Sewart Air Force Base was Smyrna sensation in war

Susan Harber, The Daily News Journal, July 31, 2017

Sewart Air Force Base, originally Smyrna Army Airfield, began operations in 1942 as a B-24 training facility.

The early base provided pilots a four-engine school established for B-24 Liberator heavy bombers and B-17 flying fortress bombers. (Susan Harber)

The base ceased operations after World War II in 1947, only to re-activate in 1950 and eventually close in 1970.

The namesake for the base in 1950 honored Nashvillian Allen J. Sewart, who was killed in a bombing mission in the Solomon Islands.  Sewart, known as a quiet man, was also a veteran of Midway and received two Purple Hearts.

In November 1941, Gov. Prentice Cooper lobbied Washington, D.C., for the strategic location of Smyrna. The flat, expansive land of this area was most desirable.  In the end, the State of Tennessee leased this land to the federal government.

The base cost $40 million to build and covered 3,325 acres.  Thirty-five land tracts were acquired, and families were relocated.  The historical Buchanan Mill had been situated behind the base near the Youth Inc. installation.  The Goochland home of Dr. John Claiborne and Eliza Gooch (constructed 1824-1827) stood 100 years on the air base domain.

Over 6,000 workers erected 200 buildings on site of the airfield.  The monthly payroll was $2 million.  Within months, the base tripled the population of Smyrna.  The 1942 residential population of Smyrna was 497 and increasing rapidly, along with traffic.  The Meadowlawn Apartments served as temporary housing.  By 1960, 11,000 residents were in town.

In June 1941, Gen. George Patton conducted maneuvers in Middle Tennessee, as he stated the terrain resembled Western Europe.  Smyrna was now in the thick of action and a major player in the war.

My grandmother Emily Johns remembered soldiers coming by her farm on Lamar Road requesting food after their rations were exhausted.  Emily related she cooked these men a dinner only if they would first “feather” a chicken from the coop.

By July 1942, the runway and hangars were constructed on the base.  The Airfield and Cantonment (mess hall, supply buildings, barracks) were coming together.  The base had training centers, chapel, hospital, bowling alley, gymnasium, and pool.

The early base provided pilots a four-engine school established for B-24 Liberator heavy bombers and B-17 flying fortress bombers.  Pilots were trained for heavy bombardment. Colonel Stanley Umstead and Colonel T. Miller were Air Force officers, who set up the four-engine school.  This facility retained active operation for 18 years.

Several fatal crashes occurred near the base.  Among these events was an instance on May 25, 1943, when three officers and four enlisted men died in a B-24 flight after crashing five miles from the base.  On May 27, 1943, six lives were lost in a B-24.  Five were killed in a routine flight on July 10, 1943.  Other fatalities followed in risky flight operations within unfamiliar territory.

In 1943, flight personnel arrived to the base from Australia, Canada and Yugoslavia.  Entertainers were also ascending on the base.  There was a field movie house, dance band, and a local marching band.  WGNS Radio broadcast programs “live” over the Liberty Radio Network.

In August 1943, the 76th Flying Training Wing was operational on the base; and, in August 1943, the base reactivated the 314th Troop Carrier Wing.  In 1949, the 463rd Troop Carrier Wing was in charge of full endeavor.  In 1955, the 516th Carrier Group was operational, and there were 4,000 active men on the base. By 1966, the 64th Troop CarrierWing/Tactical Airlift Wing was operative and attaining great heights.

In 1956, the Air Force acquired the Wherry Housing Project of 600 units.  My granddad Glendon Johns was contracted to work on construction of these units.  Many flight employees were also stationed on Division Street in Smyrna.  By 1958, the base was the only Company 139 in the United States.

On Dec. 31, 1974, the base transcended into private and civilian use after 29 years of activity.  Ownership fell under the Army Corps of Engineer and later the Smyrna Airport Authority.  Thousands of men gave their all to the effort of Sewart military flying operations from 1942-1970 saving countless lives and serving our country so bravely.

Contact Susan Harber at susanharber@ hotmail. com.

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