Charleston Air Force Base got its start in the 1900s as a local airfield. As interest spiked in aviation due to Charles Lindbergh’s crossing of the Atlantic Ocean in 1927, the city of Charleston began operating a small airfield 10 miles from the city limits. The city created the Charleston Aircraft Corporation, purchasing 432 acres from the South Carolina Mining and Manufacturing Company, and acquired the airport facility that same year.
As the world of aviation expanded so did the airfield; improvements costing more than $300,000 were made to the airport in the 1930s and it quickly grew into a solid commercial hub. With the advent of World War II, the Army Air Corps entered the picture and the War Department assumed control of Charleston Municipal Airport. It was formally activated as a base in 1942.
In October of that year, the base was officially named Charleston Army Air Base under the command of Col. Hoyt Prindle. By June 1943, it was renamed Charleston Army Air Field, serving mainly as an air depot training station and providing the final phase of training to service groups. The base grew during the next few years from about 1,000 to more than 2,000 acres, and nearly $12 million was invested in improvements and new facilities.
With the end of World War II, the government put the base in a surplus status, and the city of Charleston requested the airfield’s return. A new air terminal was constructed in 1947 and commercial operations resumed, with the airfield operating once again as a civilian airport.
The Cold War brought more changes, and the U.S. Air Force received a $28 million public works improvement package approved by Congress to begin troop carrier operations out of Charleston’s airport. A lease agreement was signed between the city and the Air Force that gave the Air Force use of all properties south and west of the Southern Railway tracks. Construction for new base facilities began in 1952, and in 1953, the base was named Charleston Air Force Base.
In 1962, the Air Force decided to retire its C-121 fleet, and two years later, Charleston Air Force Base received its first C-141 Starlifters, which resulted in a change in host units. The 437th Military Airlift Wing assumed command in 1966.
By 1992, the Air Force had completed a systemwide reorganization and the 437th Military Airlift Wing and 315th Military Airlift Wing were both placed under the Air Mobility Command and renamed the 437th Airlift Wing and the 315th Airlift Wing.
The base has remained an alert site for fighter-interceptor aircraft. Even though the last unit to occupy the alert site was a detachment of F-16s from the 158th Fighter Wing in 1999, after 9/11, the facility began to see some operations by Air Force fighter aircraft resuming the continental defense mission.
In 2005, a Base Realignment and Closure list released by the Department of Defense included Charleston. This meant Charleston Air Force Base would become a joint base with the nearby Naval Weapons Station, and implementation would begin September 2007.
By 2006, the base had grown to almost 3,500 acres, with thousands of active-duty and Reserve personnel and families and hundreds of civilian employees. The base still shares flightlines with Charleston International Airport.
In 2009, the Air Force announced the activation of the 628th Air Base Wing, which would provide installation support and service to more than 90,000 Airmen, Sailors, Soldiers, Marines, Coast Guardsmen, contractors, retirees and family members on the air base and at Naval Weapons Station Charleston. Going fully operational as Joint Base Charleston in October 2010, personnel have worked to make the joint base a success.
Navy's Historical Impact on South Carolina's Lowcountry
The Navy has a long history in Charleston. The Port Royal Naval Station was transferred from Norfolk, Virginia, to Charleston in the early 1900s, marking the beginning of the Charleston Naval Shipyard, a primary support facility for the Navy’s submarines, destroyers, frigates and other ships. The yard initially repaired vessels and acted as a docking facility, expanding with World War I to include the building of torpedo boats, machinery and producing naval clothing.
Operations slowed after World War I, but the Great Depression brought more expansion and activity, and with the use of Public Works Administration money, the Charleston Naval Shipyard grew quickly. World War II led to the acquisition of another 17,000 acres of land just north of the shipyard. The land was commissioned as Naval Weapons Station Charleston. Later, the naval shipyard became part of the Charleston Naval Complex, while the Naval Weapons Station continued as a separate command.
By the early 1990s the Charleston Naval Complex was the third-largest Navy homeport and fleet area in the U.S., home to 22,000 Sailors and civilians.
In 1993, the Base Realignment and Closure Commission recommended the naval complex be closed in an effort to reduce excess capacity. Twenty-one ships previously assigned to Charleston were relocated, three commands were directed to disband and four others ordered to relocate. To keep commerce and development in the area moving forward, the South Carolina General Assembly established the Charleston Naval Complex Redevelopment Authority. While the complex officially closed in 1996, almost 100 private, local, state and federal units have purchased or leased property at the facilities since then, producing more than $160 million in goods each year.
The closure of the Charleston Naval Complex led to an expansion of missions at the Naval Weapons Station. These included the Naval Nuclear Power Training Command, the Nuclear Power Training Unit, the Naval Consolidated Brig and Army Strategic Logistics Activity Charleston.
The Weapons Station currently supports more than 40 joint base mission partner commands and employs a workforce of more than 11,000, which includes military, civil service and contractors. The station covers more than 17,000 acres including forest and wetlands, waterfront, 38 miles of railroad and 292 miles of road. The station is considered a unique national defense asset, providing consistent support for all of its commands.
Joint Base Charleston
Joint basing is a concept that calls for two or more neighboring installations to consolidate and to be run by one designated service. The concept, introduced in 2005, provides a huge cost savings for the DOD, combines support functions and eliminates redundancy to save funds and create higher efficiency. With more than 25 installations scheduled to realign under the program, there is an anticipated savings of millions of dollars during the next 20 years.
The 2005 Base Realignment and Closure list recommended that Naval Weapons Station Charleston have its management functions relocated to Charleston Air Force Base. This included command support, community and environmental services, fire protection, human resources and operational mission services, among others.
Charleston Air Force Base and Naval Weapons Station Charleston became Joint Base Charleston in October 2010. The installation is managed by the Air Force, with an Air Force colonel holding the title of joint base commander and a Navy captain that of deputy commander. The 437th Airlift Wing retains both Operations and Maintenance groups, while the Mission Support and Medical groups were realigned under the new 628th Air Base Wing organization. The 437th Aerial Port Squadron was realigned under the Maintenance Group.
The majority of people transferring to Joint Base Charleston from the Navy were interspersed throughout the new air base wing, and the new wing took on the Navy port operations. Navy civilian jobs transferring to the Joint Base were transferred into Air Force positions.
Today, the community at Joint Base Charleston consists of more than 23,000 active-duty, Reserve and civilian personnel. With more than 60 base mission partners, Joint Team Charleston includes Air Force, Navy, Army, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and other DOD missions. It is considered a very successful merger with regard to the joint base concept.