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Camden Army Air Field (a.k.a. Harrell Field) was one of three contract primary flying schools located in Arkansas during World War II. The other two were at Grider Field in Pine Bluff (Jefferson County) and Thompson-Robbins Field in West Helena (Phillips County). The Arkansas communities where the schools were located gained much-needed jobs not only for the construction phase but also from operation of the schools.
The need for these contract flying schools arose because Kelly Field in Texas could only graduate 500 pilots a year, and most of the current Army Air Force (AAF) pilots did not have enough flying hours to be instructors. AAF’s commanding general, Henry Arnold, devised a plan for contract primary flying schools located in local communities. The contractors were responsible for constructing the buildings; providing instructors, mechanics, housing, and meals; and maintaining the planes. The AAF was to provide trainees and planes, and it arranged to buy back the buildings when the need for the flying schools ended.
Local Camden (Ouachita County) businessmen contacted the AAF about the possibility of constructing a contract primary flying school at Camden. Camden businessmen located 1,000 acres of level farm land for a site. The AAF approved the site, and E. W. Wiggins and Wesley Madden contracted to construct and operate the school, with groundbreaking occurring in May 1942. The initial runway was a 4,800-foot turf runway. Two auxiliary airfields were constructed. On August 2, 1942, an open house was held for the public, with 6,500 people attending. The airfield was dedicated as Harrell Airfield in honor of the work Camden mayor Don Harrell did on the project. The first class of cadets arrived in August 1942.
Between January 1941 and August 1945, a total of 324,647 men entered the cadet training program across the country. Men could leave at any phase of the program, and 132,993 did not complete the program; some also died while in training. Potential cadets first went to the Aviation Cadet Examining Board for mental and physical tests. Next, approved trainees went to the closest induction center for induction into military service. In the beginning, the soldiers went directly to preflight school after induction, but by the spring of 1942 a college phase of five months of academic and military subjects was introduced. Several colleges in Arkansas participated in the college phase.
Upon completion of the college phase, would-be airmen spent two to four weeks in a classification center where more physical and mental tests were given. The cadets took nine weeks of pre-flight courses before they were ready for contract primary flying schools. For nine weeks, the cadets spent seventy hours in flight training, and the remainder of their time was spent in ground school. Successful completion of contract primary flying school was followed by basic flying school such as the schools at Walnut Ridge (Lawrence County) and Newport (Jackson County). The final step was an advanced flying school such as those located at Stuttgart (Arkansas County) and Blytheville (Mississippi County). If a man could complete all the phases of training, he earned his coveted wings and was a pilot in the AAF.
In February 1944, the Camden school was notified that it was going to be closed. The AAF posted a letter from Henry Arnold in the Camden News on March 31, 1944, explaining that the AAF was ahead of schedule in the Aviation Cadet program and that the school was no longer needed. The school closed on April 22, 1944, with more than 6,000 cadets having passed through the Harrell Field program. The airplanes and the furniture of the school were offered for auction in August 1944.
On September 26, 1944, the Arkansas Gazette carried the news that Camden was to be home to Shumaker Naval Ammunition Depot (NAD). The former flying school and airfield was turned over to the U.S. Navy and the contractors for the NAD. They opened up offices and developed drafting and design areas in the hangars. When the barracks of the school filled up with construction workers, temporary hutments were built on flying school grounds. At the peak of construction, approximately 14,000 workers were housed at the former school. Following the completion of construction of the NAD, the former flying school was turned over to civilian control and now serves as Camden Regional Airport, still known as Harrell Field.
For additional information:“Ahead of Schedule.” Camden News. March 31, 1944, p. 4.
Hope, Holly. We’ve Gotta Get Tough: History of World War II Home Front Efforts in Arkansas 1941–1945. Little Rock: Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, 2008.
Johnson, Harold. History of the Walnut Ridge Army Air Field. Walnut Ridge, AR: Walnut Ridge Army Flying School Museum, 2006.
“Rail Services Blamed by AAF.” Camden News. February 19, 1944, p. 1.
Carolyn Yancey KentJacksonville, Arkansas
Last Updated 4/8/2011
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