Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Fletcher Field - WW II Cadet Training Facility


In 1941, the Japanese naval and air forces launched an attack on the U.S. Navy facilities at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.  The American response to these attacks was quick and though life in the Mississippi Delta tends to move a bit more slowly than the rest of the country (even then), changes came to Clarksdale with rapidness.

(Left: Guard House, Right: Operations Building)

In the Spring of 1942 the United States Government issued a contract to the Clarksdale School of Aviation.  That contract established the operation of a primary flying school located about 8 miles north of Clarksdale, MS.  Construction for the school began immediately and in July of 1942 the first class (Class 43-A) began their training at Fletcher Field (The airport was named for Clarksdale football great and aviation cadet Jack Hughes Fletcher who was killed during a training incident at Curtis Field, Texas in 1941).  The Army wanted schools in the South where the weather was warmer and winters less harsh.  That would mean better flying conditions for training for the cadets. 

(Image of several of the original buildings including barracks at Fletcher Field)

Major T.W. Bonner was the first commanding officer and worked closely with both Army personnel (the Army and Air Force were still a single department at this time) and civilian flight instructors and personnel.  The civilian instructors were said to always be cooperative and anxious to graduate the best recruits but occasionally regulation wasn’t followed as closely as it should have.  After 2 fatal accidents involving civilians in Fall of 1943, instructors worked more strictly with Army-Air Force personnel to prevent and report violations of regulation.

(Fletcher Field hangers)

The city of Clarksdale was openly receptive of this new military training facility.  Funds were donated by individuals and civic sources for the establishment and maintenance of a Recreation Center accessible to cadets during ‘open post’ and it was available to officers anytime.  The local Red Cross sponsored a reading room and Lounge for use by enlisted men not only at Fletcher Field but also in the area.  Individual citizens even opened up their homes on to cadets for dinner and weekend stays. 

(Photo of the 'Ready Room' at Fletcher Field where pilots prepped for flight training)

The airfield originally used Stearman 17’s for flight training but Fairchild PT-23’s were later sent in for training.  With the change in aircraft, a problem with finding replacement parts rose as the PT-23’s were relatively new planes and parts were scarce all over with only completely disabled planes being able to have parts replaced.  Eventually a shipment of repair parts was sent in to fortify Fletcher Field’s aircrafts. 

(On the left, a trio of Stearman PT-17's and on the right, a lone Fairchild PT-23)

The school operated between 1943 and 1945 (closing before the war’s end) and trained many classes of cadets.  Each class was bigger than the last with classes reaching as big as 250 cadets.  Classes so big meant food, water and housing became an issue.  New, expensive wells had to be dug and quarters became cramped but it is said the students were never poorly treated.  Though there was less space, morale stayed quite high. 

(Cadets writing home from Fletcher Field in Clarksdale, MS)

In 1943 a prisoner of war camp was set up at Fletcher Field for German and Italian prisoners.  The P.O.W.’s were remembered as being friendly and rather fond of America.  Many worked as hands on local farms and there was even a P.O.W. band that played for dances at the base. 

(One of many dances held at the base)

After the war, the War Assets Association began selling off surplus planes and equipment and later deeded the airfield to the city of Clarksdale.  Mabry I. Anderson, Ben White, and Berkley Ellis took advantage of the opportunity and prevailed upon the city to lease them the airfield to open the Mississippi Valley Aircraft Service, an agricultural flying firm.  The firm bought up surplus Stearman’s from the military and converted them to cropdusters.  Using modern and innovative techniques, MVAS established itself as a premier agricultural flying service. 

(Two cadets showing off one of the Fairchild PT-23's)

By 1970 Anderson, the soul owner, was ready to sell and sold the business to another agricultural application business.  Now the airfield is again owned by the city of Clarksdale and is used for general aircraft and agricultural use. 

2 comments:

  1. Name is THOMAS FLETCHER. WWII AAF vet, radiooperator MOS #760. Never heard of Fletcher Field until a few years ago my friend was restoring a PT23 which had the name stenciled on nose cowling. Interesting!

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