Val Verde County Historical Commission

Val Verde County Historical Commission

Laughlin Army Air Field
The Second World War Comes to Del Rio, Texas

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

In 1942 the United States Army opened Laughlin Army Air Field east of Del Rio. The army “was in desperate need for more pilots very quickly.” Val Verde County had a great area of open ground and open airspace and year round, good-for-pilot-training weather. With the exception of a short period after the Second World War, Laughlin Field (later Laughlin Air Force Base) has remained an important part of Val Verde’s community.

Laughlin Field was activated on July 2 as “Army Air Forces Transition Flying School, Medium Bombardment” and commanded by Lt. Col. E.W. Suarez until December 26 when Col. George W. Mundy, the man more associated with the Field, assumed command. Originally, the training facility was intended to be a bombardier school. Its accessibility was an important element of the initial proposal; the Southern Pacific rail line formed the northern boundary of the proposed school, and U.S. Highway 90 provided a road link to San Antonio with its five military installations.1

A couple of important things about the creation of the Field remain a mystery. Why the school was changed to a pilot school is one of them. A second is why the Field was named Laughlin.

The name Laughlin comes from Lt. Jack Thomas Laughlin, an Army pilot born and raised in Del Rio. Jack was the first pilot from Del Rio to be killed during the War, having been shot down over Java on January 29, 1942, while flying a B-17. After the establishment of the Field, Del Rio locals began petitioning the Army to name the Field in his honor. The Army emphatically responded “No!” The chain of command actually developed a form letter to respond to numerous such requests: “The present policy of the Army Air Forces Naming Board is to designate new Air Force stations after the localities…. Consequently, it is regretted that the recommendation to honor (blank) cannot be favorably considered at this time.”

Apparently, Del Rioans were more stubborn than the Army. It probably helped when the local congressional representative got involved. Rep. Charles L. South began writing letters with language such as: “I am sure this request will receive the careful consideration of the board.” The Army sent the “it is regretted” letter to Rep. South, and South responded “I am sure careful consideration will be given the recommendation that it be named in honor of Lieut. Jack T. Laughlin.” Winning the game of chicken between the Army and Congress, the Field was renamed for Lt. Laughlin.2

The first issue of the Field’s newspaper offered the name change as the principle headline: “LAUGHLIN ARMY AIR FIELD POST’S NEW NAME: War Department Names Field For Late Del Rio Lt.” The article summarized the event surrounding the end of Jack’s life. “This field’s jaw shattering title “The Army Air Forces Transition Flying School, Medium Bombardment,” was dropped Tuesday and renamed the Laughlin Army Air Field in honor of the late Lt. Jack Laughlin, a Del Rio flyer killed in action in the Dutch East Indies. Col. George W. Mundy, commanding officer, was notified of the change by the War Department. This singular distinction honors the memory of the son of…. Air [fields] are seldom named for individuals in time of war.”3 Major-General Gerald C. Brant noted in his dedication speech that “Lieutenant Laughlin’s military status as a reservist rather than a Regular Army officer made the base-naming exception an honor even more rare.”4

The main purpose of Laughlin Field was the training of pilots on a medium range bomber designated the B-26. The Army called it the B-26 or the Marauder. Pilots had other names for the aircraft: “Widow Maker, the Flying Prostitute (because it had no visible means of support), and Baltimore Whore.” The B-26 “was the first aircraft assigned to Laughlin Army Air Field back in the early days of World War II. It was used for pilot transition until the base closed in 1945. The B-26 had a controversial early life. Its fast speed was due in part to a comparatively small wing that made it skittish to handle and resulted in a high loss rate during check rides and transition training. Pilots who flew the Widow Maker at what was to become MacDill AFB, Fla., originated the phrase, ‘One a day in Tampa Bay.’ A six-foot increase in the wingspan cured the problem—but the Marauder carried that stigma throughout the war.”5

The word “Transition” from Laughlin Field’s original name referred to the fact the Laughlin Field instructor did not train novices. “The new school graduated highly skilled B-26 Marauder pilots every nine weeks, its graduates being pilots who had already earned their wings at various advanced training schools. They had spent nine weeks in pre-flight school, nine weeks in primary training, another nine weeks in basic school, and still another nine weeks in advanced training before coming to Laughlin for the final honing of their flying skills. The Del Rio facility was the first training school in the Army designed to teach those who already appeared to be the very best pilots to become even better. Following their graduation from Laughlin, the fliers were scheduled to go to operational-training units to meet their flight crews and become combat-ready. From there, the newly formed crews were dispatched to various theaters of combat worldwide.6 During the war, these aircraft and their crews flew missions over Italy and Germany and against Japanese forces across the Pacific.

The instructors were not always well-experienced, and the How to Fly the B-26 Manual was often in evidence. Nevertheless, anybody with any experience flying was more experienced than the pilot trainees. The teachers and students often played havoc with the local ranchers, buzzing cattle and flying as close to windmills as possible, “creating a prop wash that would cause the windmill’s fan to rotate violently and, if all went well (for the pilot), actually fly off its mount. The pilot who caused his target fan to fly the greatest distance away from the windmill tower was declared the ace of the day.” Laughlin pilots would even buzz soldiers from nearby Fort Clark in Kinney County.7

Del Rio native Frank E. Torres was one of the first soldiers at the base. The first people to arrive on base were engineers and construction crews. Torres “was the only Air Force guy there; all the rest were engineers. Col. Suarez was an engineer, and he was in charge of constructing the damn base for the army engineers…. I was the only aircraft guy there, the only one who belonged to the [army’s] air force.” When the base became operational, Torres remained, and his bilingual ability was quickly put to use. “I was put in a…squadron. And a plane cracked up in Mexico. So they needed somebody that spoke Spanish to go with the crew to bring the body and the wreckage back…. So, I said, ‘I know Spanish.’ They said, ‘You’re it.’ So I went with the crew just as an interpreter…. After that, they had a lot of crashes here because in the old days, you know, they didn’t have radar. They flew with what they called dead reckoning…. They flew by compass. And at night, they used to fly over here and go crash…in the Sierra Madre Mountains in Mexico [which are visible from Del Rio to the southwest of the city]. They had about twenty-five over there; and every time they had a crash, they needed somebody to speak Spanish…. So I stayed there [at the Air Field] for three and a half years as an interpreter and taking care of the colonel’s airplane. And all my army career was here in my own home town.” As the base was being deactivated, Torres “had the distinction of being the last serviceman to remain on the base.” He flew aboard the last plane leaving before it became completely closed.8

Laughlin Field remained active during the war, but closed shortly afterward. During the war, the Field was considered temporary. Water wells had been dug, but they brought up sulfur water, which was not drinkable. Water, therefore, was trucked in from Del Rio. Furthermore, “all of the buildings were just tarpaper covered shacks really. Most of them were sold after the war. You can still find some of the buildings around Del Rio today.” In August 1945 the deactivated field and facilities were turned over to the Army Air Corps of Engineers, and some of the land was leased to local ranchers.9

In 1952, Laughlin Army Air Field was reopened as Laughlin Air Force Base—but that is another story.

The Val Verde County Historical Commission would like to remember and honor those soldiers, airmen, and pilots who served their country during the Second World War with a historical marker to be dedicated on the sixtieth anniversary of the end of the War.

 

Bibliography—
Francis Adams to DB, personal interview, October 19, 1996.
Thomas E. Alexander, The Stars Were Big and Bright: The United States Army Air Forces and Texas During World War II, Vol. II, Austin: Eakin Press, 2001.
E. Robuck Daughtrey, “U.S. Air Force Activities in and near Del Rio, Val Verde County, Texas,” VVCHC & THC historical marker application.
A.E. Gutierrez, “Amarante moves to Langtry,” Del Rio News-Herald, May 2, 1984, no page number.
Ron Scharven, “B-26 Marauder—the one that started it all,” Border Eagle, October 24, 1997, page 11.
TARFU, March 12, 1943, Vol. 1, No. 1, page 1.
Carole Thompson, “Del Rioans Were Involved Before Air Corps Arrived,” Del Rio News-Herald, March 20, 1979, page 1D.
Frank E. Torres to DB, personal interview, October 19, 1996.
War Department, Office Division Engineer, Southwestern Division, “Proposed Bombardier School, Del Rio, Val Verde County,” Dallas, April 26, 1942.

 

Illustrations—
Two pages of copies from Doug Braudaway, Val Verde County, 1999.
Three pages of copies from Thomas E. Alexander, The Stars Were Big and Bright, 2001.
Nine pages of copies from TARFU, the Laughlin Field newspaper.

 

Endnotes-
1 War Department, Office Division Engineer, Southwestern Division, “Proposed Bombardier School, Del Rio, Val Verde County,” Dallas, April 26, 1942. 2 Neither Thomas Alexander nor I have found the document that explains what happened or why the name change happened, or even who made that decision. 3 TARFU, March 12, 1943, Vol. 1, No. 1, page 1. TARFU, the name of the Field newspaper represents an old army slogan, things are really [fouled] up. 4 Thomas E. Alexander, The Stars Were Big and Bright: The United States Army Air Forces and Texas During World War II, Vol. II, Austin: Eakin Press, 2001, page 57. 5 Ron Scharven, “B-26 Marauder—the one that started it all,” Border Eagle, October 24, 1997, page 11. 6 Alexander, The Stars Were Big and Bright, page 57. 7 Alexander, The Stars Were Big and Bright, pages 58-59. When flying home during the Vietnam War, my father would buzz my grandfather’s cows and crops. 8 Frank E. Torres to DB, interview, October 19, 1996; A.E. Gutierrez, “Amarante moves to Langtry,” Del Rio News-Herald, May 2, 1984, no page. 9 Francis Adams to DB, personal interview, October 19, 1996; E. Robuck Daughtrey, “U.S. Air Force Activities in and near Del Rio, Val Verde County, Texas,” historical marker application, page 11; Carole Thompson, “Del Rioans Were Involved Before Air Corps Arrived,” Del Rio News-Herald, March 20, 1979, page 1D.