Saturday, January 31, 2015

Avenger Field

"Lone Star Historian 2" is a blog about the travels and activities of the State Historian of Texas during his second year. Bill O'Neal was appointed to a two-year term by Gov. Rick Perry on August 22, 2012, at an impressive ceremony in the State Capitol. Bill is headquartered at Panola College ( in Carthage, where he has taught since 1970. For more than 20 years Bill conducted the state's first Traveling Texas History class, a three-hour credit course which featured a 2,100-mile itinerary. In 2000 he was awarded a Piper Professorship, and in 2012 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Wild West Historical Association. Bill has published over 40 books, almost half about Texas history subjects, and in 2007 he was named Best Living Non-Fiction Writer by True West Magazine. In 2013 he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters degree by his alma mater, Texas A&M University - Commerce. 

San Antonio's Randolph Field, the
"West Point of the Air"
On a recent trip to West Texas, my wife Karon and I visited the WASP Museum a few miles west of Sweetwater. I had toured the museum a few times during the past few years, but Karon had never been, and I decided it was time to draw attention to this unique facility through this blog.

With our clear skies and generally favorable weather, Texas was the training site of all of America’s military airmen until 1938. Indeed, Randolph Field in San Antonio was labeled the “West Point of the Air.” With the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939, air training expanded beyond the Lone Star State. But during the war 65 military airfields, large and small, were established in Texas, and 200,000 pilots, navigators, bombardiers, and gunners received their training at Texas bases. One of those air bases achieved special distinction. 

Sweetwater’s municipal air field went into operation during the 1920s. In May 1942 the War Department leased the airport, which encompassed 920 acres, for military use at one dollar per year. Sweetwater Army Air Field acquired a new label following a newspaper naming contest: Avenger Field. Cadet trainees from the RAF formed the first training class at Avenger Field, followed by more than a dozen classes of American aviation cadets. 

By 1943 the Army Air Corps recognized that women pilots could ferry planes from base to base and test repaired aircraft, thereby freeing male pilots for combat flying. The Women’s Air Force Service Pilots Force was organized, and more than 25,000 adventurous, patriotic female pilots applied for admission to the WASPs. The Women’s Auxiliary Service Ferry Squadron, known as the WAFs, also was formed.

Almost 1,100 young women were selected as WASPs. Even though WASP recruits had to pay their own way to Avenger Field, and although at first there were no uniforms or even cot mattresses, the WASPs overcame all obstacles and became the first American women trained to fly military aircraft. In the spring of 1943 Avenger Field in Sweetwater became the only all-female training base in U.S. history. There were male instructors and support crew members, but noted aviatrix Jacqueline Cochran led the eager WASP trainees. 

During 1943 and 1944, 14 WASP classes braved high winds and heat and rattlesnakes at Avenger Field, and 1,174 pilots earned their wings. WASPs had no official military connection, but operated with civil-service status. WASPs went on to fly 60 million miles in every type of U.S. plane – trainers, fighters, bombers - tested experimental and repaired aircraft, towed targets for ground-to-air and air-to-air firing practice, and accompanied cadet pilots in the air. Thirty-eight WASPs died – in landing or take-off accidents, in mid-air collisions, in airplane failures – died for their country.

The WASPs were disbanded on December 20, 1944, to make room for an exploding number of male cadets. Avenger Field became a training base for P-47 Thunderbolt pilots, before closing in November 1945. After the war the air field reverted to civilian use, although the military again leased the base for a time during the 1950s.

Today the National WASP Museum is housed in one of the old hangars. A training plane is in the hangar and sometimes is flown. There is a Link Trainer, a flight simulator that was a key element to pilot preparation at all training fields. There is a jeep, a barracks room, and superb displays built around enlarged photos. A gift shop leads to an excellent research room, which contains a wealth of interviews, documents, and photos. Funding is being raised to enlarge the facility and to reproduce the old control tower. A series of lively reunions has been held, and my daughter Shellie, a published playwright, has attended a reunion and worked in the research room with an eye to writing a play about the WASPs. 

For more information:  
Jacque Cochran
Link Trainer

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