Published October 11, 2006
Early Development: 1941 - 1949
In early January 1941, Biloxi city officials assembled a formal offer to invite the U.S. Army Corps to build a base to support the WWII training buildup. The package included an early airport, the old Naval Reserve Park, and parts of Oak Park sufficient to support a technical training school with a population of 5,200 people.
On 6 March 1941, the War Department officially notified Mayor Braun that Biloxi had been selected. The War Department activated Army Air Corps Station No. 8, Aviation Mechanics School, Biloxi, Mississippi, on 12 June 1941. City officials wanted the base named after a notable figure in the local area's history, but it was War Department policy to name installations after service members killed in action. In late June, Mayor Braun received word that the new school would be named in honor of 2d Lt Samuel Reeves Keesler, Jr., of Greenwood, Mississippi. Lieutenant Keesler had died of wounds during World War I while serving in France as an aerial observer assigned to the 24th Aero Squadron, U.S. Army Air Service. On 25 August 1941, Army Air Corps Station No. 8 was officially designated as Keesler Army Airfield.
Congress initially appropriated $6 million for construction at Biloxi and an additional $2 million for equipment. By the time the War Department allocated the funds in April 1941, the projected cost had risen to $9.6 million. On 14 June 1941, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers awarded Newton, Glenn, and Knost Construction Company and J. A. Jones Construction Company contracts totaling $10 million to build Biloxi's technical training school. At the time, it was the most expensive government project to have been undertaken in the State of Mississippi.
First Soldiers Arrive
Captain Samuel A. Mundell arrived in Biloxi on 12 June 1941. He was joined two days later by a start up cadre from Scott Field, Illinois, consisting of a second lieutenant and 20 enlisted personnel; they established a temporary headquarters at the Biloxi Armory. Lieutenant Colonel William J. Hanlon arrived on 16 June to assume command from Captain Mundell. The same Arthur W. Brock who had first examined the site in January, now promoted to colonel, arrived on 17 July to become the base's first permanent commander.
On 8 September 1941, the 310th Technical School Squadron (the mess unit) became the first squadron to move to the new barracks. Before the end of the month, three basic training units, the 301st, 303d, and 304th Technical School Squadrons, had also moved into permanent quarters.
When the War Department activated Keesler Field in June 1941, the local community thought it was getting a technical training center with a student population, which might peak, at 20,000 people. Not only was Keesler to house a technical training center, but it would also host one of the Army's newest replacement, or basic training centers. Keesler's population almost doubled overnight.
The first shipment of recruits arrived at Keesler Field on 21 August 1941. During World War II, the Army's basic training program was little more than a reception process. At Keesler, basic training lasted four weeks, during which classifiers determined the type of follow on schooling that each recruit would receive. Many stayed at Keesler to become airplane and engine mechanics, while others transferred to aerial gunnery or aviation cadet schools. Trains passed through Keesler daily, dropping off new trainees and picking up graduates.
By September 1944, the number of recruits had dropped, but the workload remained constant, as Keesler personnel began processing veteran ground troops and combat crews who had returned from duty overseas for additional training and follow on assignments. Basic training wound down drastically after the end of World War II, and it was finally discontinued at Keesler on 30 June 1946.
Technical training school officers and staff began arriving at Keesler Field in mid July 1941, primarily from Chanute Field, Illinois. The new academic buildings were still under construction when the Airplane and Engine Mechanics School opened. Basic Branch students received instruction in five barracks buildings; Instructor Branch students were assigned to temporary classrooms set up in commandeered circus tents. In mid-1942 the Army Air Forces directed Keesler to focus upon the training of mechanics for B-24 Liberator heavy bombers. The school received its first B 24 in late September 1942. Six more arrived shortly thereafter, and specialized B 24 maintenance training began on 19 October. Over time, Keesler gradually replaced them with civilian instructors, including many women.
Women began training here in 1943, as did international students. Students from more than 50 countries have received aviation, personnel and electronics training at Keesler.
Generally unknown to most was the role that the Tuskegee Airmen and other African American troops played on Keesler. In fact, more than 7,000 African American Airmen were stationed at Keesler Field by the autumn of 1943. These soldiers included pre-aviation cadets, radio operators, aviation technicians, bombardiers, and aviation mechanics.
Keesler continued to focus upon specialized training in B-24 maintenance until mid-1944. Thereafter, the base was directed to expand its mechanics training curriculums to include other aircraft. Changing requirements forced the consolidation of all air-rescue training at Keesler in early 1945, however, and many of these programs had to be moved elsewhere for lack of facility space.
Specialized Flying Training
The rapid buildup of heavy bomber units overseas demanded additional aircrew, and Keesler was tasked to assist in the spring of 1944. A B-24 Copilot School began operation in July, and its curriculum was expanded to include B-32 copilot training in October. The need for B-24 crews had also diminished, and Keesler stopped training B-24 copilots two months later. In late July 1944, the Army Air Forces (AAF) consolidated all air-sea rescue training at Keesler. The situation worsened on 4 January 1945, when the AAF Training Command ordered Keesler to give first priority to air-sea rescue training. The Emergency Rescue School was disbanded in April 1946. Thereafter, air-sea rescue training passed to the Air Transport Command's newly established Air Rescue Service.
The Post World War II Era
In late May 1947, the AAF announced plans to move its Radar School from Boca Raton, Florida, to Keesler. The Radar School officially arrived on 14 November 1947, making Keesler responsible for operating the two largest military technical schools in the United States. Thereafter, shrinking budgets forced the base to reduce its operating costs: the Airplane and Engine Mechanics School and the Radar School were consolidated on 1 April 1948.
Meanwhile, in September 1947, the United States Air Force became an independent branch of the armed services. As a result, Keesler Field was officially redesignated as an Air Force base on 13 January 1948.
In early 1949, Air Training Command decided that Keesler should focus its efforts on teaching radar, radio, and electronics maintenance and repair. To make room, the airplane and engine mechanics courses had to be moved elsewhere. Especially since the Air Force also planned to transfer the Radio Operations School to Keesler from Scott AFB, Illinois. In addition to training radio operators, Keesler was to begin teaching air traffic service technicians; aircraft approach controllers, ground radar mechanics, and radar repairman/ground controlled approach specialists. The last mechanics training courses had moved to Sheppard AFB, Texas, by November, and it was at this point in the base's history that Keesler became known as the "Electronics Training Center of the Air Force."
The Korean War and the Fifties: 1950 - 1959
In August 1950, Keesler embarked on a major rebuilding program to upgrade its facilities across the board. The first phase of this project called for the construction of a new electronics laboratory, barracks, and a dining hall for a total cost of $14 million. In 1951, Congress appropriated an additional $44 million to complete Keesler's reconstruction. Plans included four two-story academic buildings (later named Allee, Dolan, Thomson, and Wolfe Halls), a 352-bed hospital, modern family housing units, and a three-story dormitory complex dubbed "the triangle" because of its distinctive layout.
The 1950s also meant organizational change for Keesler. Since August 1948, the 3380th Technical Training Wing had controlled all base activities. Under it were four subordinate units: the 3380th Technical Training Group, which operated the school; the 3380th Maintenance and Supply Group; the 3380th Air Base Group; and the 3380th Medical Group. In 1955, a fifth group was added: the 3380th Installations Group. That arrangement continued until 1 January 1959, when Air Training Command redesignated the wing as Headquarters, Keesler Technical Training Center (KTTC). At the same time, the training group was redesignated as the 3380th Technical School, USAF, and all of its subordinate student squadrons were renamed school squadrons.
Keesler's modernization required more than expanded facilities. For example, Keesler began using television instruction methods as early as June 1953. In 1950, Keesler offered only 14 generalized courses, but by December 1959 that number had grown to 116, including vital USAF programs such as the aircraft warning and control system.
In early 1956, Keesler entered the missile age by opening a ground support training program for the SM-65 Atlas intercontinental ballistic missile. In addition, school personnel were developing training methods for the newly adopted semi-automatic ground environment (SAGE) system, an integrated defense net intended to protect the United States from Soviet air attack. The base gained even more responsibility in 1958, when the Air Force announced that Scott AFB would relinquish its training mission. As a result, all control tower operator, radio maintenance, a n d general radio operator courses came to be under Keesler's already broad technical training roof.
Technology in the Sixties and Seventies: 1960 - 1979
By 1960 the school at Keesler had earned a solid reputation for high technology training, offering courses in radar, communications, and electronics. During the early l960s, Keesler lost many of its airborne training courses, and the aircraft they required. The TC-54s assigned to electronic warfare officer training departed for Mather AFB, California, in April 1961. In December 1962, the Air Ground Operations School and its T 33s transferred to Eglin AFB, Florida; they had filled Biloxi's airspace with jet noise since 1957. The last C-47 used for airborne ground approach radar training left in 1966, when it was replaced by an ground-based simulator.
Keesler remained the largest training base within ATC throughout the 1970s, and it continued to stay on the cutting edge of electronics technology, instructing students in new systems such as the worldwide military command and control system and the 407L radar system. The school was the country's main supplier of electronics technicians.
Keesler's student load dropped to an all-time low after the Vietnam War ended, and Air Force officials responded to changing social conditions by reexamining the school's teaching functions. As a result, Air Training Command inactivated the USAF School of Applied Aerospace Sciences on 1 April 1977 and replaced it with the 3300th Technical Training Wing, which activated the same day.
The End of the Cold War and Beyond: 1980 - 1999
Two weapon systems training programs gained attention during the early l980s. One was the airborne warning and control system (employed aboard the E-3A Sentry aircraft), and the other was the BGM-109 ground-launched cruise missile. Keesler's air traffic control program also garnered its share of publicity - especially after the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization walked off the job in August 1981. When President Ronald Reagan fired the strikers, it was Keesler-trained military air traffic controllers who stepped in to keep the nation's airways flowing smoothly.
Beginning in 1984, school officials worked with Air Force Communications Command's 1872d School Squadron to develop prototype-training programs using interactive videodisc (IVD) technology, which soon supported a variety of Keesler interactive course offerings. Keesler's Wall Studio IVD production capability was one of only two in the entire Air Force, and supported many organizations Air Force wide.
Driven by deep defense budget cuts, the congressionally mandated base realignment and closure process culminated in a major downsizing effort, significantly impacting Keesler's training mission. With base closure forcing an end to technical training at Chanute AFB, Illinois, and Lowry AFB, Colorado, Keesler's growing importance as a technical university would become even more firmly fixed. The first additions arrived in 1990, as Keesler acquired Chanute's weather forecasting courses. Lowry's metrology and precision maintenance electronics laboratory training program followed in 1992-1993.
The Air Force's 1992 "Year of Training" initiatives - a top to bottom reevaluation of the process by which USAF technicians acquired and honed their skills - led to a host of organizational changes. One initiative proposed a draw down of USAF field training detachments (FTD). These detachments were the mechanism by which USAF maintainers Still in the planning stages in 1995, the FTD draw down initiative would divide weapon systems training among the major using commands and the technical training centers, and Keesler stood to inherit many new course responsibilities once the draw down plan went into effect.
Another Year of Training initiative resulted in the return of flying training to Keesler for the first time since 1973. Tasked with providing operational airlift support training to pilots in C-12C/F Huron and C-21A Learjet aircraft, the 45th Airlift Squadron was assigned to the 81st Training Group. It began operations in July 1994.
Meanwhile, the massive restructuring of the Air Force in the early 1990s also meant several changes for Keesler's associate units. The first occurred when the 53d Weather Reconnaissance Squadron (known throughout the Gulf region as the Hurricane Hunters) was inactivated and transferred to the reserves on 30 June 1991. Its important mission was merged with the storm-tracking mission of the 815th WRS, a component of the 403d Wing, Keesler's resident Air Force Reserve unit that includes the 815th Airlift Squadron that also flies C-130s. Another base tenant change occurred when the 7th Airborne Command and Control Squadron and its EC 130 flying command post aircraft relocated to Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona, in September 1994.
Those restructuring efforts similarly affected units assigned to Keesler Technical Training Center. In February 1992, Air Training Command redesignated the base's host unit as the Keesler Training Center (KTC). The 3300th Technical Training Wing was downsized to become a group, and its component technical training groups became squadrons. The 3305th Student Group also inactivated along with its subordinate squadrons. In mid-September all of the 3380th numbered units assumed the 393d designation, as the base further realigned itself to conform to the Air Force's objective wing structure. In addition, the technical training group also assumed the 393d designation, and its nine technical training and training support squadrons were renumbered to better reflect the new, simplified organizational arrangement.
Yet another major change occurred on 1 July 1993, when Keesler Training Center inactivated, and its lineage and honors retired. On the same day, the 81st Tactical Fighter Wing, formerly located at RAF Bentwaters, United Kingdom, was redesignated the 81st Training Wing and concurrently activated to serve as Keesler's host organization. At the same time, HQ USAF redesignated Air Training Command as Air Education and Training Command (AETC), and the command activated Second Air Force and stationed it at Keesler. Its mission was to oversee all technical training conducted within AETC.
Leading the way to the 21st Century
At the beginning of the 21st Century, the 81 TRW, and Keesler AFB was one of the largest technical training wings in the United States Air Force, and in Air Education and Training Command (AETC). Throughout 2002, the 81 Training Wing (TRW), trained thousands of airmen, and hundreds of Air Force officers as well as military members form the Navy, Army, Marines, Coast Guard and allied nations. The 81 TRW trained civilian and military members in specialized skills ranging from avionics maintenance, comptroller, radio and radar systems maintenance, communications electronics, computer systems, air traffic control, weather, personnel, command and control systems. Keesler AFB also trained pilots in C-21 aircraft, as well as doctors, nurses and technicians in medical specialties. The C-21's belonged to the 45th Airlift Squadron (ALS), a detachment from Little Rock AFB, Arkansas (ARK). Though the 81 TRW primary missions were that of technical training, Keesler AFB as a whole is host to many associate units with their own histories.