By Dana Stubbs – Special to the Navarro County Gazette

I have to wonder if Mary Stroube knew what she was really doing that fateful summer day in 1940. It was a normal day at the bridge club when the ladies conversations turned to the news about President Roosevelt’s proposal. The president had gone to Congress and asked for an air armada of 50,000 warplanes and new training sites for new recruits as part of his re-armament plan.

Just think about it… a sky full of planes… over Corsicana, Texas.

The “flying age” would be realized. By the end of the bridge party, all the ladies agreed that Corsicana needed one of those training places. Later that evening, as soon as Mary’s husband Bill walked into the house, she started in on how much it would help Corsicana if an air training field was built. Commercially, it might help offset the closing of the Magnolia refinery.

Bill told her if she really thought it was a worthwhile project he would give her a list of people to call. But, he made sure Mary understood she had to make the calls herself. She did more than that. Mary went to Dallas and talked face to face with the right people. Those Stroubes have always had moxie. Mary’s enthusiasm initiated a move that brought a source of great war time pride to Corsicana.

The Corsicana Junior Chamber of Commerce jumped on board and that started a full-fledged movement to bring an air-corps training post to Navarro County. Almost year round, the Texas prairie town had an excellent flying climate. The site was strategically located for transport facilities. There were “routes of over a dozen truck, bus, railroad, interurban lines and a network of fine paved highways.” All that placed Corsicana as a major contender for the program, and created an easy target for the powers to find and establish a first rate air training school.

Colonel Frank M. Knox was appointed by the President to head the civilian aeronautics training program. He set a tentative date for the opening of the camps on July 1 with a maximum of 10,000 men between the ages of 18 and 35. His plan called for civilian organizations to sponsor the voluntary enlistments. The instructors, housing, and training planes were supplied by the army.

The Corsicana Junior Chamber of Commerce acted as the civilian organization. Joe K. Garner was president of the Jaycees; Julius Jacobs, vice president; Ray M. Langston, second vice president; Otto Smith, secretary; Coleman Parish, treasurer; Isadore Goldberg, sergeant-at-arms; and Directors were Clyde Halbert, Tom Eady, G. M. Boyd, and Embry Ferguson.

Corsicana Field – Courtesy photo

Once the deals and plans were made, the actual ground work started in January, 1941. Building on the site started on February 2, with an estimated cost just over $200,000 ($3,541,224.49 in 2020).

In Texas, you should never count on the winter climate. Construction was hindered by inclement weather for over a month, but it was ready for the first batch of the one hundred sixty cadets to arrive on March 17, 1941.

Big tractors hauled the lumber, steel, windows, piping, prefab walls, floor and ceiling joints, roof rafters, gravel, and cement to the location. Two hundred and fifty carpenters, painters, and laborers worked sometimes in knee deep mud on a 24-hour basis, but it was erected in record time.

A company in Houston produced all six prefabricated buildings which were under roof in an average of 1 1/2 days. One hangar which accommodated 30 planes and a “sort of” runway was ready for training to began.

At first, the school housing facilities were sufficient for the 160 cadets who would live under strict military regulations. No guests were allowed on the grounds during the week. In order to eliminate any unpleasantness on the Corsicana roadways, the cadets were not permitted to have cars.

The population of the school, including cadets, mechanics, instructors, and others numbered 600. The cadets lived in ranch style barracks. Each cadet’s bay had a box springs bed, a desk with chair, and a huge locker. There was also a mess hall, hospital, and an administration building. When it was completed with landscaping, it had an atmosphere of a county club setting.

The field was owned and managed by Air Activities of Texas, which continued to update and enlarge the facilities. It eventually boasted five stiff flying courses and an excellent ground school with a large group of civilian instructors. New barracks were constantly being built, hangars added or enlarged, and the runways improved. New training planes came in every week and were the very best money could buy.

Within fifteen months after the government took over the field, it had bloomed into one of the chief primary schools in the United States Air Force.

General Wilby, West Point head, inspects the Corsicana Field as the cadets pass in review – from Flying Lines, the air field newsletter – Courtesy photo

The Corsicana school was for cadets without previous army flying experience. The total enrollment would eventually reach about 5,000. They generally received about eight hours in the air before they were allowed to solo. Every ten weeks a class graduated the primary school and most left Corsicana for their next session at Randolph Field. Every new class was welcomed and every graduating class was honored with a dance at the Corsicana Country Club.

While they studied at the post on week days they had weekends off. Many of the cadets found the Corsicana Country Club the perfect place for rest, relaxation and golf. The club had extended free membership to all officers and cadets of the school. The YMCA hosted special events to entertain the cadets with their sweethearts.

Cadets and sweethearts at dance hosted at the Corsicana Country Club – from Flying Lines, the air field newsletter – Courtesy photo

Invitations were extended to the entire student body to attend church services at First Baptist, First Christian, First Presbyterian, Cumberland Presbyterian, Third Avenue Presbyterian, First Methodist, and St. John’s Episcopal. Of the first 95 cadets, 86 were able to accept the churches invitations. The Kinsloe House gave luncheons and programs on behalf of the cadets.

Over time the cadets put together baseball and basketball teams to compete with local teams and some college teams. And every once in a while they took in a football game at Tiger Field.

Cartoon from Flying Lines, the air field newsletter – Courtesy photo

Orders came from Washington in August 1944 to close the doors on October 16. Only fifteen primary schools continued operation after that date. The property was then acquired for the new Navarro Junior College.

Special Dates in the Air Activities Training School history

January 1941: The ground work was started.

February 2, 1941: Building of the structures began.

March 17, 1941: The first class of cadets arrived for training.

December 7, 1941: Acting on instructions from the War Department, the school initiated all practicable measures to prevent sabotage at the local industrial and manufacturing plants, i.e., compresses, cotton oil mills, oil pump stations, etc..

March 18, 1942: Formal dedication of the school with an official review staged at the parade grounds.

July 26, 1942: Flag Dedication Exercises as a large bi-motored Lockheed-Hudson roared and saluted overhead.

December 4, 1942: The facilities were officially designated Corsicana Field. At first it was determined to name the school after the first graduate to lose his life in combat. However, in order to show the citizens, city and county the appreciation of the school for the “magnificent spirit of co-operation” it was decided to call the field after the county seat.

October 16, 1944: Corsicana Field closed its doors.

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