Keesler AFB Community
In early January 1941, Biloxi city officials assembled a formal offer to invite the U.S. Army Corps to build a base to support the World War II training buildup. The package included an early airport, the old Naval Reserve Park and parts of Oak Park sufficient to support a technical training school with a population of 5,200.
On March 6, 1941, the War Department officially announced that Biloxi had been selected. The War Department activated Army Air Corps Station No. 8, Aviation Mechanics School, on June 12, 1941. The new school would be named in honor of 2nd Lt. Samuel Reeves Keesler Jr. of Greenwood, Mississippi. Keesler had died during World War I while serving in France as an aerial observer assigned to the 24th Aero Squadron, U.S. Army Air Service. On Aug. 25, 1941, Army Air Corps Station No. 8 was officially designated as Keesler Army Airfield.
When the War Department activated Keesler Field, the local community thought it was getting a technical training center with a student population that might peak at 20,000. Not only was Keesler to house a technical training center, but it would also host one of the Army’s newest replacement or basic training centers. Keesler’s population almost doubled overnight.
The first shipment of recruits arrived at Keesler Field on Aug. 21, 1941. During World War II, the Army’s basic training program was little more than a reception process. At Keesler, basic training lasted four weeks, during which classifiers determined the type of follow-on schooling that each recruit would receive. Many stayed at Keesler to become airplane and engine mechanics, while others transferred to aerial gunnery or aviation cadet schools. By September 1944, the number of recruits had dropped, but the workload remained constant, as Keesler personnel began processing veteran ground troops and combat crews who had returned from duty overseas for additional training and follow-on assignments.
Technical training school officers and staff began arriving at Keesler Field in mid-July 1941. The new academic buildings were still under construction when the Airplane and Engine Mechanics School opened. Basic branch students received instruction in five barracks buildings; instructor branch students were assigned to temporary classrooms set up in commandeered circus tents. In mid-1942, the Army Air Forces directed Keesler to focus upon the training of mechanics for B-24 Liberator heavy bombers. Over time, Keesler gradually replaced the military instructors with civilian instructors, including many women. Generally unknown to most was the role that the Tuskegee Airmen and other black troops played at Keesler. In fact, more than 7,000 black servicemen were stationed at Keesler Field by autumn 1943. These soldiers included pre-aviation cadets, radio operators, aviation technicians, bombardiers and aviation mechanics.
In late May 1947, the Army Air Forces announced plans to move its radar school from Boca Raton, Florida, to Keesler. The radar school officially arrived Nov. 14, 1947, making Keesler responsible for operating the two largest military technical schools in the U.S. Meanwhile, in September 1947, the U.S. Air Force became an independent branch of the armed services. Keesler Field was officially redesignated as an Air Force base Jan. 13, 1948.
In August 1950, Keesler embarked on a major rebuilding program to upgrade its facilities across the board. The first phase of this project called for the construction of a new electronics laboratory, barracks and dining hall. In 1951, Congress appropriated an additional $44 million to complete Keesler’s reconstruction. Plans included four two-story academic buildings (later named Allee, Dolan, Thomson and Wolfe halls), a 352-bed hospital, modern family housing units and a three-story dormitory complex dubbed “the triangle” because of its distinctive layout.
Keesler’s modernization required more than expanded facilities. For example, Keesler began using television instruction methods as early as June 1953. In 1950, Keesler offered only 14 generalized courses, but by December 1959 that number had grown to 116, including vital U.S. Air Force programs such as the aircraft warning and control system.
In early 1956, Keesler entered the missile age by opening a ground support training program for the SM-65 Atlas intercontinental ballistic missile. In addition, school personnel were developing training methods for the newly adopted semi-automatic ground environment system, an integrated defense net intended to protect the United States from Soviet air attack. By 1960, the school at Keesler had earned a solid reputation for high-technology training, offering courses in radar, communications and electronics.
Keesler remained the largest training base within Air Training Command throughout the 1970s, and it continued to stay on the cutting edge of electronics technology, instructing students in new systems such as the worldwide military command and control system and the 407L radar system. The school was the country’s main supplier of electronics technicians. Keesler’s student load dropped to an all-time low after the Vietnam War ended, and Air Force officials responded to changing social conditions by re-examining the school’s teaching functions. As a result, Air Training Command inactivated the USAF School of Applied Aerospace Sciences on April 1, 1977, and replaced it with the 3300th Technical Training Wing, which activated the same day.
Beginning in 1984, school officials worked with Air Force Communications Command’s 1872nd School Squadron to develop prototype training programs using interactive videodisc technology, which soon supported a variety of Keesler interactive course offerings. Keesler’s Wall Studio interactive videodisc production capability was one of only two in the entire Air Force and supported many organizations Air Force-wide. With base closures forcing an end to technical training at Chanute and Lowry Air Force bases, Keesler’s growing importance as a technical university would become even more firmly fixed. The first additions arrived in 1990, as Keesler acquired Chanute’s weather forecasting courses. Lowry’s metrology and precision maintenance electronics laboratory training program followed in 1992-1993.
Restructuring efforts similarly affected units assigned to Keesler Technical Training Center. In February 1992, Air Training Command redesignated the base’s host unit as the Keesler Training Center. The 3300th Technical Training Wing was downsized to become a group, and its component technical training groups became squadrons. The 3305th Student Group also inactivated along with its subordinate squadrons.
At the beginning of the 21st century, the 81st Training Wing and Keesler AFB were one of the largest technical training wings in the U.S. Air Force and in Air Education and Training Command. The 81st Training Wing has trained thousands of airmen and hundreds of Air Force officers as well as military members from the Navy, Army, Marines, Coast Guard and allied nations.