The Wings of Honor Museum will celebrate the 81st Anniversary of the beginning of flight training at the former WWII Walnut Ridge Air Field on Saturday, Oct. 14th. Events range from a fly-in breakfast and flight safety training to rides on a World War II-vintage airplane to a dinner and program that evenings.
The air field was authorized by the War Department in Washington, May 12, 1942. Exactly five months later, October 12, 1942, the first class of aviation cadets marched to the flight line at 1:00 p.m., to meet their new training planes: Vultee BT-13s.
It was an exciting time for northeast Arkansas. According to the Arkansas Gazette, construction of the Walnut Ridge air field created about 2,500 jobs. All who wanted to work could find jobs, which were plentiful across the entire area, with Army air fields being built near Newport and Blytheville, as well as Malden, Mo. When the Walnut Ridge Army Air Field was dedicated, it was the largest in the Southeast Training Command, covering 3,100 acres. The five auxiliary air fields covered another 2,623 acres and the radio range covered another 10.
Over the course of 20 months, the air field at Walnut Ridge welcomed 5,310 pilots into the program, and 4,641 graduated. The chapel was busy during that time, offering services for Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish faiths, and hosting 110 weddings.
Flight training was not without accidents, about 100 in all. Some accidents were small, without injuries or great damages to the aircraft. Others were serious, with one or more aircraft destroyed. Sadly, 42 young men, both students and instructors, were killed in training. On the brighter side, of the 82 babies born in the base hospital, 42 were boys.
The airfield did a lot for the Walnut Ridge area. Businesses flourished and the town grew. After the Army Air Force left the field in July, 1944, the field became a Marine Corps Air Facility from September 1, 1944 to mid-March, 1945. The Marines called Walnut Ridge “the outpost of charm and seclusion.”
The airfield served as a temporary camp for German POWs in 1945. Also in 1945, the Reconstruction Finance Corporation brought thousands of planes—trainers, fighters, bombers, and transports—to the air field to store and sell. Some say 10,000 planes were here, while one book says 11,000. Most trainers and transports were sold, but there wasn’t much market for fighters and bombers. In the fall of 1946, Texas Railway Equipment Company purchased 4,871 airplanes for salvage. Over the next 18 months these planes were all chopped-up and melted at Walnut Ridge. Today the former Army Air Field serves as the Walnut Ridge Regional Airport.
The anniversary celebration will begin with a fly-in breakfast in the Wings of Honor Museum at 8:00 a.m. on the 14th, followed by an FAA Safety meeting for pilots at 9:30.
The Razorback Wing of the Commemorative Air Force will offer rides in a WWII Ryan PT-22, beginning at 9:30. Flights can be booked online at https://www.razorbackcaf.com/rides. Fill out the Ride Request Form, and when you get to “Any special considerations or requests”, enter: Request flight for 14 OCT in Walnut Ridge, AR.
There will be inflatable games for the kids from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm and a cookout at the museum from 12:00 to 1:30, featuring hamburgers and hot dogs. A $5 donation for the cookout is requested, but veterans will eat free. Live music will be featured from 12:00 until 2:00.
Other events include a reception from 4:00 until 4:45 and a dinner at 5:00. Cost of the dinner for adults will be $15 and for students it will be $10. Veterans will be admitted. Please RSVP by October 12 to email@example.com or901-828-2257 with the number attending.
The Anniversary Dinner speaker will be Major Bobby Thatcher, U.S.M.C. (Retired). As a boy, Thatcher was enthralled by the massive WWII aircraft bone yard at Walnut Ridge in 1946 and ‘47, and inspired by a teacher at the College City “Wing” School. He will recount those formative years, and his distinguished career as Marine pilot. Bobby would have been the 1961 graduating class of WRHS, had the family not moved away, and he would love to see former classmates.