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The Continuing Evolution of Homestead Air Force Base

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Posted: Thursday, October 5, 2017 10:04 pm

Part Four in our series to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Homestead Air Field / Homestead Air Force Base / Homestead Air Reserve Base and the 70th anniversary of the United States Air Force.

By Bob Jensen

   By 1957 construction had progressed  at Homestead Air Force Base, to where improvements were seen in all of the normal base facilities.  Buildings had been renovated or replaced, personnel strength reached almost full quota and supply  problems were being resolved.

    In the first half of 1957 the two wings demonstrated their readiness when each completed two months of overseas rotational training.  The 379th Wing trained at Sidi Slimane AFB in Morocco March 5 to May 15 and the 19th Wing at Ben Guerir AFB, Morocco May 1 to July 1.  Just two weeks into 1957 Homestead AFB experienced its first aircraft accident when a B47 of the 379th crashed while attempting an emergency landing at Homestead, killing all four crewmembers.  Nine days later two of the 19th's B47s collided in mid-air while engaged in refueling operations over the Caribbean, killing three of the six crewmembers involved.

    Col. Travis M. Hetherington relieved Brig. Gen. Keith K. Compton as 823rd Air Division Commander on June 1, 1957 when the general was transferred overseas.  Col. Hetherington was promoted to brigadier general the next month.  Col. William H. Cleveland became the 379th Wing commander.  Col John B. McPherson took command in July of 1959.  Brig. Gen. Jack J. Catton relieved Brig. Gen. McPherson and was promoted to Major General during his Homestead tour.  Major General Alvin C. Gillem, III followed General Catton in July of 1963 and then was relieved by Brig. Gen. William E. Creer in May of 1964.

    Operation Reflex Action was a SAC rotational deployment concept begun on June 17, 1957 when­ a group of support personnel of the 379th Wing departed Homestead for Sidi Slimane AB, Morocco.  On July 2, 1957 five 379th B47s were in place, having arrived via Westover, AFB, Mass.  Aircraft from three other participating wings arrived shortly thereafter.  Thus began a weekly rotation of aircraft and crews to Sidi Slimane.  The 19th Wing joined the operation in December of 1957.  The 379th Wing shifted its

Reflex Action base from Sidi Slimane to Ben Guerir AB, Morocco while the 19th remained at Sidi Slimane, later moving to Spain.

    1957 continued to be a bad year for aircraft accidents. The third major accident involving the 823rd Division occurred in October 1957 when a 379th B47 crashed while taking off from Homestead AFB during a simulated combat mission, killing four crewmembers.  Less than three months later in January 1958 a KC97 of the 19th ARS crashed in the Everglades near Homestead, killing one crew member.  The fifth accident occurred in March 1958 when a 379th Wing B47 crashed shortly after takeoff from Homestead.  The next month SAC discovered fatigue cracks in the wings of B47s as a result of a rash of accidents.  An inspection and repair program known as Milk Bottle was implemented, which did not solve all the B47's problems but it did go a long way in making operations with the B47 a lot safer.

    The 379th Wing received its third commander when Col. John B. McPherson relieved Colonel Cleveland on March 3, 1958 when Col. Cleveland was transferred to Columbus AFB, Miss.  Then on April 1 that year Col. James H. Thompson relieved the wing's deputy commander, Col. John Livingston who had temporarily succeeded Col. Virgil M. Cloyd as 19th Wing commander.

    The base was called to an alert status together with all the US armed forces because of the critical international crisis in the Middle East in 1958.  The two wings' aircraft were loaded, cocked and poised for immediate takeoff with crews standing by.  On July 26th the alert status was eased with crews going to a one-hour recall status.  The alert status was terminated in early August.

        In 1958 improvements to the base were dramatic.  A new service club, dental clinic, nurses' quarters and a base nursery were under construction.  December 1, 1958 was a great day when the first families moved into Homestead AFB on-base housing.  It took over two years from the time construction was first approved until actual work began and it was three years before the first family moved in.  The history of the housing was as follows.  The Department of Defense authorized the base to negotiate for an architect engineer contract for the construction of a 1,570-unit housing development in November of 1955.  They were to be government-owned houses.  Prior to this time plans had been made and then dropped for the construction of a 1,000-unit privately-owned and rented project, with the backing of some government funds.  Land acquisition problems had to be settled in the courts, there were high-level objections to the proposed heating-air conditioning systems and the number of units was lowered to 1,255.  In the interim off base housing was scarce and rent high.  Air Force personnel ordered to Homestead AFB were advised not to bring their dependents because of the critical housing situation.  Many families purchased their own homes in areas from Cutler Ridge to Leisure City to Homestead as a solution to high rent.  The availability of housing caught up to the demand in late 1957 with the construction of civilian off base apartment buildings.  With the completion of the on base housing units, the base population was estimated to be 15,000, the size of a small city.

    The 19th Air Refueling Squadron spent July-September, 1958 operating from the Azores and other forward area bases.

    On January 1, 1959 the 823rd Air Division and Homestead AFB were transferred from the Second Air Force to the Eighth Air Force.  1959 also saw the approval of construction of a 54-mile pipeline connecting the base with Port Everglades in an effort of alleviate hazards from using trucks and tank cars in delivering fuel to the base.  The pipeline was designed to deliver 4,000,000 barrels of jet fuel annually.  Also the base received the highest over-all rating in the Air Force for housing facilities.  Personnel strength in 1959 was 1,075 officers and 5,173 enlisted, not including tenant commands.  The acreage of the base was at 3,800, up from 2,400 in 1955.  This 3,800 number included 297 acres of leased land used for recreation, with boat docks.

    By the end of the 1950s, the base had more than 6,000 military members, twice the size of its busiest World War II days, and a fleet of 90 B47 Stratojet medium bombers and a squadron of 15 KC97 tankers.

    In April of 1960, the 19th Air Refueling Squadron moved to Otis AFB, Mass., which was quickly followed by the transfer of the 435th Troop Carrier Wing (reserve) to HAFB from Miami International Airport.

    Later in 1960 the 379th Bomb Wing drew orders to disperse to northern bases as both wings prepared to convert to B-52 aircraft.  The 379th BW headquarters moved to Wurtsmith AFB, Michigan in January 1961.

    In mid-summer (of 1960) HAFB began re-tooling for the missile-carrying B-52H as the 19th BW's last B-47 took off for the Davis-Monthan ABF aircraft graveyard.  Construction crews converged on the flight line to reinforce the runway, taxi-ways and parking areas to accommodate the mammoth bombers.  During this brief shutdown of the base, the runway was extended to approximately 12,000 feet and reinforced to accommodate the heavier bomber.  Squadrons were re-equipped and modifications had to be made.  The B52 "BUFF" would be a familiar sight over South Florida for the next six years.

    Late in 1960, the first nine-hole golf course was constructed

    The 435th Troop Carrier Wing (Reserve), Continental Air Command, moved to Homestead from Miami International Airport in April 1960 with their Flying Box Cars.  It was known as the "Flamingo Wing."  The C119 was the standard military cargo transport of the 1950s; it was replaced by the C130s in the 1960s.

    The 435th soon transitioned to the C124 Globemasters and was activated.  It flew to Africa, Alaska, Europe, the Far East and Panama. The C124, "Old Shaky" to many airmen, was the giant airlifter of the Cold War with its huge payload.  It first flew in May of 1950.  447 Globemaster IIs were produced from 1951 until 1956.  With its large clam-shell doors in the nose it could haul very large items. The C5 Galaxy replaced the C124 in the Air Force.

    Hurricanes continued to impact operations at HAFB.  The base was hit again, by Hurricane Donna in September of 1960. The remaining B47's began flying out at 0800, September 8 at five-minute intervals.  By 0430 on September 9 operations became very inactive.  "Donna" arrived at 1300 with winds at 40 mph--winds increased to hurricane force (73 mph) at 1400 and persisted until 0700, September 10.  10.69 inches of rainfall fell during "Donna."  The base suffered one-half million dollars of damage.

    Also at this time the 823rd Combat Support Group was attached to the 19th Wing to relieve the Division of routine operational and administrative duties.  Later on October 1, 1961 it became the 19th Combat Support Group and Col. Henry B. Hohman assumed command in December of that year.

    In February 1962 the first B52H arrived at Homestead AFB from the Boeing Aircraft Company with the Governor of Florida aboard.  It was named the Hesperides I.  Soon thereafter Mayor Richard Conley of Homestead arrived in on the first KC135 Stratotanker to be assigned as replacement for the KC97's on July 3, 1962.  It took just five months of accelerated crew training for the wing to reach combat readiness.  It was not long after the conversion to the B-52H that a 19th BW crew established a record of 11,420 statute miles over a closed course without refueling, flying Hesperides XIII.

    The 407th Air Refueling Squadron was activated April 1, 1962 and arrived from Westover, AFB, Mass.  The Boeing KC135 first flew July 15, 1954 and became operational in 1957.  732 were produced with additional passenger and cargo capabilities.  Modified and upgraded over the years, the aircraft is projected to be in service until the year 2025 and beyond.

    For some the highlight of 1962 was the arrival of the "Hound Dog" missile on April 21, 1962.

    The mission of Homestead AFB changed.  The 19th Bomb Wing B52H's were assigned the duty to fly the "Dew Line" along the northern edge of Canada and Alaska, to react to any threat by Russia.  This necessitated the construction of the Alert Crew Ready Building next to Base Operations.  These crews were assigned alert status of seven days, and the bombers were to be airborne within fifteen minutes.  There were two combat-ready B52H bombers launched every day at 1500 hours to fly a 24-hour mission without landing, supported by air refueling aircraft.  They landed at 1530 hours each day after their replacement departed.

    The 482nd Fighter Interceptor Squadron arrived in March of 1962 with its F102 Delta Daggers and stayed through the Cuban Crisis of the Fall of 1962, (when they became the 482 Wing) until March 1963 when they were replaced by the F104 Starfighters of the 319 Fighter Interceptor Squadron.  Both FIS units were part of the Air Defense Command. The F104 was a small, light fighter/interceptor whose primary feature was its speed.  A single-seat, single-engine fighter with limited range it first became operational in 1958.  It was referred to as "a missile with a man in it."  2,439 F104s were built in eight different countries.

    In April of 1962, Hound Dog, the first guided aircraft missile arrived.  A Hound Dog missile was a Homestead landmark at US1 and Campbell Drive until Hurricane Andrew.

    In October of that year, the Cuban Missile Crisis took place.  Near its conclusion, the base had swelled to tens of thousands of military personnel.  A tent city of more than 10,000 Army troops was set up, and the Army and Air Force were prepared for war.  During this period, there were 400 more units added to base housing and another nine-hole golf course.

    As part of a visit to all major military units in Florida, President John F. Kennedy arrived at Homestead Air Force Base on November 26, 1962 to view the buildup.  In his honor an all jet fly-by took place.  Seventy-two TAC F84s, F100s and F105s flew by while two RF101 flew low level reconnaissance below the fighters in a simulation of the low level photo reconnaissance flights they had flow over Cuba.  Thirty-two Navy and Marine Corps aircraft also joined the fly-by.  Because of its great speed the McConnell-Douglas RF101 Voodoo was a great reconnaissance aircraft; it was originally built as a bomber escort.

    There were no bombers or tankers in the fly-by for the President since they had been moved out of Homestead to make room for the fighters.  On December 7, 1962 the bombers and tankers returned to Homestead.

    Detachment 61 of the Eastern Air Rescue Center arrived in July 1963 with its HH42B Huskie helicopters, which were used primarily for firefighting and rescue work.

     The 31st TFW made Air Force history in February of 1964 by flying F100's nonstop from Homestead to Turkey for the longest mass flight of jet aircraft across the Atlantic.  The 6,600-mile flight took 11 1/2 hours and eight in-flight refuelings from SAC KC135 tankers.  The North American F100 Super Sabre was a single-seat, tactical fighter.  Over a short period of time from 1956 until 1959, 2,294 Super Sabres were built; 339 were two-seater F100Fs.  The Air Force had 16 full wings of F100s.

    In 1964-65 HAFB had about 9,000 Air Force personnel assigned.  The base had assets of over $319,000,000 (probably fixed assets only) and covered nearly five square miles.  It was one of 70 Strategic Air Command bases in the US and abroad. There were sixteen dormitories for single enlisted men consisting of two-man rooms with adjoining bath.  Unmarried officers lived in suites or single rooms in the Bachelor Officers' Quarters and married officers and NCOs lived in the 1, 255 Capehart Housing units on base.

    In December, the 31st was replaced by the 4531st Tactical Fighter Wing which was activated on Homestead Air Force Base on November 1, 1966.  The 4531st was made up of four squadrons which flew the F4D and E models of the Phantom II aircraft.  The squadrons were the 436th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 478th TFS and the 68th and 560th TFS which had just been activated.  The Wing also flew the CH21 helicopter in support of the 4550th School Squadron, Sea Survival School located at Turkey Point.  The Wing mission had just changed from retraining pilots in the front and back seat of the F4D Phantom II to that of a tactical fighter wing.  While a training wing, it trained nine replacement training classes out of which a total of 311 F4 aircrews graduated and were assigned to combat units in Southeast Asia.

    The 31st Tactical Fighter Wing returned to Homestead in late 1970 and shifted to F4E's.  First built for the Navy, McConnell's two-seat, two engine F4 fighter /bomber was bigger, faster and further reaching than contemporary combat aircraft.

    In 1968, the Strategic Air Command was reorganized, and its aircraft were dispersed to scattered locations including many Air Force bases and some civilian airports.  This was accomplished to avoid the grouping of these bombers together in large numbers and presenting an inviting and easy target.

    On July 1, 1968, Tactical Air Command assumed control of the base, and the 4531st Tactical Fighter Wing became the host unit.  From that time until 1981, the base continued to grow and expand its role as a tactical fighter wing.  The AF Reserve units, Air National Guard, U.S. Naval Security Group Activity and the AF Command Conference Center were established on base.

    In 1969 the 560th and 68th were fully manned, equipped and trained as a tactical fighter unit in record time.  They then deployed to Korea for six months temporary duty in June of 1969

    Units assigned to HAFB in 1970 were:

    301st Aerospace Rescue Squadron which had moved to HAFB from Miami International Airport on August 1, 1960 after four years there after its organization in August of 1956 as the nation's first reserve rescue squadron.  There were 139 officers and airmen of which 46 were full-time Air Reserve Technicians.  The only amphibian aircraft in the Air Force inventory, the HU16 Albatross was assigned to the 301st.  The 301st was directly under the command of Headquarters, Air Force Reserve at Robins AFB, Georgia.

   The 4550th School Squadron mission was to provide aircrew personnel with training which would increase their ability to survive in the sea environment under emergency conditions.  It was a unit of the 4531st Tactical Fighter Wing.

   31st Artillery Brigade (Air Defense) consisted of a brigade headquarters and three missile battalions which were deployed in the defense of the Homestead-Miami and Key West areas.  Its 2,700 missilemen manned eight HAWK and four Nike Hercules missile installations.  This unit came to Florida on October 20, 1962, two days before President Kennedy told the American people of the ballistic missile sites in Cuba,  Three air defense missile battalions across the country were alerted for emergency overland movement.  Within eleven days they were on their sites and working to back up national policy.  Also on base was the 2nd Battalion, 52nd Artillery with four Nike Hercules batteries in Dade and Monroe counties. Brigade personnel lived in leased houses off base.    

   Strategic Air Command bomber and tanker crews from Ramey AFB used HAFB for a portion of their alert operations as a part of an overall concept known as satellite basing.  SAC also used civilian, Army and Navy airfields as a means of dispersal.  This was Detachment 1, 72nd Bomb Wing.

Bob Jensen is a retired Navy Commander and President of the Florida Pioneer Museum and the Historic Homestead Town Hall Museum.

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