Air base dedication 'a memory-maker'

by Donna Lampkin Stephens

The late Kenneth Pat Wilson, one of the key point men behind the local movement to establish the Little Rock Air Force Base, probably never foresaw the results of the effort as the base prepares to celebrate its 60th anniversary in October.

“He would probably be amazed at how much economic impact it’s had,” Wilson’s son, Larry Wilson, chairman of the board, president and CEO of First Arkansas Bank and Trust in Jacksonville, said. “It has exceeded his expectations and the expectations of others who worked on getting it here. It has just been a tremendous asset to the whole state.”

Most of the anniversary activities will occur Oct. 9, 60 years following the official dedication of the base.

“That day will be filled with commemoration and award ceremonies to celebrate the partnerships that have directly enabled mission success through the years,” Captain Ashley Walker, 19th Airlift Wing Public Affairs Chief, said in an e-mail.

According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, the effort to bring an Air Force presence to the 501 began in 1951 when the Greater Little Rock Chamber of Commerce got word of the Air Force’s interest in the central part of the country for a new base location.

According to a press release from the LRAFB, local leaders wrote to the Secretary of the Air Force to propose a site near Jacksonville. The two sides came to the agreement that the community would raise the money to buy the property and then give it to the government.

“It was just a huge undertaking, first of all, to get 6,000-plus acres together,” Larry Wilson said. “It was difficult to amass that amount of acreage and get the various people involved to agree to sell their property, which they eventually did for appraised value. There were a few holdouts and a few cases of eminent domain on smaller parcels, but the majority agreed to sell their property to this group that was raising the money to buy the land to donate to the government.”

He said officials knew that such a detail would “sweeten the deal” and make it more practical for the Air Force to choose the area rather than another place where it would have to purchase the land. Congress wasn’t eager to allocate money for such a purchase because of the number of left-over World War II installations that, theoretically, could have been converted to a base.

“This was some nine years after World War II, and the Air Force was still fairly new and needed some new facilities,” Wilson said, adding that Dyess AFB in Abilene, Texas, was built at about the same time. “I think one of the major roles that my dad was able to play was that he was somebody whose family was affected by the base prospect, and so he and his family agreed to sell their property, and it kind of started the other families looking at the long-term economic effect of it and getting them to agree to sell their property.”

Kenneth Pat Wilson had been part of the organization of the first bank in the city, Jacksonville State Bank (now FAB&T) in 1949.

As president of the bank, his son said, “he knew the economic benefit of having a base locate in that area.”

“There wasn’t any money to speak of in Jacksonville at the time,” Larry Wilson said. “There were only 2,000 people in Jacksonville, so there wasn’t a wealth of resources to help with the project. That had to come out of Little Rock, and they needed a point person in Jacksonville, and that was my dad’s role.”

Kenneth Pat Wilson’s involvement was his service on the Pulaski County Committee of 100 businessmen. He also served as president of the LRAFB Community Council, a partnership between airmen and Jacksonville residents that was the first in the country and, according to the EOA, has been a model for others.

Others involved in the effort included Everett Tucker, manager of the Industrial Department of the Greater Little Rock chamber; Henry Pfeifer, president of the group; Pulaski County Judge Archibald Campbell and Ike Teague, according to the EOA. By September 1952, the community had raised nearly $1 million to buy 6,100 acres for the establishment of the base, which now includes 6,412 acres within the city limits of Jacksonville, according to the LRAFB press release.

“In 1952, that was real money,” Larry Wilson said.

Construction began Dec. 8, 1953. Wilson was 5.

“It was such a big deal,” he remembered. “As the crow flies, we lived probably three miles from the main gate. It was such a large construction project, it attracted a lot of interest, and so sometimes on Sunday afternoons we’d drive around and see what progress had been made. It was interesting to see some of the stages that the work went through.”

He remembered that the experience taught him the different between the speed of light and the speed of sound.

“We could see an explosion occur and hear it later,” he said. “It was very vivid to see the rocks go flying and then hear it. That was a memory that I took away from the construction.”

Air traffic began flowing at the base on Sept. 10, 1955. Wilson was in second grade.

“The base opened, and families were coming into town, and there wasn’t much housing available for them, and they rented rooms from people and did whatever they could to find a place to live until they finally built family housing in 1959,” he said. “They had barracks for the airmen when the base opened.”

According to the LRAFB press release, the base dedication on Oct. 9, 1955, drew about 85,000 visitors, many from the community, as well as Donald Quarles, secretary of the Air Force, and Gen. Curtis LeMay, Strategic Air Command (SAC) commander.

Wilson said the huge turnout showed the extent of the civic and national pride the project generated.

“It was the biggest traffic jam you could imagine,” he said. “We didn’t have (Highway) 67/167. The four-lane wasn’t completed until 1961, so there was limited access to the base from various roads, and the response was overwhelming.

“It was a traffic jam to remember, but those who got there got an opportunity to see the planes and the runway. It was a memory-maker. Everybody wanted to see the new air base and new airplanes out there.”

According to the EOA, by the dedication, 100 officers and 1,134 airmen were located at the base. The 825th Air Division, composed of the Seventieth Strategic Reconnaissance Wing, and the 384th Bombardment Wing made their homes at LRAFB. The 384th BW brought the B-47E medium bombers when it arrived in January 1956. Though only operating at half-capacity in ‘56, the base was awarded SAC Base of the Year.

Through the years, according to the EOA, the base has also been home to the 308th Strategic Missile Wing, activated to man the Titan II missile silos; the Forty-third Bomb Wing, equipped with B-58 aircraft; the Seventieth Air Refueling Squadron, equipped with KC-97 tankers; and the 314th Tactical Airlift Wing, which trains all C-130 aircraft crew members from all branches of the American military, the U.S. Coast Guard and students from 28 allied nations. The 189th Airlift Wing, Arkansas Air National Guard, is also stationed there.

In 1956, Jacksonville State Bank opened a branch in the original Base Exchange Building. Kenneth Pat Wilson died in 2002. He and the late Bart Gray Sr., founder of Bart Gray Realty Company in Jacksonville in 1948, were among the 1997 inductees to the Arkansas Aviation Hall of Fame for their efforts in bringing the Little Rock Air Force Base to fruition, Larry Wilson said.