Marfa Army Air Field
|Marfa Army Airfield|
|Part of Army Air Force Air Training Command (AAFTC)|
|Presidio County, near Marfa, Texas|
2006 USGS Airphoto
Marfa Army Airfield (or Presidio County Airport) is an abandoned airfield located in the high desert of West Texas, about 200 miles (320 km) southeast of El Paso. It is located about 4,840 ft (1,480 m) above mean sea level.
Marfa’ s affair with the United States military actually began long before Marfa Army Airfield (AAF). In 1911, the United States Army stationed cavalry units at what they eventually named Camp Marfa to patrol the Rio Grande because of the turbulent Mexican Revolution. The camp remained on a permanent basis and was renamed Fort D. A. Russell in 1930, but closed, presumably permanently, in 1933. Only two years later, however, the fort reopened as an army officer training school. Fort D. A. Russell remained active until 23 October 1945.
Planning for the construction of Marfa AAF began in March 1942, when the War Department selected the Marfa, Texas area as a site for training United States Army Air Corps advanced twin-engine pilots. The Southern Pacific Railroad tracks ran parallel to Route 90 at this area, and the highway and railroad provided excellent logistics support for the new airfield. McGough Brothers of Houston was the general contractor for the facility. Marfa and nearby Alpine each voted $10,000 in bonds to buy the land for the airfield, 2,750 acres (11.1 km2), from T. G. Hendrick of Abilene at $6.50 an acre. The towns, in turn, leased the property to the War Department for 25 years at one dollar a year. A federal court directed C. T. Mitchell, Mrs. Bertha Holmes, the John A. Lawrence estate, and the Gage estate to deliver 1,809 acres (7.32 km2) for four auxiliary landing fields.
Construction began in June 1942, and enough construction was finished for the first cadets to arrive on 5 December 1942. As built during the war, the airfield at Marfa consisted of a total of six asphalt runways (up to 7,500 ft long),with an extensive network of taxiways and ramps. Adjacent to the airfield to the north was an extensive street grid, with a large number of buildings (eventually totaling nearly 250 buildings), including a hospital, barracks, chapel, theater, mess halls, control tower, and hangars.
Auxiliary landing fields for the use of Marfa AAF eventually included:
- Marfa AAF Aux #1.
- Located 15 miles SSE of Marfa AAF, apparently reused for at least some period of time as an airport known as "South Airport", closed in the 1950s, now abandoned
- Marfa AAF Aux #2.
- Located 10.5 miles WNW of Marfa AAF, closed during World War II, abandoned ever since
- Marfa AAF Aux #3.
- Located 16.5 miles WNW of Marfa AAF, apparently reused for at least some period of time as a airport known as "Ryan Airport", closed in the 1950s, now abandoned
- Marfa AAF Aux #4.
- Located 4 miles NW of Marfa AAF, developed into Marfa Municipal Airport
- Marfa AAF Aux #5.
- Located 8.5 miles WNW of Marfa, apparently reused for at least some period of time as a airport known as "Aragon Airport", closed in the 1950s, now abandoned
- Marfa AAF Aux #7.
- Located 2 miles NW of Marfa AAF, it was originally built by the United States Army in 1919 for patrolling the Mexican border by airplane. This installation was attached to Camp Russell when it was made a permanent military establishment in 1927. The Army's air patrols of the area were discontinued in 1923, and the airfield was turned over to the town of Marfa, which made it their municipal airport. The Marfa Municipal Airport continued to be used by the military on an as-needed basis until World War II. With the construction of large Marfa Army Airfield, it was taken over by the AAF and became Marfa Auxiliary Airfield #7. After the war, it was never reused as a civil airfield and it was abandoned. It has since been redeveloped into a golf course.
The base at first was designated Marfa Army Air Field, Advanced Flying School, and was assigned to the Army Air Forces Flying Training Command. In June 1943, the name was changed to Marfa Army Air Field, Army Air Forces Advanced Flying School.
On 25 November 1942, the first shipment of Cessna AT-17B twin-engine trainers arrived from Cessna in Wichita, Kansas. A flow of aircraft continued to be delivered as training ramped up. The first class started training on 11 December 1942, several weeks ahead of planned schedule. Members of this class (43-B) completed their courses by 6 February 1943, and received their silver wings. A class completed training each month until the final graduation in May 1945. By 30 April 1944, the base had a total complement of 3,293 personnel: 575 officers, 2,114 enlisted men, and 604 civilians. At its peak, Marfa AAF could operate a staggering total of 500 aircraft.
Newspaper articles from this period reflect a vast number of social interactions between the personnel of Marfa AAF and their families and people within the local community. The base had a basketball team that competed with local high school teams, and some of the games were even held at the base gymnasium. Young men considering service in the Army Air Corps were invited to tour the base, and the base’s public relations officer wrote a series of editorials in favor of the Army Air Corps in the Big Bend Sentinel.
As one might expect, the men of Marfa AAF also married local girls, and the local paper’s society pages were constantly announcing such marriages. Local churches often featured base officers as guest speakers, presentations from the wives of base personnel, and even choir soloists from amongst the men of Marfa AAF. The sons of Marfa personnel competed in regional Boy Scouts competitions. Parades were held at the base for Army Day and Victory in Europe Day, an open house was held for the local residents to come tour the base, and the base color guard performed in the county rodeo. The base even held a beauty contest one year for local girls, with the winner representing Marfa AAF at the El Paso Sun Bowl. On a more serious note, the base personnel helped serve the community. On one occasion, a Marfa airman saved two women from drowning in nearby Alpine. On another occasion, the base personnel contributed to Marfa s donation to the Red Cross War Fund Drive, with 430 civilian workers and more than 1,500 airmen giving at least $1 each and making up about half of the town’s entire contribution.
The community of Marfa and Presidio County in turn gave back to the base on a social level. Marfa residents donated recreation equipment and furniture to the base for use in their clubs and recreation areas. They also gave the young airmen without cars rides to local sporting events. For those airmen who were far from home, local residents invited them to Christmas dinners, and local women played substitute mothers for Mother’s Day. The Rotary Clubs of Marfa and Alpine paid for the construction of an adobe block entrance to Marfa AAF, and the community held a big celebration in honor of the base’s two-year anniversary.
In June 1944, Air Training command transferred Marfa Army Air Field to the Second Air Force. Training continued and classes included regular trainees, Chinese nationals, and Air Transport Command personnel. On-the-line prepilot training and mechanics courses were added, and some AT-6 Texan advanced single-engine trainers were also used at Marfa AAF. The B-25 Mitchell bomber was also used for multi-engine training at Marfa during the later portions of the war to retrain pilot returnees.
On 4 May 1945, the local newspaper announced that the May graduating class would be the last. In June, Marfa AAF became a redeployment center for the I Troop Carrier Command, with some 2,400 men to be sent there to train with C-46 and C-47 aircraft. The host unit at the airfield was renamed the 818th Air Base Unit. The end of World War II halted these plans. More than 500 veterans from various squadrons arrived at the base for redeployment or discharge.
Marfa AAF was placed on standby status from 25 May to 15 June 1945. Much of the equipment and most of the aircraft were reassigned. A few administrative aircraft remained and base operations became inactive. The field remained open for transient aircraft on official business or for emergency landings. By V-J day on 14 August 1945, the field was no longer required for a redeployment center for the TCC, although the 437th Troop Carrier Group was assigned to Marfa from 14 September to 15 November. By the end of 1945, flying operations at Marfa rapidly wound down, with the base having only one C-64, 20 C-47s, and one B-25 by 30 November. The base manpower was reduced to a total of 1,133.
From December 1945 to 31 January 1946, the base was listed as "inactive". During this time, many of the assets were advertised for sale as surplus property. This included such things as a bowling alley, office equipment, trucks, shelving, etc. All operations at Marfa AAF were suspended by February 1946. The base was retained by the 818th AAF BU and later the 344th AAF BU, and the military finally declared the base surplus on 22 October 1946. When the base finally closed, the townspeople held a number of going-away parties, dances, and barbecues for the departing airmen and their families.
On January 31, 1947, the base was transferred by the Ninth Air Force to the Army District Engineering Corps at Albuquerque, NM, for disposition. The closure of Marfa AAF was an emotional blow for the community of Marfa and Presidio County. As reflected in the local newspaper, the community suffered an emotional depression, and in the words of the mayor, the town "fell on its face." Sinking spirits and a sense of loss would not be the only blow dealt to the community by the base closure. The impact on the community of Marfa and Presidio County in terms of population and economic prosperity was obviously a devastating one, however the community was able to eventually recover to some degree within 5 years of the airfield's closure.
Marfa was used as a civil general aviation airport after the war known as "Marfa Alpine Airport" until the 1960s. In the early 1960s, the area became popular for long-distance soaring flights. The national championships were held there in the late 1960s. In September 1966, President Lyndon Johnson's wife, Lady Bird Johnson, flew into the airport to dedicate Fort Davis as a National Historic Site. It was listed as "Presidio County Airport" in the 1970 TX Airport Directory, but the airport was evidently closed at some point between 1970 and 1985 as the runways were labeled as “Abandoned” on the 1985 USGS topographical map.
Today, all of the runways, taxiways & ramps of this huge airfield still exist. Many of the wartime buildings were sold at auction and moved to Marfa or nearby Alpine, Texas. Slowly the West Texas desert is reclaiming the large airbase, with tall grass being found on the parking apron, and deteriorating concrete evident on the taxiways and runways. The original main entrance road still exists, but is gated and locked. A small brass memorial plaque can be found on the remains of the World War II adobe block entrance to the post.
The Marfa Lights viewing platform is located just north of the former airfield, by its abandoned entrance.
- Thole, Lou (1999), Forgotten Fields of America : World War II Bases and Training, Then and Now - Vol. 2. Publisher: Pictorial Histories Pub, ISBN 1-57510-051-7
- Abandoned & Little-Known Airfields: Marfa Army Airfield / Presidio County Airport, Marfa, TX
- Chandler, Kerry, (2007), The Effects Of Military Base Closures on Local Communities: The US Army Air Corps In West Texas, Chapter III, Marfa Army Airfield and the City of Marfa, Presidio County, Texas. Texas State University-San Marcos Graduate Council.
- Maurer, Maurer (1983). Air Force Combat Units Of World War II. Maxwell AFB, Alabama: Office of Air Force History. 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