20 November 2010 (Updated 24 January 2015) | Bartow, Florida. During World War II Florida found itself under invasion even as German U-boats occasionally killed tankers and freighters just offshore.
The incursion was a friendly influx of personnel from Allied air forces who were intent upon taking advantage of the state’s regularly good weather for the training of pilots.
From coast to coast the peninsula quickly sprouted bases of all sizes, as there was an urgent need to turn raw recruits into competent aviators. One of these training centers would take shape some six miles north of the City of Bartow.
Ground breaking took place for this airfield on December 8, 1941, the day after the Japanese attack on military facilities around Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The site would become a U.S. Army Air Corps station. In addition to three runways, the structures included barracks, hangers, and a mess hall, chapel and gymnasium. A notable feature was a skeet range for soldiers’ recreational shooting.
At Bartow Army Airfield (BAA), trainees received practical experience in aerial combat maneuvering, air-to-air and air-to-ground gunnery, and dive bombing techniques. For thoroughness a variety of aircraft were assigned to the facility.
By 1943, the center was operating as a Fighter Replacement Training Station. Facilities were present for the servicing of a fighter group and two squadrons of North American P-51 Mustangs. Women Army Service Pilots or “WASPs” delivered some of the Mustangs.
With the conflict at an end, the Department of Defense began to close stations. As a result, the closure of Bartow Army Airfield took place in 1945. The City of Bartow then took possession.
During 1950 the U.S. Air Force requested bids for a contractor to operate a primary pilot training program at Bartow. Mr. Fleetwood Garner won the bid and formed Garner Aviation Service Corporation to comply.
Physical additions included a golf course and swimming pool for trainee and staff recreation. In 1951, with the Korean War raging, the U.S. Air Force began a primary flight training program at the “new” Bartow Air Base.
Initially, the neophyte fliers flew Piper Cubs out of Gilbert Field (now known as the “Winter Haven Municipal Airport”) in nearby Winter Haven, Florida.
After mastering the docile and unsophisticated Cubs, the men undertook flying in more advanced aircraft. Types included those powered by reciprocating engines, including the North American AT-6 Texan, Beechcraft T-34 Mentor and North American T-28 Trojan. Afterward, Cessna T-37 Tweets, twin jet trainers, awaited the fledgling aviators.
In total, the two installations produced more than 8,000 pilots. Famous graduates include NASA astronauts Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin, Class in 1951, Edward H. “Ed” White, in 1953, and Karol J. “Bo” Bobko in 1961.
The closing of Bartow Air Base took place in 1961. The “new” owner was again the City of Bartow.
The only military remnants are a Florida Army National Guard unit and a mounted A-37 adjacent to the main gate. The Tweet is on loan from the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.
The museum displays present much of the above history. Other holdings include copies of the publication The Eaglet and many photographs, exhibit items and copies of yearbooks relating to the pilot training classes, 70 in number, that formed between 1952 and 1961.
Note that admission is free to the public. One may contact the Bartow Air Base Museum by telephoning (863) 533-1195 or (863) 533-1361.
The author (Col. John Stemple) thanks officials of the Bartow Municipal Airport and Industrial Park, Bartow Flying Service and employees of Pappy’s Canteen for their cooperation during the preparation of this article.
Sources and Suggested Readings
About Bartow Airport
Bartow Air Base
Bartow Municipal Airport
Bartow Municipal Airport & Industrial Park