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OPINION | REX NELSON: A base is born

by Rex Nelson | June 16, 2021 at 2:01 a.m.

The news was important for Arkansas, justifying its placement on the newspaper's front page on May 22. The headline read: "Air base singled out for C-130J training."

The story out of Washington noted that the Arkansas Air National Guard's 189th Airlift Wing at Little Rock Air Force Base had been chosen to house the Air National Guard C-130J Super Hercules training program. The 189th eventually will receive a dozen of the transport planes as older model C-130s are phased out.

The base at Jacksonville already is home to the Air Force's 314th Airlift Wing, described by the Department of Defense as the "nation's tactical airlift Center of Excellence." In addition to training U.S. pilots, LRAFB personnel train pilots from 47 allied nations.

"It's huge news," said U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas. "It's hard to overstate the impact. I'm delighted for our airmen, our Air Force base and our state. We're going to have this man-flying mission for decades to come."

The positive news for Arkansas led me to research how the base got here in the first place. One must go back 70 years to 1951. That's when central Arkansas first was considered for a permanent installation.

"It had been pointed out that Arkansas was like the hole in a doughnut in that it was surrounded by states that were already hosting military installations," base historian John G. Schmidt wrote. "Additionally, Arkansas was strategically located near the geographic center of the United States, almost equidistant from U.S. coastlines. This would make such an installation far less vulnerable to an attack by hostile forces.

"Early civilian support for such an installation was apparent. Arch Campbell, the Pulaski County judge, and Harry Pfeifer Jr., president of the Greater Little Rock Chamber of Commerce, sent a letter to Thomas Finletter, the secretary of the Air Force, on Jan. 11, 1952. In that letter, they discussed the reasons the Little Rock area would be ideal."

Everett Tucker, industrial manager for the chamber, devoted all of his time to the project. He made trips to Washington and to Strategic Air Command headquarters in Nebraska. The Air Force liked Arkansas' proposal, but members of Congress believed that there were enough installations left over from World War II. To them, it didn't make fiscal sense to purchase property.

"The Air Force suggested that if the local community were to purchase land and donate it, such an installation could then be built," Schmidt wrote. "Community leaders accepted that challenge and went to work."

From an economic development standpoint, it was likely the greatest team effort to that point in Arkansas history. Amazon's current attempt to hire almost 2,000 employees to staff massive distribution facilities being built in Little Rock and North Little Rock represent the biggest initiative in terms of job creation in central Arkansas since LRAFB was announced.

Air Force officials visited three sites and decided that one adjacent to Jacksonville was best. The chamber's Defense Installations Committee came up with a plan to purchase property. What's now known as the Little Rock Air Force Base Community Council began raising money. In two months, it raised $1.2 million.

Fundraising efforts were led by Raymond Rebsamen and Arthur Phillips. Marcus Lafayette Harris, the Philander Smith College president, organized a separate fundraising drive in the Black business community.

"About two-thirds of the money came from large corporate donations," Schmidt wrote. "The remaining third was the result of individual donations ranging from a couple of dollars to hundreds of dollars. It was obvious from the start that the project had the backing of the community. Its efforts were rewarded when, in October 1955, the base opened its gates. Community support of the project didn't end there. In fact, that was only the beginning."

At the time, it was estimated that 6,000 military personnel would be assigned to Little Rock along with an additional 8,000 to 12,000 family members.

"There would be many problems involved with the sudden influx of people," Schmidt wrote. "First, the base wouldn't be capable of housing so many people for quite some time, if ever. Also, recreational facilities wouldn't be ready until sometime in the future. Yet adequate housing, as well as recreational activities necessary to morale, would have to be found. The Community Council elected to direct its efforts to resolving issues such as these."

Part of the land purchased for the base had housed the Arkansas Ordnance Plant during World War II. After the war, most of the AOP property was sold to businesses or sold back to former owners.

"Only a small part of the former AOP site belonged to the U.S. government in 1953," Carolyn Yancey Kent wrote for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "When this land was resold to former owners or sold to businesses, the government had a recapture provision in the contracts, allowing it to reclaim the land as needed.

"The Little Rock District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers oversaw construction of the base. On Dec. 8, 1953, official groundbreaking ceremonies were held. By the time LRAFB was activated on Oct. 9, 1955, 100 officers and 1,134 airmen were at the base. An open house was held for the public, and an estimated 85,000 people attended."

The base is going strong more than 65 years after it opened, and additional decades of operation now seem certain.

Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at

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