Building a base: Army begins construction on Vance 65 years ago

  • Published
  • By Jim Malachowski
  • Wing Historian
Traffic on U.S. Highway 81 came to a near standstill as trucks began delivering construction materials to a flat area of farmland just south of Enid 65 years ago last month. Construction of what would become Vance Air Force Base began on July 12, 1941, and it seemed the entire area was only a cloud of dust for the next several weeks as two shifts of workers graded and prepared the land. The construction company had actually began work a month early. The War Department officially announced the project on Aug. 16 at a cost of $4,034,583.
The first officer to arrive was Army Air Corps project officer Maj. Henry Dorr.
He supervised the construction and developed the basic pilot training base to train aviation cadets as pilots and commissioned officers in the Army Air Corps.
Since it was impossible to work at the construction site, he set up his headquarters in Enid, where it remained until late November 1941, when the Army officially established the installation as the U.S. Army Air Corps Flying School Enid.
Airplanes were first used as a major weapons system during World War I, and the potential of airpower was a popular topic in magazines and journals in the 1920s and 1930s. Both Germany and Japan began using airpower in combat as early as 1936. By the time France fell to Hitler's Luftwaffe in the mid-1940s, national defense was a growing priority, and President Franklin Roosevelt had an unprecedented $2.5 billion request for funding the Army Air Corps in front of Congress.
The 84-Group Expansion Plan cleared Congress in March 1941 and provided funding for 20 new flying fields including one near Enid, Okla., to train more than 50,000 pilots a year. A few far-sighted members of the Enid Chamber of Commerce recognized the benefits of having a military installation in the community. Enid's mayor and the head of the chamber of commerce formed a committee to find and secure the necessary land for a new military installation.
Negotiations between the War Department and the city of Enid resulted in a successful site visit by a team of six officers led by Gen. G. C. Brandt in early May.
Meanwhile, the city held a $300,000 bond issue to raise funding to provide electrical, telephone and water service, as well as roads to the new base. It passed with an overwhelming majority. On June 19, Sen. Josh Lee told the Associated Press that Enid would be the site of a basic military flying school.
Contracts were set up with Oklahoma Natural Gas, the Oklahoma Gas and Electric Company, Southwestern Bell Telephone Company and the Red Ball Bus Company to provide service between Enid and the new base.
On Nov. 21, 1941, Lt. Col. Albert Pitts took command of the base. It was still without an official name, but generally referred to as the Air Corps Basic Flying School of Enid. A week later, more than 800 permanent-party personnel from Randolph Field in San Antonio arrived and went to work to make the base ready for the first students.
The first class of aviation cadets (Class 42-D), consisting of 63 members from Sikeston, Mo., arrived on Dec. 14 and moved into their newly constructed barracks. Training started two days later, and after training all day, the cadets typically returned to their quarters to clean windows and scrub Oklahoma red dirt and mud from on-going construction off the walls and floors.
One aviation cadet described the process as "trying to make a first-class hotel from third-grade lumber with a razor blade and a mop." Steady improvements continued over the years as new buildings were completed, muddy roads were graded and rolled and sidewalks constructed.
Once home to bellowing herds of cattle making their way along the old Chisholm Trail, our little patch of Oklahoma has come a long way.