Harlingen Air Force Base

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Harlingen Air Force Base
Harlingen Army Airfield
Part of Air Training Command (ATC)
Located near: Harlingen, Texas
Valley International Airport TX 2006 USGS.jpg
2006 USGS Airphoto
Coordinates 26°13′43″N 97°39′16″W / 26.22861°N 97.65444°W / 26.22861; -97.65444 (Harlingen AFB)
Site history
Built 1941
In use Open 1941 - closed 1962
Garrison information
Garrison 3610th Navigator Training Wing
Airfield information
Airport type Public
Elevation AMSL 36 ft / 11 m
Coordinates 26°13′43″N 097°39′16″W / 26.22861°N 97.65444°W / 26.22861; -97.65444Coordinates: 26°13′43″N 097°39′16″W / 26.22861°N 97.65444°W / 26.22861; -97.65444
KHRL is located in Texas
Location of Harlingen Air Force Base
Direction Length Surface
ft m
13/31 7,257 2,212 Asphalt
17L/35R 5,949 1,813 Asphalt
17R/35L 8,301 2,530 Asphalt
Oblique 26 October 1943 aerial photo looking north

Harlingen Air Force Base, originally Harlingen Army Airfield, is a former United States Air Force base located in northeast Harlingen, Texas, United States. After its closure, the airport was redeveloped into Valley International Airport.


World War II[edit]

With the outbreak of World War II in Europe in September 1940, the U.S. Government saw the need to expedite military readiness. It would create a military airfield in Harlingen. The city voted a $105,000 bond issue to acquire 960 acres to be leased to the War Department for 24 years and upon which the field would be constructed. Fifteen farmhouses and buildings on the site were removed, but one building was left in place to become the field office. Col John R. Morgan became the first commanding officer of the Harlingen Aerial Gunnery School arriving in August 1941 to assume that assignment. He was to hold that appointment for the duration of World War II. On June 30, 1941 a contract was let for Morgan and Zachary, El Paso and Laredo builders, to start the military airfield construction.[1] The mission of Harlingen Army Airfield was to train aerial gunners. The school received its first assigned cadre in August 1941. Its primary mission, with an initial student load of 600, was that of training aerial gunnery students in a five-week (extended to six weeks in 1943) training program. Over 48,000 soldiers were trained until the school, one of three such types in the country, closed in 1945.[2] It was initially assigned to the AAF Gulf Coast Training Center as a flexible gunnery school, with the 78th Service Group being designated as the first host organization at the new airfield.[3]

By mid-September 1941 the airfield and base at Harlingen was 30 percent complete. By mid-October the work was half-finished, but the field itself was almost complete. In November the steel water tower which would loom over the base for many years was swung into place. December saw the steelwork on two hangars and control towers well under way.

The airfield consisted of two parallel 6000-foot runways aligned North/South, and two 5,200-foot diagonal runways aligned NE/SW and NW/SE. A large parking ramp and several aircraft hangars were constructed along with a support base of warehouses, dormatories, a fire station, some water towers and a number of support buildings all constructed of wood and tar paper on concrete blocks.[4] An auxiliary airfield at Port Isabel, Texas was also constructed to support the training and flight operations at Harlingen. Training was conducted in both air-to-air & air-to-surface gunnery. The air-to-air training used a variety of aircraft, including AT-6 Texans, BT-13 Valiants, P-63 Kingcobras, B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberators. For ground-based training, a number of facilities were available, including the moving target ranges and a number of gunnery simulators. The first class of aerial gunners graduated from the Gunnery School in January 1942.[3]

On 8 January 1943, the War Department constituted and activated the 79th Flying Training Wing (Flexible Gunnery) at Harlingen and assigned it to the AAF Eastern Flying Training Command. Gunnery practice was carried out by having the student fire at a sleeve target towed by an AT-6. Students were also taught strafing techniques. A series of shop silhouettes were installed offshore near South Padre Island, and students fired at these water targets from B-34 and AT-6 aircraft. The planes utilized for training and transportation at the Harlingen Army Air Field were the Vultee BT-13 Valiant, Bell P-39 Airacobra, Bell P-63 Kingcobra, Beech C-45H Expeditor, Lockheed A-29 Hudson, Lockheed B-34 Ventura, Martin B-26 Marauder, North American B-25 Mitchell, Douglas C-47 Skytrain, North American AT-6 Texan Trainer, and Consolidated B-24 Liberator.

In 1944, Harlingen began training B-29 Superfortress gunners. They received practically the same training as those for other aircraft, but at the end of the year a few of them began to receive training in B-24s modified by the addition of central fire control turrets to make them more like B-29s. Among the training devices used in this instruction was the manipulation trainer—12 towers arranged to resemble a formation of planes. The towers ranged in height from 10 to 40 feet, each equipped with 2 nose, 2 tail, 2 ring sighting, and 4 blister positions. As students in these positions faced simulated attacks from PT-13 and PT-17 aircraft, they "fired" camera guns at the attacking fighters.

The combat of World War II ended in August 1945. The need for gunners no longer existed. By this time an estimated 48,000 men could call the gunnery school their alma mater. The school and field were soon phased out. The 79th conducted flexible gunnery training until 1 October 1945. On 12 October Harlingen became a temporary separation center for the men stationed there. By 5 January 1946 it was made public that the base would be declared surplus. As such it would be the fourth and last of such bases in this area to be deactivated, as Moore Field, the Brownsville Army Airfield, and the Laguna Madre Sub-Base of Harlingen had already been listed for deactivation. At this time Harlingen had a total of 5,000 men split almost evenly between trainees and permanent personnel. Harlingen Army Airfield was inactivated 1 February 1946, the facility was turned over to the War Assets Administration on 5 February as surplus property.

With the airfield's closure, some of the well-constructed barracks were sold or donated. The Citrus Center of Texas A&I University acquired and moved some of them to its Weslaco campus in 1947. A one-story barracks was sold to the Hansen family in Weslaco and was transformed into their home at 801 Oklahoma Street. The Grace Lutheran Church of Harlingen took two of them and moved them to the corner of Jackson and 10th Street. One became the sanctuary and the second one the parish hall. In 1948 one two-story barracks was purchased by the Molder family who trucked it to North Business 77. Here it was transformed into the very popular Green Gables Restaurant and Lounge, famed for its steaks.

Cold War[edit]

With the outbreak of the Korean War on 25 June 25, 1950, the city fathers of Harlingen looked to utilize the mostly mothballed Army Air Force airfield facilities. It was pointed out to the U.S. Congress that the former Harlingen Army Air Field and facility was designed to accommodate 6,500 trainees and at peak operation carried a maximum load of 9,000 trainees. In addition, 200 Federal Housing Units, all still intact and livable, had been constructed adjacent to the base’s main entrance. The statement to the Congress went on to state that the field itself was equipped with five concrete runways, each over one mile in length. All were intact and in usable condition, including runway lights, as were the control tower, landing lights, three large hangars and a machine shop building. The House Armed Services Committee, acting under the National Defense Program, appropriated $15 million for the reactivation of the Harlingen Army Air Field as a U.S. Air Force installation. Later a $12 million price tag was attached to the field’s rehabilitation. Work started in early 1952.

Harlingen was reactivated on 17 March 1952 by the United States Air Force and placed under the auspices of the Air Training Command (ATC), who renamed it Harlingen Air Force Base and placed it under the operational control of the 3610th Observer Training Wing (ATC) as part of its observer training program. Training was conducted primarily with Convair T-29 aircraft. On 1 September 1953, ATC also established a multi-engine pilot training school at Harlingen and realigned its observer training program by converting primary observer training into a primary-basic course and by providing advanced instruction in the basic course. Under the new program, every graduate of primary-basic training would be a qualified aircraft navigator. Effective 15 November 1956, HQ USAF directed the term navigator be substituted in all cases for observer or aircraft observer. That directive resulted in the re-designation of the 3610th Observer Training Wing to 3610th Navigator Training Wing.[5]

In October 1959, ATC directed Mather AFB, California to move its primary-basic navigator training to Harlingen AFB by early 1962. This training had to be relocated so that Mather could take over Keesler AFB's electronic warfare officer (EWO) training by early 1963.[5]

Early in 1960, the Air Force authorized ATC to discontinue pilot and navigator preflight courses at Lackland AFB, Texas. Pilot preflight training became the responsibility of the primary training bases, and navigator preflight moved to the navigator schools. New navigator preflight training programs went into effect at Harlingen on 6 April.[5]

In March 1961, during his budget message to Congress, President John F. Kennedy announced that the Department of Defense would close 73 military installations (70 stateside), including Harlingen AFB, Texas, the only ATC base on the list. Harlingen entered its last group of students into navigator training on 9 August. From that point on, James Connally AFB, Texas, provided all undergraduate navigator training.[5]

In March 1962, the dining halls were consolidated as base staffing diminished, and the base hospital announced its change to dispensary status. The base hosted its last conference, a corrosion control meeting, in April as the gym, library, and military clothing sales store closed their doors. Undergraduate Navigator Training at Harlingen AFB ended on 6 June 1962 with the graduation of Class 62-22N. The 3610th Navigator Training Wing and subordinate units were discontinued on 1 July. At the same time, Air Training Command placed Harlingen AFB on inactive status.[5][6]

Current uses[edit]

It took several years before permanent uses were found for the Harlingen Air Force Base facilities. First to make major use of the base’s support facilities was the Marine Military Academy (MMA), a nonprofit educational institution incorporated in April 1963. Its first classes commenced September 1965. It offers a college preparatory course, grades eight through 12, with elements traditional to the U.S. Marine Corps. Enrollment has grown to over 400. While initially occupying the vacant barracks and other base support buildings, the school over the years has upgraded and modernized nearly all the old structures and erected numerous new ones. It is the site of the original plaster working model of the renowned Iwo Jima Memorial portraying Marines and a Navy corpsman raising the American flag over Mt. Suribachi. Nearby is the Iwo Jima Memorial Museum.

In 1968 the Confederate Air Force, now called the Commemorative Air Force, moved from the Mid-Valley Airport near Mercedes, Texas to the northwest side of the field and called this area "Rebel Field". There it maintained its headquarters, museum and World War II aircraft collection in three large buildings and several small ones. It conducted well-attended annual air shows for many years at the field. In 1991 the CAF relocated to the former World War II airfield at Midland International Airport, near Midland, Texas.

Before commercial aviation came to the site, the field was given the name Harlingen Industrial Airport. In late 1970, the field became the Rio Grande Valley International Airport and later was renamed the Valley International Airport. The city’s airport, Harvey Richards Field at what is now Palm Valley, was subsequently closed. The Valley International Airport has long handled more passenger traffic than any other Valley airport. It new passenger terminal sits between former military hangars 41 and 38.

Part of the southwest portion of the Harlingen Air Force Base was used by the city to establish the Rio Grande Valley Regional Museum.

The Valley International Airport is the field’s major user and has the area’s highest passenger boarding total. One of the numerous major current occupants of the field is United Launch Alliance, formerly part of Lockheed Martin, fabricating among other things sections of the Atlas V rocket. FedEx Freight and United Parcel Service utilize the airport as a gateway to the Valley.

Today, the airport has been almost completely redeveloped, with only a few Air Force hangars remaining on the large, World-War II-era parking ramp. The World War II street network of the former training base is also evident in aerial photographs, with modern, newer buildings having been constructed along them.

On March 6, 2005, a Texas Historical Commission Events Marker was dedicated in the front of the Harlingen Arts and Heritage Museum, once the site of the base swimming pool and also its stockade. The marker commemorates both the Harlingen Army Air Field and the Harlingen Air Force Base.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ AFHRA Document 00173110
  2. ^ AFHRA Document 00173114
  3. ^ a b AFHRA Document 00173111
  4. ^ Harlingen Army Airfield
  5. ^ a b c d e 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
  6. ^ http://www.aetc.af.mil/library/history/aetcsignificantevents/1960-69.asp


 This article incorporates public domain material from the Air Force Historical Research Agency website http://www.afhra.af.mil/.

  • 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
  • Thole, Lou (1999). Forgotten Fields of America: World War II Bases and Training, Then and Now. 2. Pictorial Histories Publishing. ISBN 978-1-57510-051-7. 

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