Keesler and Biloxi go together like boiled shrimp and Barq’s

  • Published
  • By Ken Dodd
  • 81st Training Wing historian
Today, Keesler Air Force Base is 73 years old. The base's men and women have been an integral part of the Biloxi community since the base's activation on June 12, 1941, as Army Air Corps Station No. 8, Aviation Mechanics School.

The city spotlighted this special relationship on May 29, when it hosted the final event of its Preservation in May 2014 program, "Keesler and Biloxi Go Together Like Boiled Shrimp and Barq's" at the Biloxi Visitors Center.

The Barq's reference is a nod to Barq's root beer, which was first created in Biloxi in 1898.

The evening event highlighted Keesler's evolution during the past 72 years and how the base and the community have shared a history of residence and cooperation. The program included an oral history and an exhibit highlighting Keesler's past and present. The display, open to the public through June, was officially opened with a ribbon-cutting ceremony officiated by Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James and other civic and military representatives.

The event was a combined effort of the 81st Training Wing's Public Affairs and History Offices and the city's Historic Preservation Office, but many others contributed to the success of the program. Staff Sergeant Amanda Sackett, 81st Contracting Squadron, was the narrator. The 334th, 335th, and 338th Training Squadrons and the 81st Training Support Squadron provided training aids with narratives. James LaChute, 338th TRS, loaned four vintage Air Force uniforms. Staff Sgt. Searra Woods and Airman 1st Class Christopher Stevens, 81st Training Wing, assisted the history office with the display. The city provided a wonderful reception featuring - of course - boiled shrimp, Barq's root beer and other local delights.

Keesler's success and community partnership with Biloxi would not have materialized without the convergence of several related events: the outbreak of World War II in Europe; the War Department's plans to expand the Army's Air Corps in 1938 and the corresponding training programs that would be needed to support that expansion; and Biloxi's hope to get a training base as the Army Air Corps expansion necessitated more training bases. March 6, 1941, the War Department notified Biloxi that it had been selected as one of two sites for a new technical training base.

The base and the city have been inseparably linked by geography and a shared history since then. Also in 1941, Congress allocated funds for base construction in April; a start-up cadre of 22 personnel arrived at Army Air Corps Station No. 8 on June 12; and the renaming of Army Air Corps Station No. 8 to Keesler Army Airfield on Aug. 25 to honor a Mississippi native, 2nd Lt. Samuel Reeves Keesler Jr. Keesler, an aerial observer assigned to the 24th Aero Squadron, U. S. Army Air Service, who died on Oct. 8, 1918, from wounds he sustained the day before in combat with German aircraft over France and the subsequent crash of the airplane.

Although Keesler's primary mission during the past seven decades has been technical training, it has hosted basic and flying training missions as well. The base was an Air Force basic training center from 1941-1946 and 1950-1966. Keesler also provided flight training at various times in its history: B-24 and B-32 co-pilot training (1944-1945); air-sea rescue (1944-1946); Military Assistance Program T-28 pilot training (1967-1973); and C-12C/F and C-21A pilot training (1994-2011).

Training courses evolved as military needs changed and as technology advanced weapons systems. In 1947, Keesler absorbed all radar training for the Army Air Force. In early 1949, Air Training Command decided 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, Ill. In addition to training radio operators, Keesler began teaching air traffic service technicians, aircraft approach controllers, ground radar mechanics, and radar repairman-ground controlled approach specialists. By November 1949, no remnants of the aviation mechanics training remained. At this point in the base's history, Keesler became known as the "electronics training center of the Air Force."

During the past seven decades, Keesler's men and women have always been involved in supporting its neighbors. Keesler marching formations and bands have marched in local Mardi Gras and holiday parades. Keesler has invited the community to numerous open houses and air shows. Collectively, Keesler and Biloxi, along with other coastal communities, have worked together to recover from the numerous hurricanes and tropical storms that have ravaged the Mississippi Gulf Coast during the past 73 years. The success of the Mississippi Special Olympics for the past 27 years is attributable to the great cooperation between Keesler and the many community sponsors that come together to make this all-volunteer event possible.

Many local and base events are enhanced through the numerous sponsorships by government and civic organizations. The most recent example of this sponsorship was the donation of new state flags for the "Avenue of Flags" on Larcher Boulevard by members of the Biloxi Chamber of Commerce.