The Southwest Louisiana Historical Association
|Gerstner Field today||
Gerstner Field Historical Marker
The United States Army's Air Service was unprepared for the First World War. Although it was the first country in the world to acquire an airplane for military use, in 1914 it ranked last among major nations in aerial preparedness. The entire Air Service contained 1,200 men and sixty-five officers. It had 300 airplanes, but no more than eight of these were ready for use in the field (by comparison, Belgium had sixteen prepared planes).
On America's declaration of war in April 1917, it had only three pilot training schools. Desperately needing more, the government went about the selection and construction of these sites at a furious pace. By the end of the war, twenty-seven such fields existed in the United States, most in the South and Southwest where the weather was best for flying.
Lake Charles had tried to acquire an army training camp as early as June 1917, but the Army rejected the area as too flat for training foot soldiers. Since the area was better suited for aviation training, the Chamber of Commerce and local businessmen next lobbied for an air field. A group of British officers promised to consider the area as a winter training field for Canadians, but were so impressed with Ft. Worth, Texas, that they cancelled their scheduled tour. Not deterred by this second snubbing, Lake Charles finally acquired an American training field in August 1917.
Construction began immediately and progressed hastily, probably owing to the government's desperate need for primary training fields. The number of men on the construction payroll grew to a maximum of 4,000. The base cost the government about $2,000,000 to build.
Gerstner Field was located about seventeen miles southeast of Lake Charles near Holmwood. It was erected as a two-unit field, meaning that it was made up of two identical regular camps. The base was quite large, containing twenty-four hangars, twelve barracks for enlisted men, twelve buildings to house officers, twelve mess halls, four large warehouses, and numerous workshops and offices. All buildings were painted green with white trimming. The base was intended for 2,000 men, but reached a maximum of almost 3,000, requiring tents and improvised messes to accommodate them.
The first troops arrived in November 1917, before construction was completed. Guards from a national guard unit in Mississippi were followed by airmen from Chandler Field in Essington, Pennsylvania. Chandler Field was one of America's three original training fields and prepared national guard aviators. It had been closed and its equipment transferred to Gerstner Field.
Primary training fields like Gerstner Field provided the second stage in pilot training. Cadets first attended ground school, usually conducted at a university, where they learned the basics of flight, airplane operation and maintenance, meteorology, astronomy, discipline, and officer behavior. At the primary flight school the cadet next received flying training and became a Reserve Military Aviator. The final stage, advanced training, usually occurred in Europe because America lacked suitable airplanes and instructors for advanced and specialized flying. Gerstner Field differed from normal primary flight schools because it also offered advanced training for pursuit pilots, flight instructors, and in aerial gunnery.
In quality of operation and training, Gerstner Field was a good camp, but numerous problems kept it from reaching its potential. It suffered tremendously from blowing sand that hampered flying and destroyed airplane engines. A chronic lack of spare engines and parts prevented many repairs, thus leaving men idle and, at one time, as many as two-thirds of the camp's airplanes out of commission. Sanitary conditions were probably never very good. The sewerage system was inadequate and drainage was poor. The field was somewhat lumpy, so good landing spots were hard to find, and a severe mosquito problem made life at the base frequently unbearable.
Flying instruction was good, but the airplanes used to train pursuit pilots proved inadequate for truly valuable combat training. The school for training flight instructors worked impressively well. The bureaucracy had some problems, but the base was usually well-managed. Morale was understandably high among the eager flying cadets, but not for enlisted men. Discipline at the base began in a very lax state, resulting in a poorly maintained camp and, as a British observer complained, "absolutely no esprit de corps." Major Maxwell Kirby, the fourth commander of the base and the last pilot to shoot down a German airplane in the war, resolutely worked to reform this problem.
Even with its faults, Gerstner Field achieved nationally-admired accomplishments. Col. C. C. Culver perfected a wireless telephone enabling communication between airplanes and between an airplane and the ground. One inspector of the camp considered it a revolutionary invention for air combat. The airplane ambulance was born at Gerstner Field when a flyer crashed into a marsh inaccessible to a regular ambulance. The Department of War recognized the base as the originator of the idea and ordered its adoption at all other flying fields. The first aerial gunnery school in the United States opened at Big Lake where pilots shot at targets floating in the water. Also applauded was the base's policy of carrying a pigeon on each cross country flight to release with an appropriate message in case of trouble. One observer recommended its adoption at other flying schools.
Gerstner Field in 1918
Gerstner Field suffered two incidents of massive destruction in its history. The first occurred on February 5, 1918 when a German submarine sunk the Tuscania, a British troopship, off the coast of Ireland. Because the ship was traveling in a convoy, 91 percent of its passengers were rescued. Nevertheless, 166 American servicemen drowned in the attack, becoming the first Americans to be killed during passage to Europe. Among the dead were about twenty-seven men of the 158th Aero Squadron. They had trained at Gerstner Field and had left the base less than four weeks before.
The second came from a hurricane that struck Southwest Louisiana on August 6, 1918. The storm killed three and injured eight at the field and caused damages of almost $1,000,000. It spared only six airplane hangars with light damage (eleven were damaged heavily and seven totally wrecked). The hurricane also destroyed ninety-six airplanes. The only building to survive at the Big Lake gunnery school was the mess hall, which was used as a temporary hospital. The camp assisted Lake Charles with relief work by providing a guard of seventy-five soldiers while a pilot from the field was the first to deliver news on the condition of Cameron Parish after the hurricane.
Major John Purroy Mitchel
At least nineteen men died in aviation accidents at Gerstner Field; almost all of them were unavoidable. Nevertheless, the most famous fatality at the field could have easily been avoided. Maj. John Purroy Mitchel, a former mayor of New York City, was one of the most famous people to have been stationed at the field and certainly the most famous to have died there.
Elected in 1913, Mitchel commenced his term as a well-meaning reform mayor, but his tendency to care more about the economy and efficiency of city institutions rather than their effectiveness made him quite unpopular. Mitchel enthusiastically backed American involvement in World War I; he supported conscription, condemned pacifism, and unsubstantially accused his opponent of being pro-German (which made him even more unpopular).
Although never terribly interested in being a pilot, Mitchel joined the Air Service after he lost his re-election bid in 1917 and couldnít get a commission in the army. He was trained as a pursuit pilot at the air field in San Diego and was sent to Gerstner Field in June 1918 for more advanced training. Although well-liked at the camp, Mitchel really didnít want to be there and complained fiercely about the heat, accommodations, and people.
Mitchel died on July 6, 1918. Recovering from a failed landing, his airplane suddenly dived, causing him to fall out of the cockpit and drop 500 feet to his death. The inquiry investigating the accident concluded he fell because he hadnít fastened his seat belt. Mitchel had failed to fasten his belt at least twice before and had been warned about it. Edwin Lewis, Mitchelís biographer, notes that he was slightly schizophrenic, which probably made him reckless with his own safety.
Upon his death, the country hailed Mitchel for his bravery, patriotism, and ability as a public official. Former president Theodore Roosevelt served as a honorary pallbearer at his funeral and a recently completed Army Signal Corps training field on Long Island was named for him. Mitchel Field lasted for several decades, receiving its closing orders in 1960 on the same day as Chennault Air Force Base in Lake Charles.
Copyright 2005 Southwest Louisiana Historical Association