A History of Goodfellow

  • Published
  • By Dr. John Garrett
  • 17th Training Wing Historian
January 26 is the anniversary of the opening of Goodfellow Air Force Base. For 71 years Goodfellow has produced pilots, intelligence professionals and military firefighters, but why was the base built in San Angelo?

No one invited him. Commander-in-Chief of a military whose air arm lagged well behind the major air forces of Europe, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt watched from America as the leaders of the Western World met to discuss whether they would have war or peace. When the Munich Conference ended, Czechoslovakia had been dismembered and German expansionism, it was hoped, had been appeased. "If I had possessed 10,000 planes," Roosevelt complained to an advisor, "I could have gone to Munich and saved the Czechs."

For Roosevelt, this connection between air power and diplomacy was fundamental. The Munich Conference, he told his Cabinet at a secret meeting afterwards, "may have saved many, many lives now, but that may ultimately result in the loss of many times that number of lives later. When I write foreign countries I must have something to back up my words. Had we had this summer 5,000 planes and the capacity immediately to produce 10,000 per year," he repeated, "Hitler would not have dared to take the stand he did."

Hap Arnold, the new Chief of the Army Air Corps, was there at the secret cabinet meeting in November 1938 and paraphrased Roosevelt this way: "the President came straight out for air power," Arnold wrote in his diary. "Airplanes, now, and lots of them! A new regiment of field artillery ... would not scare Hitler...What [the President] wanted was airplanes!"

Specifically, Roosevelt wanted 10,000 planes and an industrial capacity to produce 10,000 per year. He settled for half that number from a jittery but still isolationist Congress. But then came the German invasion of Poland in September 1939 and the overrunning of France the following spring. That changed everything. Now, "ll you have to do is ask for it," Senator Henry Cabot Lodge told Hap Arnold in May 1940. Arnold asked for 50,000 aircraft.

The same month, the War Department announced its intention to begin building schools to train the pilots that would be needed to fly those 50,000 aircraft. One of these, it was revealed, was to be built somewhere in west Texas, in the triangle formed by Fort Worth, Midland, and San Angelo.

What explains the construction of a new training school near San Angelo rather than somewhere else in west Texas, however, was that San Angelo's offer to the War Department was the sweetest and its political connections the strongest. Then, on May 15,1940, San Angelo civic leaders learned of the War Department's plan to build the new field in west Texas. Five days later two members of the San Angelo Board of City Development, Robert Carr and Culberson Deal, pulled together some maps and some aerial photography, compiled a list of nice things to say about San Angelo, and traveled to San Antonio to meet with Air Corps representatives and promote their city as the ideal location for the proposed flying school.

When Carr and Deal returned to San Angelo, they reported to the Board that the Air Corps lacked funding for the purchase of land. It would boost San Angelo's chances considerably if the city were to offer the necessary land at minimal cost to the government, they explained. The Board agreed, and then went one better. Following a noontime meeting of more than 50 San Angelo businessmen in early June 1940, the city sent the War Department a telegram offering a lease on 640 acres at $1 per year. There was more. The city also offered hookups for natural gas, electricity, telephone, water and sewage service, beacon and boundary lights, three underground gas storage tanks, a hangar and even a railroad spur to the site. It was an offer the government could not refuse, formally designating San Angelo as the site for the new flying school June 21, 1940. One month later, to make good on its commitment, the city passed a $300,000 bond by a vote of 3,258 to 18.

On 17 August 1940 the War Department formally established the new airfield on land the city purchased from a local rancher for $72,625 (about $113 per acre). Construction had already begun four days earlier with the clearing of cacti and Mesquite Trees. By January 1941, the initial complement of 62 buildings and 3 control towers was complete. Three weeks later, Col. George Palmer raised the colors over Goodfellow for the first time, formally opening the base as one of the earliest expressions of modern American air power.

Dr. Garrett is writing a 75-year history of Goodfellow AFB and solicits photographs and reminiscences from the entire period. If you have photos to share, contact him at (325) 654-3882 or at john.garrett@goodfellow.af.mil.