The Role of Tampa’s MacDill Air Force Base During World War II
By Terry Tomalin
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the number of military installations in Florida increased tenfold.
Even before statehood, the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy had of strong presence in this natural jumping-off point to the Caribbean and South America, but when World War II broke out, military planners realized that Florida would also be an ideal place to train badly needed pilots for the European and Pacific theaters.
By the war’s end there would be more than 170 different bases scattered across the peninsula. Nobody knows for sure exactly how many men and women were stationed in Florida, but a safe estimate is tens of thousands. The very thing that made Florida attractive to the military brass -- good weather year round -- prompted many veterans to return after the water, triggering one of the state’s great population booms.
The Army Air Corps had Valparaiso's Eglin Field, Tallahassee’s Dale Mabry Field, Panama City’s Tyndall Army Airfield and Tampa’s MacDill Army Air Field, close to where soldiers had camped before leaving for Cuba during the Spanish American War. At one point, more than 60,000 troops were stationed at what was then called Port Tampa City. Luckily, the war with Spain lasted only a few of months.
World War II, however, would drag on for years. For the first war in history where aviation played a major role, the need for pilots increased steadily from 1942 to 1945. It’s thought that more Army and Navy pilots (the United States Air Force was not formed until after the war) learned how to fly in Florida than any other state.
Construction on MacDill Field began in September 1939, the same month the Nazis invaded Poland, launching the bloodiest war in human history. Southeast Air Base, Tampa, was formally dedicated on April 16, 1941, and later renamed MacDill Field in honor of Colonel Leslie MacDill, a World War I hero and pioneer in military aviation.
Pilot training, especially during the early months of the war, was short, intense and often dangerous. So many crashes occurred at MacDill that there was a common expression among the fliers: “One a Day in Tampa Bay.” While historians are quick to point out that accident rate was most likely an exaggeration, it was not uncommon for a young, inexperienced pilot to end up in the water.
At first, most of the training focused on getting pilots and crews comfortable with the B-17 “Flying Fortress,” the heavy bomber that helped win the war. At one point, more than 60 B-17s took from MacDill via the south Atlantic and Africa to Australia.
In 1942, the base's mission switched to the B-26 “Marauder” an extremely technical air craft. The plane’s high speed, short wings and fighter plane maneuverability proved challenging for the many student pilots. The following year, the base switched back to Flying Fortress, now the workhorse of the Army Air Corps.
At the war’s peak, more than 15,000 military personnel were stationed at MacDill. Several military bases in Florida, including MacDill, also served as prisoner-of-war (POW) camps for captured Axis soldiers. After the war, MacDill played a major role in the Strategic Air Command.
Budget cutbacks triggered talk of closure in 1960, but after the U.S. discovered Soviet missiles in Cuba, the Tampa Air Force Base took on renewed importance. In 1961, the United States Strike Command formed at MacDill to provide a unified command that could respond to global crisis on short notice.
In the 1990s, MacDill once again figured prominently on the international stage as the U.S. Special Operations Command played pivotal roles in Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm. After Sept. 11, 2001, MacDill was the heart of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and two years later, Operation Iraqi Freedom in Iraq.
But MacDill Air Force Base has played as an important role in peace as it has in war. On Jan. 12, 2010, after a catastrophic magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck near the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince killing more than 230,000 people and leaving another million homeless, MacDill served as a major staging area for the relief effort.
MacDill Air Force Base, which traces its roots to the Spanish American War, came of age during World War II, continues to be a centerpiece of national defense.
If you go...
MacDill Air Force Base
3108 N Boundary Blvd
Tampa, FL 33621
Phone: (813) 828-2478
Tours are available for large community groups. To learn more, contact 6th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs office at (813) 828-2215.
Photos by United States Army Air Forces, Public Domain