Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Greenville's Air Force Base

Prior to the beginning of World War II, the United States Army Air Corps selected Greenville, Mississippi, as the site of a training center for pilots in preparation for war in Europe. Within four months of the site selection, construction commenced on the training base and by August 1940 the Army Air Corps activated the Greenville Army Airfield (below). The training complex consisted of 140 structures spread over a 2,000 acre area. Planes first arrived on November 5 and pilot training started soon thereafter. In fact, the first class of trainees reported to Greenville just one week after the attack at Pearl Harbor. 

Throughout World War II, thousands of pilots were trained at the Greenville facility, primarily flying the Vultee BT-13A, a variant of the BT-13 (above). The BT-13 was the basic trainer plane flown by most American pilots during World War II, and was used for the second phase of pilot training. The faster and heavier BT-13 required the pilot to use hand-cranked landing flaps and a two-way radio with ground crews. Because of cantankerous landing flaps, pilots who trained on the BT-13 called the plane the “Vultee Vibrator.”After completing its mission in World War II, the airfield was put on inactive status as a training facility in March 1945. However, the base was still used as a storage depot for B-24 Liberators returning from the European Theater with the Eighth and Fifteenth Air Force. C-47s were also sent to Greenville upon their return for storage. After all of the stored aircraft was moved out, the base was closed in July 1946 and put on the disposal list. The airfield, meanwhile, served as a civilian airport in the late 1940s. In 1950, however, another military crisis brought the Greenville airfield back to life.

On December 1, 1950, the United States Air Force Air Training Command reactivated the airfield to train pilots for the Korean Conflict. Instead of operating the airfield as an Air Force facility, Greenville was a civilian contract field, meaning private contractors were hired to provide the necessary training. From 1951-1953, hundreds of pilots, including men from NATO allies, were trained at Greenville. In 1953, Greenville was redesignated as the Greenville Air Force Base after the civilian contract  training program was moved to Graham Air Base in Florida. Now a full Air Force facility, the Greenville airfield began training pilots in T-28 “Trojans,” a jet trainer, and T-33 “Shooting Stars,” a single engine jet which arrived in 1955. Training at Greenville was conducted by the 3505th Pilot Training Wing. To accommodate the jet fighters, the length of the runway was extended to 7000 feet. The Greenville pilot training program was discontinued in 1960 and the remaining T-33s were moved to Craig AFB in Alabama. Although the pilot training program was finished, the Greenville base was used for a variety of Air Force-related training programs until 1963, when Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara announced that the base would be closed due to budget cuts. After reassigning several training programs to other bases, the airfield was transferred to civilian control in December 1966. 

Before the formal transfer took place, however, a group of fifty Civil Rights activists with the Mississippi Freedom Labor Union occupied one of the empty buildings at the airbase to protest poverty, homelessness and political repression in the Mississippi Delta. The protest took place on January 31, 1966. As the airfield was technically still under USAF ownership, the local police would not respond. Instead, the USAF Air Police mobilized to Greenville. Within thirty hours, USAF law enforcement personnel forcibly evicted the protestors (left). Later in the year, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., urged President Johnson to transform the abandoned air base into “a huge center for providing training, housing and supportive programs” for the poor. Although the U.S. Attorney General showed interest in the plan, Mississippi Senator John Stennis used his influence as a member of the Appropriations Committee to block any such use of the facility. Ultimately, the air base was transferred to the City of Greenville and is now operated as the Mid-Delta Regional Airport. A museum highlighting the history of the Greenville Air Force Base is located on the second floor of the airport terminal. 

Photo and Image Sources:
(1) BT-13: http://en.wikipedia.org
(2) Greenville AFB: http://www.dodfire.com/history/chanute.htm
(3) T-33 at Greenville: http://www.flickr.com
(4) 3055th Badge: http://en.wikipedia.org
(5) Civil Rights protest: http://www.crmvet.org/images/imgslave.htm


  1. In the early 1970's, the Delta Foundation opened a blue jeans manufacturing plant in the old air base, employing dozens of women. Fine Vines was the line of jeans cut and sewed there, featuring the popular "bell bottom" jeans of the '70's. The vision of Dr. King was realized in a smaller way in that successful enterprise.

  2. I was part of the Air Police detachment that was flown from Keesler AFB to this site. As a much older and wiser white man today, I think about the incident differently than I did on that tense day. I remember some of the black protestors spitting on the black Air Police. I was very saddened by that.

  3. Before reading this Florida air force bases page I could not know that the Pensacola/Jacksonville area is home to most of the military bases in Florida, but they exist in other coastal areas as well. So this is really a good website.