Keesler Turns 75

  • Published
  • By Kenneth Dodd and Senior Airman Duncan McElroy
  • 81st Training Wing Historian Office, 81st TRW Public Affairs

“I think the most significant thing I did during my military career was in 1973,” recalls retired Chief Master Sgt. Lonnie Arnold. “Troops returning from Vietnam were being delivered here and it was our job to help repatriate them; get them settled into lodging, link them back up with their wives and kids, make sure they felt welcome. It was hard to do but it was the most important job I ever did.”


Throughout the last 75 years, Keesler Air Force Base and its surrounding community have been home to many things; significant events, units, missions and memories.


Where a 1930s-era baseball field once sat, a flight line and C-130Js capable of global weather reconnaissance and tactical airlift now reside, along with a state-of-the-art training campus and living and working facilities for 12,000 Airmen and civilians. And, like how many things come to be, Keesler’s creation came from a well-intentioned request by costal leadership.


In 1939, Keesler was but a concept conceived by Biloxi city leaders in an attempt to convince the War Department that Biloxi would be an ideal place for pilot training. However, a year later, Biloxi officials were notified that a coastal town was not the best location to build a training facility for fear of attack by enemy naval forces.


In late-1940, the Army Air Corps Technical School headquarters announced plans to activate two new training bases which would specialize in aircraft mechanics training. After being turned down in 1939 as a potential site for a military air training program, Biloxi officials were determined that one of the two new training bases be located at the city’s airport.


By January 1941, Biloxi officials met with Technical School officials to negotiate a land transfer to host a technical training school. After several changes to the number of personnel to be stationed at the Biloxi technical school and the acquisition of additional land, the War Department notified Biloxi’s mayor that the city had been selected as the site of a new technical training school on March 6, 1941.


Biloxi and the Veterans Administration transferred the 832-acre site which included three golf courses, the Biloxi Airport, the Naval Reserve Park, and some private property to the Army Air Corps. The War Department activated Army Air Corps Station No. 8, Aviation Mechanics School, on June 12, 1941, in Biloxi, Miss. Ground breaking for the technical school began on June 18, 1941 and by June 1942, most of the barracks, academic buildings and support facilities were completed.


The Army Air Corps Station No. 8 was renamed Keesler Army Air Field on August 25, 1941 in honor of 2nd Lt. Samuel Reeves Keesler Jr., a native of Greenwood, Miss.


On Oct. 8, 1918, Lt. Keesler, an aerial observer, was wounded in the Verdun Sector of the Western Front during aerial combat with German aircraft and subsequent crash landing east of Verdun, France. He died Oct. 9, 1918 from wounds he sustained the previous day. Lt. Keesler was awarded the WWI Victory Medal with Silver Star for his gallantry.


Following World War II, the United States Air Force became a separate branch of service on Sept. 18, 1947. Thus, Keesler Army Air Field became Keesler Air Force Base on 13 Jan. 1948, marking this milestone.


Since its inception, Keesler’s mission has always been training. Today, 81st Training Wing unit personnel train approximately 2,600 students daily in 31 initial skills training courses, seven enlisted medical specialties, graduate medical education, and 300-plus other technical training courses.


Students enrolled in training courses on Keesler include Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard personnel. Additional students include Defense Department civilians and international students from allied nation partners. Keesler graduated its one millionth student on June 11, 1968.


In addition to technical training, Keesler was also an Air Force basic training center twice in its first 25 years of operation: 1941 to 1946 and 1950 to 1966. Keesler also provided flight training at various times in its history: B-24 Liberator and B-32 Dominator co-pilot training; air-sea rescue; Military Assistance Program; T-28 Trojan pilot training and C-12C/F and C-21A pilot training.


As Keesler’s training mission evolved and changed, so did the way it was maintained.


“We received our first computers in 1958,” said Arnold, then a personnel troop. “We used them to process the training students’ next assignments.”


Just as Keesler has been involved in training for 75 years, it’s also been heavily involved in the community.  


In Fiscal Year 2014 alone, Keesler provided an estimated $1.65 billion total economic impact to the state of Mississippi through its jobs, contracts, services and retirees’ pensions, making Keesler an economic engine to the Gulf Coast. A commitment to serve is evident as Keesler personnel volunteered more than 139,000 hours to agencies and events on base and in the local communities.


“The most significant link between Keesler now and Keesler in the past is its community involvement,” said retired Chief Master Sgt. Charles Teston, a 31-year Air Force veteran. “When I was here in 1954 for airborne radio operator training, we built so many things both on and off base. We upgraded the World War II-era barracks in the just-opening Triangle [training area of Keesler], built structures at Ship Island – Keesler has always been just as dedicated to its community as it has its Airmen.”


The past few years have been an active, but rewarding time for Team Keesler.  Keesler continues to “Train, Develop and Inspire the World’s Best Airmen!” The base was the Commander-in-Chief’s Installation Excellence Award recipient for 2013; recognized as the top U.S. Air Force installation in the world. Each year, Team Keesler provides Air Expeditionary Forces to support contingency and humanitarian operations around the globe.


“The training I got here carried me through three tours in Vietnam,” Teston stressed. “And the discipline, order and community ties I experienced at Keesler have stayed with me through my whole life.”