the hospital. less than one hour elapsed from the time the wounded landed at Atterbury Air field to their admission to Wakeman General. The air base was twelve miles away. Some men were flown from France, but most were from England. Their first stop was at Mitchell Field, new York, and from there it took about four and one-half hours to fly to Atterbury Army Air Base. The hospital was named Wakeman General Hospital, and when finished, was enormous. It covered 80 acres and had a total of 68 buildings. Most buildings were two stories high, many make of concrete block. Others were air-conditioned and most were interconnected. The hospital specialized in neurosurgery, plastic surgery, and treatment of orthopedic cases. Some of the best specialists in the world worked there, and the hospital received nationwide recognition for its pioneering work in plastic surgery. The first casualties arrived from overseas in April 1944, and they would be followed by 86,500 more before the hospital closed in December 1946.
In February 1945, there were 1,840 military personnel and 600 civilians working at Wakeman General Hospital. During this period, Atterbury Air Base reached its peak World War II activity with glider training and hospital planes landing throughout the day. This continued through V-J day when glider training was gradually phased out. Hospital planes continued to use the field until Wakeman closed. Today, the chapel, administration building, doctor's and nurses quarters, and the indoor swimming pool still remain. Some are in use by the Job Corps.
After World War II, Atterbury Army Air field was deactivated. However, it was used from time to time to train pilots. Carl Lawhorn was a pilot with the 167th Fighter Squadron, West Virginia National Guard, and remembers flying F-51s there in the summer of 1948 for his two weeks of active duty training. Carl recalls opening the barracks buildings for his quarters: "They were dusty, musty, dirty, and looked as if they hadn't been occupied in years." Later the field was used as an Air Force Reserve Training Center. In 1954, the base was renamed Bakalar Air force Base to honor Lt. John Bakalar of nearby Hammond, Indiana, who was killed in France in September 1944 while flying a P-51. the rededication ceremony was attended by the flyer's mother and his 11 year old daughter, Suzanne, and 10 year old son, Robert. Also attending was his widow, since remarried, Mrs. Dorthea Dugan.
The base was closed by the Department of Defense in January 1970. The City of Columbus received title in 1972, and in 1982 renamed it Columbus Municipal Airport. Today, it is a first class General Aviation airport, thanks to the excellent leadership of its manager, Mr. Wendell Ross. Some original buildings remain and are in use, although most are expected to be torn down by the late '90s. Additionally, an outstanding museum, the Atterbury/Bakalar Air Museum, has been constructed and dedicated to the memory of all military and civilian personnel who served there during those difficult years.
BUILDING AN AIRFIELD: Atterbury Army Air Field by Lou Thole