Corpus Christi's 'University of the Air'

By Norman C. Delaney

Texas Representative Lyndon B. Johnson, with the support of Undersecretary of the Navy James V. Forrestal, succeeded in having the building contract granted to Brown and Root Construction Company of Houston, a major contributor to Johnson’s political campaigns. Instead of the customary bidding, the contract was awarded on a “cost-plus” fixed-fee basis that authorized close to $24 million for constructing the station and another $2.5 million for the contractors. 1 (The cost would eventually exceed $100 million.) Two other construction companies, W. S. Bellows of Houston and Columbia of California, were subcontracted.

Soon more than 9,000 men and women were working on the project as mechanics, machinists, engineers, electricians, welders, laborers, plumbers, cooks, and physicians. After the site’s 125 permanent residents—40 families—were relocated, houses, fishing shacks, sand dunes, mesquite trees, and scrub brush were bulldozed and replaced by a two-story administration building, barracks, 39 miles of railroad track, paved streets, a pipeline, aircraft hangars, runways, seaplane ramps, power plants, a seawall, hospital, chapel, gymnasium, mess and recreation facilities, and a massive assembly and repair building for aircraft maintenance.

The station was already 70 percent completed when it was dedicated on 11 March 1941. Representing President Roosevelt at the ceremony was Navy Secretary Frank Knox, who, duly impressed by what he saw, emphasized the importance of a two-ocean Navy and both air and sea power to keep the nation secure. 2

Coming to Life

Even as construction continued, the first cadets, 52 in all, began arriving. They had met the Navy’s requirement of physical fitness with at least two years of college, were within the 20-to-28 age range, and had passed the elimination pilot test at various naval reserve training bases. One of the first cadets was Ed Parker of Oakland, California, a graduate of the College of the Pacific with a major in accounting. Parker had worked as a bank clerk for three years before realizing how badly he wanted to fly. He passed the Navy elimination pilot test after taking 15 hours of dual instruction and an hour of solo flight. 3

Ground school began on 7 April and flight training a month later, when the first aircraft arrived—Naval Aircraft Factory N3N-3 Canary or “Yellow Peril” biplanes. The cadets would practice aerobatics in the N3Ns. A June article in Collier’s magazine—“Zoom Town”—informed readers: “The Navy needs pilots and isn’t dawdling about getting them. Down in Texas it has built a factory that is turning them out, ready for anything, in 6 months.” 4 The cadet featured in the article as “Joe Barker” was actually Ed Parker, selected, he believed, as “a typical American kid.” 5

On 1 November 1941, the 45 cadets who successfully completed training received their commissions and gold wings. Interviewed for the local newspaper, newly commissioned Ensign Don Hager of Crockett, Texas, said: “Everything was new when we got here. Our class has been a bunch of guinea pigs. Precedents had to be set, and we have done the setting.” Although anxious to join the Fleet, Hager was among the new ensigns ordered to remain at the base as instructors. 6

Only five weeks later the nation was at war and the station on full alert with a seven-day round-the-clock schedule. Captain Alva D. Bernhard, first commanding officer of the U.S. Air Training Center at Corpus Christi, proudly proclaimed the facility “the University of the Air.” During the war, of the 35,000 men who successfully completed flight training there, many flew combat missions in the Pacific. Although most of the cadets, along with Navy and Marine Corps officers, were Americans, other trainees came from Great Britain, Canada, Mexico, and South America. With thousands of civilian employees at the station, the government had several housing units built off base exclusively for those with dependents. Separate housing was built for families designated as “Anglo-American,” “Latin-American,” and “negro.”

Other than Pilots

Also assigned to the naval air training bases (after auxiliary airfields were added Corpus Christi was no longer referred to as “center”) were WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) who served as instrument training (Link) instructors, parachute riggers, aerologists, meteorologists, radio operators, hospital apprentices, mechanics, metalsmiths, pressure-chamber technicians, air-traffic controllers, gunnery instructors, secretaries, storekeepers, and at least one doctor and a chaplain’s assistant. Mary Elizabeth Variel found her new assignment “very pleasant if you don’t mind large cockroaches in your locker, and shoes mildewing.” 7

There were humorous incidents. One of WAVE Link trainer instructor Irma Julke’s students was ten minutes into his cross-country “flight” when the simulator appeared to go in all directions. The loud thumping and sounds from inside led her to believe that the cadet had “cracked up.” As she later recalled:

I grabbed a wing, put the trainer in its straps and cautiously raised the hood. The door to the cockpit flew open and out jumped my angry student hollering that a roach had crawled up his pant leg. Sure enough, out crawled a Texas-sized roach whose tiny legs had felt like spurs. He sure drew a crowd. The flight was continued successfully. The next day the order was given that NO FOOD was allowed in the area. 8

In addition to Main Station, six smaller auxiliary airfields handled the rapid increase in training operations. Along with aircraft maintenance, the primary station provided seaplane and observation training; Cabaniss and Cuddihy Auxiliary Naval Air Stations provided basic and intermediate training; Rodd Field offered primary training and, later, instruction in bombing tactics; and Kingsville specialized in advanced training in fighters. In 1943 two more auxiliary airfields were added: Waldron, which provided training in torpedo bombers, and Chase Field in Beeville, which taught instrument flying. In addition, 25 outlying practice landing fields dotted the countryside.

After completing their basic training, cadets were introduced to a larger, heavier, and more complex aircraft—the monoplane Vultee SNV Valiant, or “Vibrator,” so called because of the annoying vibration created by its propeller in high pitch. With an instructor on board, each cadet was put through the second stage of his primary training, which included learning to fly “blind,” entirely by instruments.

Action Frivolous and Serious

Some cadets and even instructors engaged in what was known as “hedgehopping” or “flat-hatting”—flying dangerously low to the ground despite strict regulations forbidding the practice. Former cadet Willie Moeller later admitted: “We used to run a lot of beef cattle down on the King Ranch. Chase them around. But they told us not to do that. Some got kicked out. If you got caught you were out, and if you didn’t, well, you had a good time.” 9 There were reportedly occasions when cadets returned to the station after flying over the King Ranch and found bullet holes in their aircraft. 10

On Ward Island, less than a mile north of Main Station, a radar training station was established under the strictest security in early 1942. Not even the Marine guards knew what was taking place inside the compound. Cadets assigned to the station were prohibited from taking written material out of the classroom and warned that using the word “radar” outside the facility was a court-martial offense. When Collier’s published a revealing article on radar in its 22 May 1943 issue, the author candidly pointed out that it was then being “widely used” by the Axis powers as well as the British and Americans. 11 After a U-boat was spotted near the Aransas Pass, Texas, ship channel on 29 January 1942, precautionary alerts were routinely issued at the stations and cadets assigned scouting missions over the Gulf.

By 1943, the Navy had lowered the age limit for cadets and begun accepting qualified high school graduates. After graduating from Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, George Herbert Walker Bush went through flight training and received his wings at Corpus Christi in 1943 when only 18. In a 1990 commencement address at Texas A&I University in Kingsville, Bush reminisced, “When I was an 18-year-old naval aviation cadet way back in 1943, I flew all over this county—Corpus and Cabaniss and Waldron and Kingsville—and I loved every single minute of it.” 12

Main Station produced a weekly newspaper, The Beam , and an annual yearbook, Slipstream , containing official photographs of graduates and administrative officers and candid shots of cadets, sailors, WAVES, and visiting celebrities. The first two yearbooks feature individual photos of each graduating cadet, but as ever more students moved through the training, those for 1943 and 1944 picture row upon row of the new pilots in their respective training squadrons. By June 1944, 3,000 officers and 7,000 cadets were at the station, with thousands more enlisted men, WAVES, and civilian workers there. Graduations took place twice a week and were kept brief and simple. For many cadets, marriages occurred immediately thereafter at the station’s chapel, and local hotels were always booked solid.

Names and Notoriety

Some top-ranking graduates were “plowed under”—ordered to remain at the station as instructors. This did not go over well with newly commissioned Ensign Wayne Lundquist: “I was pretty mad because I was very dedicated and very patriotic. I wanted to be on an aircraft carrier and shoot down all those Japanese planes and carriers and win the war for America.” 13 Other instructors were combat veterans. In a ceremony at Corpus Christi, Rear Admiral Alfred Montgomery awarded instructor Lieutenant Bob Kirmse the Distinguished Flying Cross for “heroism and extraordinary achievement as patrol commander during enemy bombings of Dutch Harbor [Alaska], and thereafter.” 14

Training was rigorous. A full-page photograph in Life magazine depicting cadets scrambling up a 35-foot cargo net illustrated the importance of their physical training, a program developed by the Navy’s athletic director, former boxing champion Lieutenant Commander Gene Tunney. 15 President Roosevelt, accompanied by his wife, Eleanor, and Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles, visited the station on 21 April 1943 to meet with Mexican President Manuel Avila Camacho in a demonstration of solidarity. Admiral Chester W. Nimitz also stopped by the station, and Secretary Knox made a second visit. The Navy sent renowned painter Vernon Howe Bailey to produce an artist’s impression of the University of the Air.

Throughout the war, NAS Corpus Christi became something of a mecca for celebrities; some came to receive flight training and others to entertain. Hollywood stars Tyrone Power and Charles “Buddy” Rogers (married to actress Mary Pickford) were already commissioned officers when they arrived at the base for aviator training. Baseball notables Ted Williams, Warren Spahn, Johnny Sain, and Sam Chapman—all naval aviators—performed exhibition games at the station. Football great Ed Frutig earned his wings there while playing for the Corpus Christi Flyers and being named to the 1942 All-Navy All-American football team.

Among the entertainers and war bond fund-raisers who visited NAS Corpus Christi were Carole Lombard, Ginger Rogers, Rita Hayworth, Katharine Hepburn, Bob Hope and his troupe, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, and Kay Kyser. Broadcasts of the popular Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy and “Vox Pop” radio programs were made from the station. And Broadway producer Gilbert Miller and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein arrived there from New York to attend a WAVE-produced musical, USS Petticoat . Although praised by Hammerstein as “fresh and original,” the musical never made it to Broadway. 16

Cadets who later achieved distinction included not only George H. W. Bush, but also future astronaut and U.S. Senator John Glenn. Among the 1944 graduates was later radio and TV game-show host Bob Barker. John Tower, who became a Republican U.S. senator from Texas, washed out of the training program and became, as he put it, a “deck ape” on board an amphibious gunboat in the Pacific. 17 “Bilgers” such as Tower were usually sent to Naval Station Great Lakes, Illinois, as ordinary seamen, but also had the option of enlisting in the Army Air Forces, whose requirements at that time were not as stringent as the Navy’s.

The Down Side

To ground personnel, there was no more chilling sound than that of the crash alarm buzzer. Every Slipstream yearbook includes a memorial page listing the names of cadets and instructors killed during the year. With as many as 300 planes in the air at the same time and no radios in the primary trainers, the likelihood of accidents was extremely high. Guadalupe Valdez, a former aircraft mechanic in Assembly and Repair at Kingsville, recalled “about five or six airplanes flying together in formation, and one of them got out of the formation and hit another one, and finally about five or six planes were just dropping down, like rain.” 18 After a student pilot from South America was killed because of his inability to understand his instructor’s order to bail out, WAVES were assigned as English instructors to the Latin American trainees.

During June and July 1943, Lyndon Johnson was a member of a House subcommittee investigating conditions at Navy-connected sites in Texas and Oklahoma. It reported that during the previous 12 months, 551 aircraft accidents at Corpus Christi had resulted in the deaths of 91 cadets and instructors. Only two of the accidents were attributed to mechanical or structural failures; all others were caused by pilot error. Nearly half had resulted from stalls or spins caused by fliers losing control of their aircraft. 19 Main Station had a designated crash boat, the Mary Ann, which was used when planes plunged into the Gulf of Mexico and Corpus Christi and Oso Bays.

While the Army Air Forces had the renowned Tuskegee Airmen, there were no African-American naval aviators during World War II. Most of the black sailors at Corpus Christi served as mess stewards, although some were assigned to yardcraft duties and a small number to a gunnery division. Some of the Mexican-Americans employed as civilian workers experienced discrimination as well. Guadalupe Valdez was employed in the sheet-metal department as a mechanic earning $1.01 an hour. Fifty years after the war, he felt familiar enough with the various aircraft on which he had worked to offer a challenge: “Give me a set of blueprints and I can build you an aircraft.” 20

The POWs

In August 1945, a detention camp for German prisoners of war was established at Main Station. The Army had planned for 1,200 prisoners to be transferred from Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, but only about 300 were sent. The prisoners were put to work doing grounds maintenance, painting, planting trees, performing kitchen duties, working as pin boys at the station’s bowling alley, and clearing brush for a golf course.

Hein Bosowitz, who, as a diversion, skinned the numerous rattlesnakes discovered while working, considered the months he spent as a prisoner in Corpus Christi to have been a happy period in his life. He said he learned the true meaning of freedom by observing Americans and the lenient treatment he and the other prisoners received from them. 21 On 16 March 1946, the camp was dismantled and the prisoners sent to England to work as agricultural laborers until their repatriation.

With the end of World War II, Main Station downsized its training of naval aviators, and all the auxiliary fields were closed except Cabaniss. The Overhaul and Repair Department (previously Assembly and Repair) closed in 1959 but reopened in 1961 and became a major facility for helicopter repair during the Vietnam War. Chase Field in Beeville was also reopened but later permanently closed. It is currently the site of an industrial and airport complex. From 1949 until 1955, Naval Air Station Corpus Christi was headquarters for the Navy’s precision flying team, the Blue Angels. Neil Armstrong, the first person to set foot on the moon, received his flight training at Corpus Christi, as did future Arizona Senator John McCain, who narrowly escaped death or serious injury when he crashed his training plane into Corpus Christi Bay.

NAS Corpus Christi is currently headquarters of the Chief of Naval Air Training as well as the location of an Army depot, Coast Guard air station, naval aviation forecast detachment, and surveillance support center. The former auxiliary field at Kingsville now operates as Naval Air Station Kingsville, training tactical jet pilots. The retired World War II and training aircraft carrier Lexington (CVT-16), a permanent museum at Corpus Christi’s North Beach, serves as a fitting reminder of the men and women who contributed so much to achieving the final victory.



1. Robert A. Caro, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power (New York: Knopf, 1983), 584–85.

2. Corpus Christi Times , 12 March 1941.

3. Frank Morris, “Zoom Town,” Collier’s , 7 June 1941, 17.

4. Ibid.

5. Interview with Ed Parker. All interviews cited were conducted by the author at Corpus Christi, Texas, during 1993, 1994, and 1995. Correspondence cited also falls within this same time period.

6. Corpus Christi Caller-Times , 2 November 1941.

7. Correspondence with Mary Elizabeth Variel Grimes.

8. Correspondence with Irma Julke Malcolm.

9. Interview with Willis Moeller.

10. Interview with Ray Hines.

11. Donald Wilhelm, “Radar, the Super Sleuth,” Collier’s , 22 May 1943, 16.

12. Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: George H. W. Bush “Remarks at the A&I University Commencement Ceremony in Kingsville, 11 May 1990.”

13. Interview with Wayne Lundquist.

14. Interview with Bob Kirmse.

15. Life magazine, 19 April 1943, 60–63.

16. Slipstream yearbooks, 1942–44.

17. John Tower, Consequences: A Personal and Political Memoir (New York: Little, Brown & Co., 1991), 78.

18. Interview with Guadalupe Valdez.

19. “A Report on Naval Activities at the Naval Air Training Center, Corpus Christi, Texas.” Report of a Special Subcommittee on Naval Affairs, 15 October 1943. LBJ Presidential Library, Austin, Texas.

20. Interview with Guadalupe Valdez.

21. Interview with Hein Bosowitz.

 

 
 

Conferences and Events

Defense Forum Washington 2014

Thu, 2014-12-04

Newseum - Knight Conference Center

Defense Forum Washington will take place December 4, 2014 at the Newseum - Knight Conference Center in Washington, DC.

2015 WEST Conference

View All

From the Press

Keynote Speaker & Book Signing

Mon, 2014-11-03

Guest Speaker & Book Signing

Tue, 2014-11-04

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 135 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership