The Role of Walnut Ridge
WRAAF – Walnut Ridge Army Air Field
AAFBFS – Army Air Forces Basic Flying School
MCAF,WR – Marine Corps Air Facility, Walnut Ridge
RFC/WAA – Reconstruction Finance Corporation/War Assets Administration
On April 15, 1942, a Board of Army Air Force Officers, being favorably impressed with an air field site just northeast of Walnut Ridge, recommended it be substituted for the site near Dyersburg, Tennessee, which Washington had rejected due to the amount of earthwork required.
As the recommendation moved up the chain of command, planning and surveying continued for the site at Walnut Ridge. The Board’s recommendation was approved, and on May 12, the War Department directed the Army Corps of Engineers to construct a Basic Flying School at Walnut Ridge with three runways and plan for more. Construction work on the Walnut Ridge Army Air Field began on June 20, 1942.
Hurriedly, a Huge New “City” is Built
The Walnut Ridge Army Air Field
Designed for 5,114 military personnel, and 976 civilians, the WRAF had three (3) 5,000-foot runways, a huge apron covering over 63 acres, 4 large hangars, base engineering building, and fully equipped 203 bed hospital. It also included, 131,151 sq. ft. of office space, 119,613 sq. ft. of enclosed storage space, 49,324 sq. ft. shop space, a water plant and sewer plant designed to serve 5,000 troops, and a 10,000-man laundry, 2 theaters, a swimming pool, gymnasium, WAC housing, eight mess halls, dozens of enlisted-men's barracks, parachute loft, gas chamber, 260 tile-block apartments, motor pool, control tower, officers' club, link-trainer buildings, fire station, several warehouses, crash station, and 9.64 miles of streets. Construction and land cost was almost ten and one-half million dollars.
A tract of land consisting of 3096.22 acres was taken for the project. The purchase price was $305,075. There were 58 improvements, including the Moran School on the property. 45 families were living on the land. Five Auxiliary Air Fields were constructed, located at Biggers, Beech Grove, Bono, Pocahontas and Walcott. Another 2,623.9 acres were taken for these air fields.
The construction of the WRAAF brought in a flood of workers to the area. It is reported that some 1,500 workers swarmed to the site. Residents of Walnut Ridge and Pocahontas opened their hearts and homes to the new workers. People rented out vacant rooms, garages, attics and moved the kids into Mom and Dad’s bedroom to accommodate the workers.
Unemployment had reached 25% and more during the height of the depression. Walnut Ridge was described as a Ghost Town – no pedestrians, no automobile traffic. No one had any money – why come to town? At one time, there were 17 empty buildings on Main Street. The new air field brought a never-before experienced prosperity to most people in Lawrence and Randolph County.
Now anyone who wanted to work could get a great-paying job at the air field. Folks that were once glad to get $1.00 per day were suddenly making 50 cents to $1.00 per hour, or more. They came from all over:Jonesboro, Paragould, Monette, the Ozark Foothills and southern Missouri.
The Air Field was activated on August 15, 1942, with the arrival of the initial contingent of key military personnel. Ten days later, 100 troops arrived, but there was no housing available on the air field, so these troops were transported to and from the CCC camp, located at five-mile springs, north of Pocahontas for the first 30 days.
Even though the airfield was planned and designed as an AAFBFS, for some time it appeared it would instead become an Advanced Glider School. As late as September 1942, preparations were being made for gliders, including requests for instructional materials, gliders and tow planes.
Meanwhile the first 3 classes of Aviation Cadets programmed for Walnut Ridge were sent to Blytheville, which was being built as an Advanced Twin Engine School. Blytheville was scarcely any better prepared than Walnut Ridge. Circus tents were utilized for operations headquarters and classrooms. The runways were not ready, so flying was done from oil-coated dirt strips.
Finally, near the end of September the Southeast Training Command at Maxwell Field clarified the situation concerning the Air Field's mission by announcing 102 Aviation Cadets and 3 Student Officers from Decatur, Alabama, and 20 Aviation Cadets from Camden, Arkansas, would be sent to Walnut Ridge for Basic Flight Training.
For reasons unknown, the Advanced Glider School was established at Stuttgart, which was being built as an Advanced Twin-Engine School.
The first Student Officers and Aviation Cadets in Class 43-B began training at Walnut Ridge at 1:00 P.M on October 12, 1942. In just under 21 months 5,310 students entered training and 4,641 graduated. Forty-Two students, instructors and passengers were killed in training. The last class graduated on June 27, 1944.
Between January 1941 and August 1945, 312,911 Aviation Cadets and Student Officers entered the USAAF Flight Training Program. Of that number, 85,491 or 27.32% washed out or were killed in Primary Flight Training. Another 28,474 or 9.10% washed out or were killed in Basic Flight Training, while 7,292 or 2.33% washed out or were killed in Advanced Flight Training. After winning their wings, 7,474 or 2.30% washed-out or were killed in Transition Flight Training, and 3,168 or 1.01% washed out or were killed in Flight Instructor Training.
About 3.4% of the flight students graduating from Basic Flight Schools between December 12, 1942, and June 27, 1944, received their training at the AAFBFS at Walnut Ridge.
On September 1, 1944, the WRAAF was transferred to the Department of the Navy and was known as the Marine Corps Air Facility, Walnut Ridge. The Marine Corps trained for only a brief time, using SBD-5’s and FG-1D Corsair’s. VMF-513 transferred to Walnut Ridge on September 14, 1944, and then moved to Mojave, California, on December 4, 1944. Never a thriving place, the station newspaper referred to it as “MCAF – Outpost of Charm and Seclusion.” MCAF, Walnut Ridge was decommissioned March 15, 1945.
Walnut Ridge played a significant role in training WWII pilots. All personnel who worked, trained or served here can be proud of their sacrifice and service to our country.
Sept. 5, 1942 – Post Headquarters moves to air field from Mize Motor Building in Walnut Ridge
Sept. 24, 1942 – Base Hq. and Air Base Squadrons move from C.C.C. Camp at Pocahontas
October 3, 1942 – First U.S.O. Dance held in Walnut Ridge; First Planes arrive
October 10, 1942 – First Class of Cadets (43-B) arrive
October 12, 1942 – Flight Training begins at 1:00 P.M.
October 20, 1942 – Sales Store opens; First radio show presented over KBTM, in Jonesboro
Oct. 24, 1942 – First Cadet Dance in Jonesboro; Military Police patrol Jonesboro for first time
Nov.15, 1942 – First flying officer and enlisted man killed in aircraft accident
Nov.19, 1942 – Pocahontas STAR HERALD dedicates special section to Base
November 23, 1942 – Base Chapel opens
November, 24, 1942 – Pocahontas Soldiers’ Center opens
November 26, 1942 – Open Post on Thanksgiving Day
December 12, 1942 – First Cadet Graduation
December 23, 1942 – Post Theatre opens
January 26, 1943 – Recreation Hall opens
February 10, 1943 – Chuck Foster’s “Spotlight Band” plays from Post on nation-wide hook-up
March 22, 1943 – Street Lights installed
May 10, 1943 – Civilian War Housing units occupied
June 1, 1943 – Post Laundry opens
June 7, 1943 – WACs arrive
September 1, 1944 –Field Transferred to Navy for use by Marine Corps
July 20, 1945 – Last issue of MCAF newspaper, The News and Courier
WRAAF Tops List on Total Training Hours Flown
During the eleven month period from November 1, 1942, thru September 30, 1943, the training hours flown at WRAAF were 160,648. The average for all Basic Flying Schools in the Southeast Training Command was 129,474. Walnut Ridge had .49 accidents per 1000 hours versus .57 accidents per 1000 hours average for all schools; however, the fatal accident rate at Walnut Ridge was higher, .087 per 1000 hours versus a .052 average. The hours flown at Walnut Ridge through June 30, 1944, totaled 414,429.
Bus Service From Pocahontas To The Air Field Started
Monday, September 7, 1942
Fare: One Way 25 cents, Roundtrip 30 cents
Pocahontas went “all out” for the servicemen from the air field, providing an elaborate, wholesome Recreation Center on the top floor of the old courthouse. The Recreation Center opened
November 21, 1942.
The WRAAF Post Theatre had a seating capacity of 600
The Base newspaper, The WRAAF “Pilot” developed into a 6-page weekly, with a circulation of
Hundreds of buildings had been hastily put up between June 20, 1942 and October 12, 1942, when flight training began, but the task was not finished. The following major buildings and structures were not completed until the next year; some as late as December, 1943.
-260 Clay Tile Apartment Units (57 buildings, 4 to 6 units per building)
-Clay Tile Community Building
-Clay Tile Base Sales Store
-Civilian Housing (2 two-story dorms, 2 one-story dorms, a mess hall, and a rec. building)
-Officers Club, with bar, large fireplace and bowling lanes
-WAC Housing (2 two-story dorms, a mess hall, and an administration/recreation bldg)
-Base Commander’s Home (4,000 Sq. Ft., Stone with 2 Fireplaces)
-Recreation Building (Gym)
-Laundry to serve 10,000 troops
As of April 15, 1944, approximately 1275 men were being fed in Consolidated Mess No. 2.
When the AAFBFS closed on July 20, 1944, this number had dropped to about 300.
On July 27, 1944, the Base Chapel was turned over to the Post Engineers for closing.