MacDill Air Force Base has been around for more than 75 years — with roles that have changed to correspond with evolving military needs.
The base now houses the 6th Air Mobility Wing, with operations primarily in aerial refueling mission and personnel transport.
Its purpose was quite different during World War II, however.
The Tampa Bay History Center, in partnership with the Jimmie B. Keel Regional Library, recently had a presentation documenting the history of MacDill Air Force Base.
The event was led by Clete Belsom, a retired lieutenant colonel in the United States Air Force and a docent at the history center.
Belsom, who volunteers once a week at MacDill, detailed how the air force base has evolved over decades. He also described the important role the base has played in the area’s history and economy, during an hour-long interactive discussion.
As war clouds gathered in the late 1930s, the United States War Department ordered the development of six new strategic bases nationwide.
Interestingly enough, Tampa was chosen over Arcadia for the country’s southeast base location.
“The War Department said, ‘Wait a minute, Arcadia’s so isolated. It doesn’t make sense.’ And, it really didn’t make sense,” Belsom said.
MacDill was originally established as Southeast Air Base in 1939.
It was later activated on April 16, 1941, dedicated after Col. Leslie MacDill, a pilot in the Army Air Corps who died in a plane crash in Washington D.C.
“He was an up-and-coming star and very, very well thought of; he would’ve done quite well,” Belsom said.
In its earliest years, MacDill’s mission was transitional training in the B-17 Flying Fortress.
Maj. Clarence Tinker, an Osage Indian — who went on to become the highest-ranking Native American in the military during World War II — led MacDill’s operations in the beginning.
“The B-17…carried all of the heavy bombing load that the U.S. did in Europe during World War II. They specialized in daytime precision bombing,” Belsom explained.
Between 1942 and 1945, the 91st Bombardment Group — which operated the B-17 Flying Fortress — flew 9,571 combat missions throughout Europe.
Of those missions, 197 airplanes were lost, 1,010 airmen were presumed killed or missing, and 960 crewmembers were taken as German prisoners of war.
MacDill also hosted a number of bomber aircraft during the war, including the B-17, B-26 Marauder and the B-29 Superfortress.
Servicemen were trained to be pilots, gunners, engineers, mechanics, radio operators, navigators and other roles.
MacDill also was home to other support units, including the Women’s Army Corps and an all-black aviation engineer unit.
It’s estimated that 100,000 crewmembers were trained at MacDill during World War II, with 15,000 stationed at the base at any given time.
At its apex, there also were 488 German POWs.
“How would you have liked to have been a German soldier…and you get sent to Florida? There was not a better outcome, I’m sure, that a POW could’ve had than these folks,” Belsom said.
Additionally, 20,000 residents of Hillsborough County were engaged in the war effort, while thousands more served in defense jobs.
Another interesting fact: During 1942 —MacDill’s first full year of operation — there were 2,000 soldiers married in Hillsborough County.
Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s MacDill trained crews for the B-29, B-50 and B-47—the first swept wing strategic bomber in inventory, Belsom explained.
The base later transitioned to Tactical Air Command, stationing fighter wings like F-4s and F-16s up through the 1980s, he said.
Belsom pointed out MacDill nearly closed in the early- to mid-1990s after the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission identified it on a list of bases to be closed after all its tactical fighters were relocated to a base in Arizona.
But, MacDill’s shutdown was averted because of the significance of U.S. Central Command and Special Operations Command on foreign fighting activities, particularly the Middle East.
It didn’t hurt, either, that U.S. Reps. Sam Gibbons and Bill Young backed the air force base.
“They were very, very influential congressman, so I’m sure they played a part in arguing why MacDill made sense to maintain,” Belsom said.
Today, the 6th Air Mobility Wing at MacDill performs air refueling, airlift, and contingency response missions for the U.S., and allied forces around the globe. It’s also home to the KC-135 Stratotanker and the Gulfstream C-37A executive transport jet.
MacDill, too, houses U.S. Central Command and Special Operations Command.
The base’s establishment, meanwhile, has provided significant financial growth in the Tampa Bay community.
Currently employing 15,000 military personnel and 3,700 civilians, the base, which sits on nearly 6,000 acres, has an estimated annual economic impact of $2.9 billion on the region.
MacDill also has enhanced Tampa Bay’s culture, Belsom said.
“Much like the immigrants who came here to work in the cigar industry back in the late 1880s and the early 1900s, I think (MacDill) enriched the social climate of Tampa just by their presence, because they have a lot of folks who not just come here for two or three years, but then come back later and retire,” Belsom said.
Published November 8, 2017