Val Verde County Historical Commission

Val Verde County Historical Commission

Lt. Jack Laughlin
Del Rio’s First Casualty of the Second World War

Doug Braudaway
Southwest Texas Junior College, 207 Wildcat, Del Rio, Texas 78840

One of Val Verde County’s most important landmarks is Laughlin Air Force Base, a jet pilot training facility located about five miles east of Del Rio. The Base started as a pilot training post for the U.S. Army during the Second World War; after the war, the Field was closed. During the Cold War, the facility was reopened as Laughlin Air Force Base, once home of the super-secret U-2 spyplanes and now home to three training wings.

Laughlin Field itself was named for Lt. Jack Thomas Laughlin of Del Rio. Lt. Laughlin was the first pilot from Del Rio to be killed during the Second World War. Lt. Laughlin had been flying over Java on January 29, 1942 in a B-17 when he was killed. Special dedicatory ceremonies were held on March 28, 1943 with Lt. Laughlin's family in attendance.1

“Jack T. Laughlin was born in Del Rio, Sept. 17, 1914, the youngest of four children of Mr. and Mrs. Jack Thomas and Anna McGehee Laughlin.” “Del Rioans who knew him well have no difficulty recalling how young Jack rose through the Boy Scout ranks to attain the rank of Eagle Scout in 1931. Or how while a student at the University of Texas he spent his summers as a swimming instructor at Moore Park.”2

Jack was part of a Del Rio family whose members contributed to the community in a variety of ways. Jack’s father, J.T. Laughlin, was known as a lawman, serving as City Marshall for the City of Del Rio and as a Deputy U.S. Marshall, and, for a time, the City’s Fire Marshall. His mother, Anna (or Mrs. J.T. Laughlin) served as Secretary of the Retail Merchant’s Association). Jack’s sister, Rachel L. Moore, was a choir teacher at Del Rio’s San Felipe High School. Another sister Francis was a teacher at Midland High School, and brother Alfred was a Lieutenant in the Army at the time of Jack’s death.3

Jack “attended the public schools in Del Rio, and in May 1932 graduated from the Del Rio High School. For two years following his completion of high school young Laughlin worked with archaeological excavation crews from the University of Texas and the Smithsonian Institution, in Indian caves in the Seminole and Pecos Canyons in Val Verde County. Later, he enrolled in the University and earned a bachelor degree in business administration, in 1938.”4

“Fraternity brothers in Lamda Xi say that Jack had shown an interest in flying for several years…. Laughlin had joined the Army Air Corps Aviation Cadet Program in September 1940.”5

“And the orders came not long after that article was written. Laughlin had since completed flying training at several California bases, among them Santa Maria, Moffett, Mather, Bakersfield and Stockton. It was at Stockton on April 27, 1941, that he was awarded his ‘wings,’ and was assigned to heavy bombardment duty at Fort Douglas, Utah.”6

“On August 7, 1941, in the chapel at Fort Douglas, Lieutenant Laughlin married the lovely Mary Fundulakis of Sacramento, California.”7

“In December 1941, Laughlin left with a contingent headed for Java. They headed out across the Pacific, but because of Japanese gains throughout the entire western ocean area, were re-routed to the east. The last letter written by Lieutenant Laughlin was postmarked in Mrica, January 24, 1942. Five days later, on January 29, his B-17 Flying Fortress was lost over the Makasser Straits, on its first combat mission.”8

The naming of the Field for Lt. Laughlin required a certain amount of effort on the part of the citizens of Del Rio and others. While Del Rio residents may take for granted the name of Laughlin for the Air Force Base, Army policy of the 1940s prohibited the naming of military installations after individuals. A telegram sent May 16, 1942 by J. Autrey Walker, Chairman of the Val Verde County War Savings Committee and Vice President of the Del Rio National Bank to the War Department, promoted the idea:
SINCE DELRIO [sic] IS NOW ASSURED US AIR TRAINING SCHOOL I WOULD AGAIN LIKE TO SUGGEST THAT THE FIELD BY NAMED IN HONOR OF LT JACK T LAUGHLIN U S AIR CORPS KILLED IN ACTION IN THE FAR EAST ON JANUARY 29 LT LAUGHLIN WAS FIRST DELRIO MAN TO LOSE HIS LIFE IN THIS WAR.9

This telegram was not well received. The following internal memo dated May 21 sounds as though there were some discussions resulting in a reiteration of contemporary policy that was polite enough not to upset the locals in future requests:
"Subject: Naming of Air Fields.
1. I agree to the policy recommended in the attached memorandum in regard to naming new air fields after localities rather than after individuals.
2. However, I do not think that the proposed letter is properly worded and furthermore believe that the particular case referred to, that of naming the field at Del Rio for Lieutenant Laughlin should be considered since Lieutenant Laughlin was killed in the Far East in the present war and might come within the policy of the board.
3. I suggest that the form letter be reworded as follows:
‘Dear Mr. Blank:
Receipt is acknowledged of your letter of May 16th relative to naming the new school projected for Del Rio, Texas.
The present policy of the Army Air Forces Naming Board is to designate new Air Force Stations after the localities for the time being with the thought in mind that the field might later be named after some hero of the present war. Consequently, it is regretted that the recommendation to honor (blank) cannot be favorably considered at this time.’
But all was not lost apparently; item four of the letter offered some hope, perhaps for a time after the war: "4. It seems to me we should obtain more information in regard to Lieut. Laughlin to find our whether or not the field at Del Rio later could possibly be named after him."10

However, Mr. Walker received the following letter from Major Charles J. Himes of the Naming Board, Air Corps, telling him to leave the Army alone.
"Receipt is acknowledged of your telegram of May 16th, addressed to Colonel W. W. Dick, relative to naming the new school projected for Del Rio, Texas. The present policy of the Army Air Forces Naming Board is to designate new Air Force Stations after the localities for the time being, with the thought in mind that the field might later be named after some hero of the present war. Consequently, it is regretted that the recommendation to honor Lieutenant Jack T. Laughlin cannot be favorably considered at this time."11
The possibilities for naming of the Field for Lt. Laughlin seemed grim, but another series of communications had been initiated on May 16, 1942, and involved the member of Congress representing the 21st District and southwest Texas. Rep. Charles L. South began promoting the idea with the following:
"Pursuant to telephone conversation with Colonel Johnson, I am transmitting herewith a telegram which I have received from Mr. J. Autrey Walker, of Del Rio, Texas, in which he suggests that the new Air Force Training School to be established at Del Rio be named in honor of Lieut. Jack T. Laughlin, of the U.S. Air Corps, the first Del Rio man to lose his life in the present war. I am sure this request will receive the careful consideration of the board.12
Major Himes sent back a copy of the "Dear Blank" letter dated May 22. Nevertheless, Rep. South responded on May 23 with continued interest: "When the matter of a permanent name for the school is taken up, I am sure careful consideration will be given the recommendation that it be named in honor of Lieut. Jack T. Laughlin.”13 Members of Congress have a habit of being annoying like this, and bureaucratic agencies do alter rules when members of Congress come calling. The point is that the Field was named for Lt. Laughlin on March 28, 1943.

The Val Verde County Historical Commission understands that the subject of Jack Laughlin is one of peculiar circumstances. The general rules for historical markers include the ideas of old and significant. It is difficult to argue that Jack Laughlin did significant things for Texas or Val Verde County. All he did was volunteer for military service in a time of crisis—and then give his life. Far too many young Texans were killed before they could grow up and become the builders and leaders and do those things of significance for their communities and state.14 Considering the sixtieth anniversary of the conclusion of the War that killed Lt. Laughlin is rapidly approaching, the VVCHC requests that the THC follow the precedent established with the renaming of the base and give some leeway, allowing us to honor this young airman who never came home from war.

 

Bibliography—
"Base Named for WWII Hero: Lt. Jack T. Laughlin One of Del Rio's Own," Del Rio News-Herald, March 20, 1979, page 1D.
City of Del Rio, Minutes, Book #2, pages 78, 206, 251.
Carroll, Harry W., “Memories Of Lt. Jack Laughlin Still Live,” Border Eagle [the Laughlin Air Force Base newspaper], June 30, 1967, page 1.
City [Telephone] Directory, 1933-1934.
Daughtrey, E. Robuck, “U.S. Air Force Activities In And Near Del Rio, Val Verde County, Texas” (the VVCHC/THC application for “Military Aviation in Val Verde County”), page 11.
El Conquistodor, 1946 (San Felipe High School yearbook).
“Jack Laughlin Reported Killed In Action,” Del Rio News-Herald, February 16, 1942, page 1.
National Archives and Records Administion, copies of documents in possession of the author.
“Memorandum for Major Charles J. Himes, Jr.; Subject: Naming of Air Fields,” May 21, 1942, [the memo appears to be from Colonel F. Trubee Davison, Assistant Chief of Air Staff, A-1].
Major Charles J. Himes, Jr. (Recorder, AAF Naming Board) to Representative Charles L. South, letter dated May 22, 1942.
Rep. Charles L. South to Commanding General, Army Air Forces, letter dated May 16, 1942.
Major Charles J. Himes, Jr. to Representative Charles L. South, letter dated May 23, 1942.
J. Autrey Walker (Chairman Val Verde County War Savings Committee & Vice President of Del Rio National Bank) to Colonel Wm. W. Dick (Agd. Air Adjutant General, War Department), telegram dated May 16, 1942.
Paz, Mauro, to Doug Braudaway, personal interview February 26, 2003.
Val Verde County Commissioners Court Minutes Vol. 4, page 592.

 

Illustrations—
One page from Val Verde County by Doug Braudaway showing pictures of Jack Laughlin, his wife and daughter, and two Laughlin Army Air Field images.
Three pages from TARFU, Laughlin Army Air Field’s newspaper, showing articles about Jack and the dedication of the Field.

 

Endnotes-
1 Daughtrey, U.S. Air Force Activities, page 11. "Laughlin never saw his daughter Jackie, born at the Station Hospital at Randolph Field, on Aug. 14, 1942." "Base Named for WWII Hero: Lt. Jack T. Laughlin One of Del Rio's Own," DRNH, March 20, 1979, page 1D.
2 Harry W. Carroll, “Memories Of Lt. Jack Laughlin Still Live,” Border Eagle [the LAFB newspaper], June 30, 1967, page 1.
3 City of Del Rio, Minutes, Book #2, pages 78, 206, 251; Val Verde County Commissioners Court Minutes Vol. 4, page 592; City Directory, 1933-1934; Mauro Paz to Doug Braudaway, personal interview February 26, 2003; El Conquistodor, 1946 (San Felipe High School yearbook, which includes a photo of her); “Jack Laughlin Reported Killed In Action,” Del Rio News-Herald, February 16, 1942, page 1.
4 Harry W. Carroll, “Memories Of Lt. Jack Laughlin Still Live,” Border Eagle, June 30, 1967, page 1.
5 Harry W. Carroll, “Memories Of Lt. Jack Laughlin Still Live,” Border Eagle, June 30, 1967, page 1.
6 Harry W. Carroll, “Memories Of Lt. Jack Laughlin Still Live,” Border Eagle, June 30, 1967, page 1. The article mentioned was from the Twenty-Thirtian, a military aviation magazine that featured Lt. Laughlin in its June 1941 issue.
7 Harry W. Carroll, “Memories Of Lt. Jack Laughlin Still Live,” Border Eagle, June 30, 1967, page 1.
8 Harry W. Carroll, “Memories Of Lt. Jack Laughlin Still Live,” Border Eagle, June 30, 1967, page 1. “Lieutenant Laughlin never saw his daughter Jackie, born to his widow in the Station Hospital at Randolph Field, Texas, Aug. 14, 1942 His daughter whom he never knew, is now a grown woman. She is married to Henry Lawrence Mitchell II, a British subject. They live on the family yacht at Malta, and also have a home in Cheltingham, England. They were married in December 1965, and on October 1,1966, Lt. Jack T. Laughlin's daughter gave birth to a baby girl, Rebecca Blaise Mitchell.”
9 J. Autrey Walker (Chairman Val Verde County War Savings Committee & Vice President of Del Rio National Bank) to Colonel Wm. W. Dick (Agd. Air Adjutant General, War Department), telegram dated May 16, 1942.
10 “Memorandum for Major Charles J. Himes, Jr.; Subject: Naming of Air Fields,” May 21, 1942, [the memo appears to be from Colonel F. Trubee Davison, Assistant Chief of Air Staff, A-1].
11 Major Charles J. Himes, Jr. (Recorder, AAF Naming Board) to Representative Charles L. South, letter dated May 22, 1942.
12 Representative Charles L. South to Commanding General, Army Air Forces, letter dated May 16, 1942.
13 Major Charles J. Himes, Jr. to Representative Charles L. South, letter dated May 23, 1942.
14 Author’s note: While I have no proof, I also have no doubt that young Laughlin could have become a great archeologist. With his education and experience together with his love of Val Verde County’s pictographs (which were just becoming known to the rest of Texas), he could have been one of our leading scholars on the subject.