It was a big day in northeast Arkansas when the Walnut Ridge Army Flying School was activated on Aug. 15, 1942. The first 100 troops arrived 10 days later. There was no base housing yet, so the troops were transported each day from a Civilian Conservation Corps camp at Five Mile Spring north of Pocahontas. Due to delays, the first three classes of cadets scheduled for Walnut Ridge were sent to Blytheville.
"Blytheville was scarcely better prepared than Walnut Ridge," Harold Johnson writes for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "Circus tents were used for operation headquarters and classrooms. The runways weren't ready so flying was done from oil-coated dirt strips."
Activities at Walnut Ridge finally began Oct. 12, 1942, as students started training on the BT-13. Forty-two students and instructors died while training during the next couple of years. The last class graduated June 27, 1944. The airfield was transferred to the Department of the Navy on Sept. 1, 1944, and operated as a Marine Corps facility. It was decommissioned March 15, 1945. Walnut Ridge was selected after the war as a place to store obsolete planes.
"The planes came in droves with as many as 250 arriving in a single day," Johnson writes. "An estimated 10,000 to 11,000 warplanes were flown to Walnut Ridge in 1945-46 for storage and sale. At least 65 of the military's 118 B-32 heavy bombers were flown to Walnut Ridge, many straight from the assembly line."
The Texas Railway Equipment Co. bought 4,871 of the aircraft at Walnut Ridge in September 1946 for just more than $1.8 million. Johnson writes: "Two giant smelters were constructed to melt the scrap aluminum, which was formed into huge ingots for shipping. In two years, the planes were all scrapped. When the salvage was completed, the airfield proper, along with about 60 percent of the land, was turned over to the city of Walnut Ridge to be used as a public airport. Runways are still active, and one has been extended to 6,000 feet."
I'm here as part of a trip that will take me across north Arkansas from Oklahoma to the Missouri Bootheel on one highway, U.S. 412. I began the trip at Siloam Springs and am nearing the end of the journey.
Part of the land that once housed the flying school now serves as home of Williams Baptist University. Hubert Ethridge Williams, the pastor of First Baptist Church of Pocahontas, decided that northeast Arkansas needed a Baptist college.
"Williams aggressively cultivated support from area residents for the proposed college," Kenneth Startup writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "He found substantial encouragement from Jonesboro Baptist College alumni (the school had failed during the early years of the Great Depression) and from former students and supporters of Maynard Baptist Academy, another attempt at Baptist-sponsored education in the region that lasted from 1900-26. Williams' relentless commitment to the cause culminated in the opening of the college, then named Southern Baptist College, in Pocahontas on Sept. 10, 1941. The college offered a two-year liberal arts curriculum, and a majority of the early students studied to become clergymen or public school teachers."
The city of Pocahontas made a community center built by the Works Progress Administration available for classes. Williams became the first president and stayed in the post for 32 years. The main building being used by Southern Baptist College burned on Dec. 26, 1946. That's when negotiations began with the federal government to move to the former airbase.
"Sen. John L. McClellan and Rep. Wilbur Mills advocated for the college in its negotiations with the federal government," Startup writes. "During the next several decades, the college transformed the airbase through millions of dollars of construction and renovations."
In 1968, the school was formally adopted by the Arkansas Baptist State Convention. It became a four-year institution in the early 1980s. The name was changed to Williams Baptist College in 1989 and to Williams Baptist University in 2017. In 2016, residents of Walnut Ridge and College City, where Williams Baptist is located, voted to consolidate the towns.
"In 1960, Williams entered the Democratic Party primary for governor of Arkansas," writes historian Rodney Harris of WBU. "The candidates included Williams, incumbent Gov. Orval Faubus, Attorney General Bruce Bennett, a planter from Grady named Joseph C. Hardin, and Hal Millsap. Williams kicked off his campaign on the lawn of the Lawrence County Courthouse in Walnut Ridge before a crowd of almost 2,000. By this time, he had been president of the college for 19 years and had served as president of two radio stations, one in Walnut Ridge and one in Milan, Tenn.
"During the campaign, Williams canvassed the state and coined the term 'Faubusism,' saying it was 'one of the political pimples of history erupting political demagoguery ... as a result of the cheap opportunism of a small politician.' Williams argued that a fourth term for Faubus would be a 'political terror' that would give him an unbreakable hold on political power in the state. Though Williams offered a spirited campaign, Faubus won the primary and went on to win a fourth term in office."
Williams, who finished fourth in the five-man primary field, served as college president until retiring in 1973. He remained a fixture on campus with the title president emeritus. Williams died in February 1998. Faubus went on to serve six consecutive two-year terms as governor.
CORRECTION: Arkansas adopted four-year terms for constitutional officers in 1986. An earlier version of this article misstated the length of Gov. Orval Faubus' gubernatorial terms.
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.