Sheppard Field: the early years

SHEPPARD AIR FORCE BASE, Texas -- "We stand as a defeated nation . . . and whether we stand in the future depends largely upon the awakening of the American people and regaining of lost ground in the military phase," said Col. Edward C. Black, commander of Sheppard Field to a civic group during the grim days of February 1942. 

Months before, American forces at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, were attacked by the Japanese Dec. 7, 1941, and Manila, the capitol of the Philippines, was captured Jan. 2, 1942. 

As a result of American active involvement in the Second World War, the Army Air Forces desperately needed both men and machines, including skilled mechanics. The Army Air Forces responded to this need by activating Sheppard Field as a formal training center for aviation mechanics and basic training in October 1941. 

During its first six months, Sheppard Field experienced a coming together. Original training plans called for Sheppard's Aircraft and Mechanic School to graduate 200 student mechanics every two weeks upon completion of 22 weeks of instruction. 

But prior to activation of Sheppard Field, that number was increased to 1,600 mechanics - 40,000 per year - because of the heightened tensions in Europe and the Pacific for a base barely under construction. 

In an outpouring of patriotic spirit, an enlisted man approached the military police on duty at Sheppard Field shortly after Congress declared war on Japan. The 26-year-old man had deserted from the Army Engineering Corps at Fort Logan, Colo., two weeks earlier, but wanted to return to his unit. 

A total of 887 buildings were eventually constructed during the war at Sheppard Field. These included enlisted barracks and officer's quarters, training facilities, administrative buildings, a dozen mess halls, a dozen post exchanges, three service clubs, a large outdoor amphitheater, motor pool, laundry and cold storage warehouse. 

New cadets arriving at Sheppard were able to find their way around the self-contained city that blossomed on the barren prairie north of Wichita Falls by the presence of large identification signs on roof tops which pointed the way to the post office, base exchange, training school headquarters and other facilities. 

The base held it first review Oct. 26, 1941. Shortly thereafter, at the urging of Colonel Black, who felt that "A post without a band is like a man without a soul," base officials recruited talented musicians on the post for a Sheppard Field Voluntary Military Band. 

The first copy of "Texacts", the post newspaper hit the stands Dec. 5, 1941, two days before an event that would shock the world. Written and edited entirely by enlisted personnel, its name was derived by taking the first three letters of Texas and combining them with the initials for Air Corps Technical School. In addition to articles on the post, the newspaper printed a weekly Chaplain's Message, a sports column, a column on army humor and a strip featuring two characters called "Taps" and "Revelry." 

Feb. 24, 1942, marked a red-letter day for Sheppard Field. On this day, the first class of 219 aviation mechanics graduated several weeks ahead of schedule. In honor of the first class, the post made elaborate plans for the first class. The plans included a nation-wide radio hookup of the ceremonies through local station KWFT. 

The world famous African-American contra-alto singer Maria Anderson - who once sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington at the invitation of Eleanor Roosevelt (after the Daughters of the American Revolution would not allow her to use their facilities) - arrived by plane to perform at the ceremony. She dedicated two songs to the United States Army Air Forces and the air corps troops then fighting on Bataan in the Philippines. 

Following the ceremony and presentation of diplomas, the new mechanics passed in review before Colonel Black and visiting dignitaries. 

By any standards, the first six months of Sheppard Field's existence were an important period. The framework was laid for the establishment of the largest technical training center in the Army Air Forces. 

Approximately half-a-million men passed through its gates in World War II. From this initial beginning, training expanded until, at one time or another during the war, eight different training schools operated at Sheppard Field. One training organization, the Glider Mechanics School, activated on Aug. 22, 1942, provided glider mechanic training - one year later Glider Pilot training was added - which was used successfully in battle operations conducted in Burma, Holland, Normand and Sicily. 

Today, the words Colonel Black said to his troops after Japan's treacherous attack on Pearl Harbor have as much validity as they did 65 years ago: "War is not a pleasant thing," he noted, "but there are many things that are worst than war. National dishonor is one of those thing ... that we will never accept as long as we have the power within us to provide a defense." 

Sheppard, today, with its multi-faceted training mission, remains unchanged in its mission to "keep them flying."