Bartow Air Base
|Part of Air Training Command|
|Located near: Lakeland, Florida|
|In use||1942-1945, 1952-1961|
- For the civil use, see Bartow Municipal Airport
World War II
In early 1942, local officials persuaded the United States Army Air Corps to develop a military air base at the site of the Bartow Municipal Airport, built in the 1930s. The War Department and the city of Bartow agreed to a lease and The U. S. Army Corps of Engineers improved and expanded the three runways, into a star-shaped pattern of 5000x150(NE/SW), 5000x150(E/W), 5000x150(NW/SE) along with a series of taxiways, dispersal parking hardstands, hangar ramp and constructed the necessary buildings to operate a training facility.
The new airfield was assigned to Third Air Force, based in Tampa. Initially planned on being a III Bomber Command training station, the need for fighter pilots in 1942 was greater and it was transferred to III Fighter Command, headquartered at Drew Army Airfield, also near Tampa.
Construction was completed by fall and on 30 November 1942, the Bartow Army Airfield opened as a Fighter Replacement Training Station. With the station's activation, the 530th Base Headquarters and Air Base Squadron was also activated to manage the base facilities; the 491st Sub Depot to supply and maintain the aircraft; the 40th Service Group for the administration of the base, and the 54th Fighter Group. The 54th was a former combat unit that had served in Alaska against the Japanese forces that invaded the Aleutian Islands during the summer of 1942, and for these operations the group received a Distinguished Unit Citation. The training squadrons assigned were the 56th and 57th Fighter Squadrons, equipped with P-51D Mustangs. The P-51 aircraft were delivered to Bartow from the North American Aircraft factory in California by the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP).
A third squadron assigned to the 54th was the 42d Fighter Squadron. The 42d retained the P-39 Aircobras which were assigned to the Group in Alaska, and was sent on detached service to Harding Army Airfield, Louisiana as a P-39 RTU for III Fighter Command. The 42d moved to Florida and was assigned to Hillsborough Army Airfield on 10 May 1943, equipped with P-51 Mustangs. The 42d remained on detached status from the 57tf Fighter Group and its aircraft were frequently at Bartow on transient status.
Trainees received practical experience in aerial combat maneuvering, air-to-air and air-to-ground gunnery and dive bombing techniques. On 1 May 1944 the 54th Fighter Group was inactivated as a result of the numbered training units in the Zone of the Interior (ZI) (Continental United States) being re-designated in an administrative reorganization by HQ Army Air Force. The 54th was replaced by the Bartow Replacement Unit (F)(Fighter, Single-Engine), with the 56th and 57th Fighter Squadrons being re-designated as "A" and "B" squadrons.
With the end of the European War in May 1945, the pace of training replacement pilots slowed down during the summer months. On 24 June 1945 a hurricane hit the Tampa area, and training was temporarily suspended, the aircraft being moved out of the area, the hurricane damaged some buildings but training was resumed in a few days. Over the Independence Day holiday in July, the base held its first open house, thousands of local residents were welcomed onto the base, seeing a display of fighter aircraft and other planes flown in from Third Air Force bases. Also acrobatic displays of flying were performed.
With the sudden Japanese Surrender in early August, ordered were received from III Fighter Command that training of replacement pilots was to end. Pilots already in training were allowed to complete their training, however no new trainees would arrive. By the end of August, the students were being reassigned to other bases, and the number of base support personnel were being reduced at a rapid rate.
On 25 October Headquarters, Third Air Force sent orders to Bartow announcing that the base would be inactivated as of 31 December 1945 and be transferred to Air Technical Service Command (ATSC) in a standby status, pending disposition as excess property. Under ATSC, buildings and equipment were sold and any useful military equipment was transferred to other bases around the country. The base was declared as surplus in 1946 and was turned over to the War Assets Administration (WAA) for disposal and return to civil use.
The airport was then returned to the City of Bartow. It was stipulated that the airport must continue be used as an airport for aviation purposes; and if not, that it be returned to the U.S. Government.
Through the years 1945 to 1950, a fixed base operator (FBO) ran the airfield and flight line portion of the airport, while the large complex of support buildings that had been constructed by the Federal Government was used by industry and for storage.
In 1950, the U.S. Government exercised its reversal clause for the facility and again took over control of the airport. The Department of Defense concurrently called for bids from civilian contractors to man and operate a primary pilot training school for U.S. Air Force student pilots. Renamed Bartow Air Base, the installation served as a USAF primary flight training facility for the Air Training Command (ATC) from 1951 to 1960, during which time its 3303rd Pilot Training Group operated the T-6 Texan, T-34 Mentor and T-28 Trojan, training both commissioned USAF officers and USAF aviation cadets. More than 8,000 men graduated from primary flight training at Bartow AB before proceeding on to select air force bases for advanced training in aircraft such as the T-33 Shooting Star for jet pilots or the TB-25 and B-25 Mitchell for multiengine pilots.
Notable graduates of primary flight training at Bartow AB included astronauts Colonel Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin, Jr., Lieutenant Colonel Edward White II, and Colonel Karol J. Bobko, as well as former Assistant Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Lieutenant General Thomas G. McInerney  and the first graduate of the USAF Academy to achieve 4-star rank, General Hansford T. Johnson.
Garner Aviation was the successful bidder on the first Air Force training contract and operated the facility until 1955 when they lost the bid to Truman Miller. Miller ran the training school until 1960, when the Air Force discontinued the contract primary pilot training concept and began phasing out T-34 and T-28 training in favor of the USAF Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT) system that was being put in place at larger air force bases that could readily accommodate the T-37 and T-38 Talon jet trainers then coming on line. Bartow Air Base was gradually deactivated as a USAF facility throughout 1960, with the City of Bartow incrementally gaining control of more and more of the facility. USAF operations officially ended in 1961 and the facility was totally transferred to the city once again by the GSA.
Today, the former base is home to the Bartow Municipal Airport and Industrial Park, as well as the Bartow Air Base Museum.
Forty years after the deactivation of Bartow AB, a retired USAF T-37 was loaned to the city and the airport by the National Museum of the United States Air Force and placed on a permanent static display pylon as a memorial to the former U.S. Army Air Forces and U.S. Air Force presence at Bartow. The T-37 is located near the former air base main gate, now the current entrance to the airport, and The Museum Room in the airport's main terminal also commemorates the airport's military heritage.
- Maurer, Maurer (ed.). Combat Squadrons of the Air Force: World War II. Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama: Office of Air Force History, 1982 ISBN 0-405-12194-6.
- Maurer, Maurer (ed.), Air Force Combat Units of World War II, History and Insignia, USAF Historical Divisio, Washington, DC, 1961 (reprint 1983) ISBN 0-89201-092-4
- Shaw, Frederick J. (2004), Locating Air Force Base Sites History’s Legacy, Air Force History and Museums Program, United States Air Force, Washington DC, 2004.
- Manning, Thomas A. (2005), History of Air Education and Training Command, 1942–2002. Office of History and Research, Headquarters, AETC, Randolph AFB, Texas ASIN: B000NYX3PC
- World War II airfields database: Florida
- AFHRA Search Bartow Army Airfield
- AFHRA Search Bartow Air Base