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Homestead Army Air Field ... then Homestead Air Force Base ... now Homestead Air Reserve Base

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Posted: Friday, September 1, 2017 12:00 am

This September, we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Homestead Army Air Field / Homestead Air Force Base / Homestead Air Reserve Base and the 70th anniversary of  the United States

Air Force.

   Navy, Marine and Army aviation first came to the Miami area around World War I because of the outstanding training opportunities made possible by our excellent flying weather.  Homestead Army Air Field came into being for other reasons.

   Before the entry of the U.S. into World War II, Pan American Ferries, Inc., a commercial firm, pioneered the ferrying of aircraft abroad to allies, primarily Britain under an Army contract.  It was Pan American Air Ferries, Inc. which first used the airfield we now know as Homestead Air Reserve Base.

   By comparison with Germany's expansion of the Luftwaffe in the 1930's, the programs of the European countries were both modest and slow.  These countries had excellent new types of aircraft under development, but too few aircraft had come off the lines before the outbreak of war. 

   The British Purchasing Mission in 1938 ordered great numbers of American aircraft for the Royal Air Force.  Many of us are familiar with the fifty old U.S. Navy destroyers sent to the UK under the Land-Lease Act, which Congress approved in March 1941. The Act also permitted the transfer of aircraft to the Allies and it provided in turn for the U.S. use of British territories for construction of bases in British Guyana, Trinidad, Jamaica, St. Lucia, Antigua and the Bahamas.

   The Federal Government signed a contract with Pan American Airways on November 2, 1940 for airport development work in the Caribbean and along a route from South America to Africa and the Middle and Near East. Pan American was the obvious choice for this task because of its pioneering air service in the Caribbean, Central and South America. Incredibly, in just sixty-one days Pan American constructed fifty airfields in previously unpenetrated jungles and in snake, insect and disease ridden swamps.

   Almost all the transport aircraft used by the Allied Powers were produced by U.S. industry, as were many of the bombers.  These are the aircraft that first flew from Homestead.

   The first mention of an Army air base in Homestead came in November of 1939 when Leader Enterprise editor Ben Archer wrote an editorial entitled: “Why an Army Air Base in Homestead.”

   In May of 1940 local community leader Preston B. Bird appeared before the Homestead City Council to suggest that Homestead offer land in or around Homestead to the Army for an airport.  Mayor Tom J. Harris formed a committee of himself, Preston B. Bird and Councilmen Frank Rue and Henry Brooker, Jr. 

   Just one week later Congressman Pat Cannon had already asked the Aviation Division of the Army General Headquarters to inspect a 2,000-acre proposed site west of Homestead.  Mayor Harris added local civil engineer A.R. Livingston to the committee and in another week the Navy was exploring setting up an auxiliary airfield here.

   By the end of October 1940, Homestead had made the list of 250 locations where the Federal Government would fund airfields.  That same month, the Pine Island site where the base would eventually be built was looked at by the Navy for the $5,000,000 blimp base, which would end up being built in Richmond.  Pine Island took its name from the pines, which grew on this high piece of rock land surrounded by soft marl glades.  The rock made it an ideal location for runways. 

   In early December word was received that the Civil Aviation Authority had appropriated $156,000 for construction of the runways and lighting system.  The December 20, 1940 issue of the Homestead Leader-Enterprise contained a map of “Homestead's Pine Island airport site.”  The Dade Co. surveyors were beginning to establish boundaries.  The runways were to be completed by June 30, 1941.  By the end of December, 1940 the State of Florida Internal Improvement Fund in Tallahassee had delivered the deed to the Pine Island property to Dade County for construction of the Army air field and the Federal Government immediately took over responsibility for building the air field. 

   In mid-January 1941 Major A.B. McMullen, chief of the airport section of the Civil Aviation Authority visited Pine Island with A.R. Livingston, local civil engineer and secretary of the Redland District Chamber of Commerce.  Work was to begin on the clearing of a 300-acre section of the 600-acre Pine Island tract.

   In April 1941 an additional $77,775 was added to the Civil Aviation Authority 1942 budget for the air base bringing the total to $233,775.

   Concurrently, the Federal Government was constructing a fresh water pipeline from Florida City to Key West and had funded two “migratory labor camps,” one for white families and one for black families.  Time was running out on the grants and South Dade Farms, Inc. had donated a piece of property for the black family housing near the proposed runways.  The Civil Aviation Authority objected to the proximity of the housing to the runways.  Local agricultural leader Luther Chandler and Florida supervisor of migratory labor camps Paul van der Schouw represented farming interests in discussions which led to a withdrawal of the objections since construction of the $250,000 project had to be underway by June 1941 to prevent the funds from reverting to the general fund.

   Crews began clearing the land for the runways at the beginning of May 1941 with plowing to begin in 30 days.  Powers & Archibald of West Palm Beach submitted the low bid of $228,000 for rock plowing, grading and paving the runways at the “South Dade County Airport.”  The company also had the $269,400 contract to construct the adjacent black farm labor camp and with a contract on the Navy Key West pipeline had $1,200,000 in projects underway in South Dade.  In late June 1941 C.N. Powers rented Palm Villa at Redland Road and Plummer Drive so he could supervise the airport work until his brother E.F. Powers, senior member of the firm, could arrive on the job.  The contract called for completion of the job in 180 days.

   All this construction was a windfall to the utilities department of the City of Homestead.  It furnished power to the airport and farm labor camps, which required the ordering of an additional generating unit.

   The Army Air Forces (AAF) came into being on June 20, 1941, six months before Pearl Harbor. As war approached, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson and Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall saw the need for a stronger role for Army aviation. Consequently they created the Army Air Forces with General H. H. (Hap) Arnold as its head.

   The Army Air Forces attained quasi autonomy in March 1942, a few months after we entered the war. Acting under authority of the War Powers Act, Secretary Stimson approved a major War Department reorganization. Army Air Forces and Army Ground Forces were made co-equal commands.

   In early August 1941 the Homestead Leader-Enterprise reported that Dade Co. had drawn up a formal contract for leasing the airport to the Navy as an auxiliary training station.  A week later, County Commissioner J.D. Redd was quoted as saying that the papers would be signed “today or tomorrow” leasing the airport to the Navy as an auxiliary field for the Naval Air Training Station at Opa-Locka.  The same issue of the newspaper reported that John T. Mapel, a Miami Beach electrical contractor, had been awarded the contract for the lighting system at the airport for $12,600.

   An article in the November 7, 1941 Homestead Leader-Enterprise speculated that Homestead would become a ferrying base for Britain-bound planes.  The Navy was urging that Homestead be used as a springboard via South America and Africa.  The reason for the Navy position: The Army wanted to take over what is now Miami International Airport for its ferrying operation and the Navy had priority for its use and refused to give up that priority.  At this time 600 men and $1,000,000 were involved in the base construction.  Even though it had not yet been completed, the farm labor camp was seen as barracks for the base.

   Mayor Tom J. Harris escorted a group of Army men looking at the airport as a “British plan ferry base.”

   Two weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7 1941, the funding for construction of the airport was doubled, among other things to extend the runways from 4,000 to 6,000 feet.  At the same time the Army surveyed the adjacent South Dade Migratory Farm Labor Camp for housing soldiers.

   The Army signed a 20-year, $1.00 per year lease with the county for use of the airport as a “hop-off of Africa-bound bombers – bound for Dakar in Africa.”  Commissioner J.D. Redd signed for the county and Lieutenant T.J. Wesley, Jr. signed for the Army.  The Army was to spend $1,500,000 for hangars, a machine shop and barracks.  The City of Homestead had already extended its power lines to the airport.  At the same time, six car-loads of machinery arrived from Long Island, N.Y. for expanding the City’s power generation


   By mid-January 1942 the John E. Ballinger Construction Co. of Lakeland was surfacing the runways with asphalt.  An early February status report listed the airfield as 50% complete with $600,000 already spent.  The Army was to spend $3,000,000 on barracks, hangars and roadways and Pan American Air Ferries, Inc. was scheduled to use the field to “train the fliers.”  The eventual total cost was projected to be $5,000,000.

     Pan American Air Ferries, Inc. took control of the Homestead’s South Dade County Airport the first week in May 1942 and signed a contract with the Farm Security Administration to take over the South Dade Migratory Labor Camp.  For nearly a month bombers bound for the war zone had been using the airport.  Pan Am Air Ferries worked with a skeleton crew for maintenance and operations.  Pan American Airways had signed a contract in the summer of 1941 with the US and British governments to deliver US-built airplanes to Khartoum in Sudan, using Miami as a port of embarkation.  After Pearl Harbor the route was extended first to Cairo, Egypt and then to Tehran, Iran.  Security was provided by the Army unit at the Redland Migratory Farm Labor Camp, whose primary mission was guarding the Overseas Highway to Key West.  The displaced black farm workers were housed in a tent city constructed near the camp by the Federal Government.

   Just a month after Pan American Ferries Inc. began operations, the Ferrying Command became the Air Transport Command on June 20, 1942 with world-wide responsibilities for ferrying aircraft, transporting personnel, materiel and mail and maintaining air route facilities overseas.  Chief of Staff of the Army Air Forces took this measure because of a recommendation by the Civil Aeronautics Board Chairman that all airline operations in support of the Navy and Army be consolidated under one single command reporting directly to the President of the United States. 

   The Women’s Air Service Pilots (WASPS) were part of ATC until they were disbanded in 1944.

   To provide antiaircraft warning, eight wooden aircraft observation towers were constructed from Perrine south as part of the aircraft warning system.  Volunteers whose task it was to identify and report aircraft manned the towers.

    In June 1942 Captain Henry S. Brooks, U.S. Army established a headquarters in The First National Bank of Homestead building at 2 South Krome.  He was in charge of construction at the base and of the railroad spur from the Florida East Coast Railway tracks in Naranja to the base; South Dade Farms, Inc. was awarded the contract for the spur.  In July Cleary Brothers Construction Co. of West Palm Beach began construction of the buildings at the base while operating from an office in the old post office building at Krome and Flagler.  By the end of July, the railroad spur was nearly complete and Army engineer Captain Brooks moved his office to the base since the buildings were already rising.

   Pan American Air Ferries, Inc. began moving its equipment and personnel from Miami to the base in August 1942 with plans to have 350 pilots in training by September.  Some on-site supervision was provided by the Air Transport Command which had Major Burton K. Voorhees of the Ferrying Division assigned to the school as its representative.  He supervised and inspected the training.  Pan Am constructed a restaurant at the South Dade Camp capable of feeding 250 people every 15 minutes and a school to serve 800 students.  Major Voorhees later supervised the militarization of the Pan Am Air Ferries, Inc. School.  Seventeen instructors and at least twenty aircraft were taken over by the Army.

   Drainage was projected to be a problem so the Army bought additional land for drainage and awarded a $500,000 contract in August 1942 to locally-owned South Dade Farms, Inc. to dig a canal system.  Philip Gray who supervised the building of the Okeechobee locks was the drainage contract superintendent.  He also worked with South Dade Farms owner James Sottile, Sr. on completing the runways at the base.

   Major General Harold F. George, Commanding General of the Air Transport Command inspected the South Dade County Airport and Pan American Air Ferries, Inc. flight training facilities on August 29, 1942, just a week after Pan Am relocated from Miami.  He flew in on a Pan Am Air Ferries, Inc. aircraft.

   On September 9, 1942 the Homestead Leader Enterprise reported that the Army would take over operation of the Pan Am Air Ferries, Inc. operations.  The Air Transport Command was to take over training of transport pilots and ferrying of planes to battle zones on October 31.  Federal officials were hoping that Pan Am civilian workers would join the Army.  “Qualified pilots, co-pilots, navigators and administrative executives will be offered commissions, and maintenance men, technicians and other employees are invited to enlist with the prospect of receiving ratings according to their skills and experience.”  Aircraft were being delivered to Britain along the North Atlantic route, but Air Transport Command realized that winter conditions would soon make it necessary to shift delivery to a South Atlantic route.  ATC already had two air fields in South Florida – Morrison Field (Headquarters, Caribbean Wing, Air Transport Command) in West Palm Beach and the Thirty-Sixth Street Airport in Miami (now Miami International Airport), but they were both very busy.

   Headquarters, Caribbean Wing, Air Transport Command General Orders Number 6 on September 16, 1942 established the Homestead Army Air Base with three units: 427th Base Headquarters and Air Base Squadron, 54th Ferrying Squadron of the 15th Ferrying Group and 1071 Guard Squadron.   The next day with Headquarters, Homestead Army Air Base General Orders Number 1 Lt. Col. William L. Plummer assumed command of “Headquarters, Army Air Base, Homestead, Florida.”

   Lt. Col. Plummer arrived in Homestead with a group of officers and men on October 15th.  On October 21 the flag was raised over the base “40 days in advance of schedule because of the efforts of Captain Henry S. Brooks,” who supervised construction.  Col. Paul E. Burrows dedicated Homestead Army Air Field and was honored with a dinner at the Bamboo Tavern in Homestead by Lt. Col. Plummer.  At the dedication ceremony were 24 officers and 217 enlisted men, officers from Caribbean Wing Headquarters at Morrison Field and townspeople.  The base theater and mess hall were completed and the Bachelor Officers Quarters were nearly ready.  The base commander’s aircraft was an AT6 Texan two-seat advanced trainer.  The AT6 was the most extensively used trainer of all time.

   October 31, 1942 was the last day of operations for Pan Am Air Ferries, Inc.  The Army Air Transport Command took over on November 1.  “Runways will be used for the take-off of bombers which Transport Command pilots will ferry to Africa, India, China and other battle fronts.” The initial complement of four officers and eight enlisted increased to 64 officers and 880 enlisted by November.  That first month the first aircraft, 33 Douglas A20 medium bombers, were sent overseas.  The next month the base handled 85 transiting aircraft.  The first aircraft handled were all two-engine A20s and A30s.  The Douglas A20 was a multi-role light bomber, not the fastest plane, but tough and it could be flown much like a fighter.  6,887 were built: 3,l25 for Russia, 1,800 for Britain and 1,962 for the United States. 

Next week - Big C46 transports lift off from Homestead Army Air Field to support the war in China - a simple navigational error spells death for the crews.

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