KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. -- Even before there was an Air Force, there was a Keesler Field. August 25, Keesler turns 70, making the base more than six years older than the service to which it belongs.
For seven decades, Keesler has trained nearly 2.3 million American and foreign military people in a broad range of subjects and disciplines.
June 12, 1941, the original 832-acre site was officially designated Air Corps Station No. 8, Aviation Mechanics School, Biloxi, Miss. Before the land was transferred to the Army Air Corps by the City of Biloxi and Veterans Administration, it was known as the Biloxi Country Club, with three golf courses, the Biloxi Airport, a baseball park used by the Washington Senators major league baseball team for spring training, the Naval Reserve Park and some private property.
Aug. 25, 1941, Army Air Corps Station No. 8 was officially designated Keesler Army Airfield to honor 2nd Lt. Samuel Keesler, a native of Greenwood, Miss., who died after being shot down in air combat with four German aircraft in World War I.
Originally, the base's mission was training aircraft mechanics. Basic training was added and the first 12 recruits arrived Aug. 12. They were followed Sept. 20 by the first class of about 800 aircraft mechanic students.
More than 7,000 troops were in basic training and another 4,000 in aircraft mechanics school when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941, bringing the U.S. into World War II.
During the war, 336,000 recruits and 142,000 aircraft mechanics were trained here. Most B-24 mechanics stationed throughout the several theaters of war -- Europe, Africa, the Far East and Pacific -- trained at Keesler.
Many pilots forced to ditch in the Pacific Ocean owed their lives to OA-10A amphibian aircrews graduated from the air-sea rescue school here. Chemical warfare training was also conducted at Keesler, and shortly after the war ended, the world's first rotary wing school for helicopter mechanics opened here.
In 1943, Keesler's first detachment of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps arrived to fill administrative and clerical positions and the training of U.S. allies' military people was introduced. This program continues today, with students from more than 50 nations receiving personnel, administrative and electronics training.
Keesler moved from aircraft mechanic to electronics training in 1947, the year the Air Force became a separate service. The new service first moved its radar school from Boca Raton, Fla., to Keesler, and then elements of its communications and electronics courses from Scott Air Force Base, Ill.
Eventually, these courses evolved into ground and airborne communications-electronics maintenance and operator training, and air traffic control courses. Then came the semi-automatic ground environment air defense system that made the digital computer a central feature of Keesler's electronics training program.
In 1967, flying training came to Keesler under the Military Assistance Program. Over the next six years, about 800 South Vietnamese pilots earned their wings. Another new training mission arrived in 1968 -- personnel and administration courses. In 1972, when the Air Force became the manager for all training in the Defense Department's worldwide military command and control system, Keesler people taught programs here and at sites around the globe.
Pilot training ended in 1973, then resumed two decades later with the activation of the 45th Airlift Squadron, which deactivated earlier this year after training pilots on both C-12 and C-21 aircraft.
From 1973 into the 1990s, flying activity at Keesler centered around three associate units: 403rd Wing of the Air Force Reserve, 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron and 7th Airborne Command and Control Squadron. The 7th ACCS left several years ago. The 53rd WRS -- Hurricane Hunters -- was deactivated as an active-duty unit in 1991 and reappeared as an arm of the 403rd Wing two years later. The reservists also operate the 815th Airlift Squadron, a transport unit. In 2010, the 345th Airlift Squadron officially reactivated at Keesler as an active associate unit to the 403rd Wing as a part of the Air Force's total force integration initiative.
Growing in numbers and visibility in the 1990s were the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard, reflecting the increasing emphasis on joint military training and operations in the wake of downsizing.
A major milestone in Keesler's training history came in June 2009, when the Air Force's cyber schoolhouse was established at Keesler in what's been called the largest training development effort in the history of Air Education and Training Command. That October, the first of 19 new cyber course stood up to replace 13 existing communications courses, impacting two training wings, four training squadrons and one detachment.
Along the way, hurricanes dealt staggering blows to Keesler -- there was Camille in 1969, Frederic 10 years later, Elena in 1985, Georges in 1998, but none worse than Katrina on Aug. 26, 2005.
Although Katrina temporarily halted Keesler's training mission, classes came back on line quickly. By Oct. 20, all enlisted initial skill courses were approved to be taught and by Nov. 1, 1,762 students were back in training at Keesler. By year's end, nearly all training facilities, dining halls and student dorms that had sustained damage were fully operational. Eleven months ago, Keesler completed a nearly billion dollar reconstruction project.
Through 70 years of constant change, Keesler's mission has remained essentially the same: to provide the finest technical and specialized training to every student who passes through its gates.
Perry Jenifer, retired Keesler News editor; Susan Dawson, base historian; and Susan Griggs, Keesler News editor, contributed to this report.