December 7th, 1941, was justly called a “day that will live in infamy.” Indeed, repercussions of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor from Japan were felt even in the Robeson county area. The immediate response found the men and women volunteering to enlist in the nation’s armed forces. World War II left lasting mark on Robeson County with the construction of the world’s largest glider air assault training base.
The first mention of the Laurinburg Maxton Airbase is found in the minutes of the Maxton Town Board meeting of December 23, 1941 when Mayor W.H. Hasty announced that interest had been shown by the federal government in locating an airport in the vicinity of Maxton, as part of its effort to bolster air defenses in response to the surprise attack 16 days earlier. The February 6, 1942 issue of The Robesonian announced that the Civil Aeronautics Authority would be constructing a Class 3 airport similar to the Raleigh-Durham Airport near Maxton.
The town commissioners established a committee of 10 men to conduct a search for land that would be suitable. Maxton approached the City of Laurinburg about the possibility of working together on the project; they were joined by Robeson and Scotland Counties in purchasing 613 acres to lease for a $1 per year to the government to be used as a military reservation. In order to pay their fourth of the cost, Maxton issued bonds in the amount of $12,000.
The site was referred to in the May 1942 town minutes as the Maxton-Laurinburg Airbase Project, but sometime shortly afterwards the Army named the site the Laurinburg-Maxton Airbase. Even in the planning stages, the Army desired to increase the site and began the process of purchasing the surrounding property. Small and large parcels were purchased from thirty-seven owners totaling over 4600 acres. Not everyone was happy with the location of the airbase as can be gathered in a letter from Mrs. Lula Cox Sheppard to President Roosevelt in May 1942 quoted in the book “Forgotten Fields of America” by Lou Thole:
The government is taking several places for an air base including
Our little place and I was wondering if we could get just one
Little corner of which we live as it is on the outer edge.
We love our home so very much we hate to leave the place. It was
just a little forgotten spot when we took it over, and we have built
it up all we could.
But please understand sir, I could not complain at it up to the government if it is for defense, for we are too glad to do all we can for our country.
We have a son in the Navy and we are buying defense bonds through
the plant at which we work.
Fortunately for the Shepard family, the Executive Branch allowed arrangements to be worked out so that the family house was saved and relocated to a corner of land near the larger tract purchased by the Government. Their house was moved by placing logs under it and rolling to the new location where it was set on a new foundation.
The government authorized construction on April 20, 1942 with much of the labor being provided through the Works Progress Administration, a “New Deal” era agency that provided work to many during the Depression. An account from the May 1942 edition of The Robesonian rumored that while the plans called for a $500,000 airport that the project was really a glider training school that would cost 3 – 10 million dollars.
The base could rightly be called a city; it consisted of over 560 buildings and three runways 150 feet wide and 6,500 feet long forming a triangle. The cost was over ten million dollars and netted 20 miles of paved roads within the compound. Colonel Younger A. Pitts, a veteran of twenty-seven years of Army flying, oversaw the construction and served as the first commander of the Base. In addition to the new airbase the facilities at the Lumberton Airport and Camp MacKall were also used in the glider training program.
The sudden influx of thousands of soldiers caused problems unlike any the surrounding area had ever experienced. Nearly every home in Maxton made rooms available to rent to soldiers that had families since there was no married housing on the base.
Flora Lou Morgan Morton remembers her mother renting all of the upstairs rooms to soldiers and their wives. Her mother had a rule that she would not rent to a couple with children, so she always asked to make sure that the couples were childless. Mrs. Morton remembers one couple that her mother forgot to ask, and as they were moving in the sound of a baby crying was heard. Her mother started upstairs to tell them that they would have to leave in the morning but the begging of her own three children convinced her to let the family stay ― in fact they stayed over two years.
Patsy Hamer recounted in “Forgotten Fields of America” that her mother also opened her house to construction workers building the base and to soldiers.
Mother hired three cooks to prepare and serve meals to the construction workers… the cost was $1 a day for three meals.
Each of the four upstairs bedrooms was rented for $7 per week. The high demand for sleeping space led the day shift workers to share their rooms with night shift workers.
On September 1, 1943 the airbase celebrated its first anniversary; the event drew a crowd of over 10,000. The air show consisted of twenty-five planes with paratroopers making jumps and was topped off with the landing of four gliders. The celebration also included a softball game, a dance for the enlisted men and a dinner -dance for the officers. Colonel Pitts is quoted in August 25, 1943 issue of the base newspaper, The Slipstream before the celebration:
When we glance backward over the rugged path behind us, as the
first anniversary of our base approaches, it’s easy for us to pick
out the obstacles we have overcome, for they were many. It is
primarily the fine spirit, the willing cooperation of the officers
and men and civilian employees of this command that turned
this North Carolina farm land and the chaotic piles of lumber
and dirt that decorated it, into a fine modern Army air base.
But in war-torn days such as these, the time for reminiscing is brief.
So let’s devote it to constructive thinking, by looking back only to
consider and plan ways to correct errors that crept in here and
there among our accomplishments. We must also look forward
and resolve that one year from now we will have doubled our progress.
The same issue goes on to give the early history of the base by those soldiers that were first to arrive at the base. Cpl. Jerry Giles remembers fields of cotton filled with pickers trying to get in the last crop to be grown on the property and of seeing Cpl. Eugene Dunham shooing a sow and her brood from beneath the barracks. Captain Robert DuBose remembered that all the offices were cramped into the Base Headquarters Annex along with a one-chair barber shop, and mini PX stocked with candy and drinks, as well as a dispensary. These first arrivals found farm roads and two gates guarded by civilians.
They also found many of God’s creations that the area was known for – namely gnats, mosquitoes and files. Set. George Tuttle remembers
As we walked across the weeded patch, we stepped high,
for we’d heard rumors of snakes being around to welcome us.
We were really pioneering.
The year 1944 saw a change of command. Colonel Lloyd L. Sailor assumed command in March, replacing Colonel Pitts; however, his tenure would be short due to other needs. Sailor was replaced in June by Colonel Ellsworth Pierce Curry. During this year the base also suffered casualties. In May, a glider crashed killing an officer and injuring two others. The later part of the year twelve men on a C-47 were killed when a parachuted supply bundle dropped during a training mission hit the plane, and caused loss of control.
The soldiers found time for much needed recreation on the base and according to the base newspaper, The Slipstream; they were entertained by traveling shows such as Ina Ray Hutton and her Orchestra. The paper also reported that the base had eight softball teams, movie theater and swimming facilities; by 1943 the base also had its own band that performed concerts three times a week.
Further evidence of the concern of the community over the morale of the soldiers stationed at the base is shown in September 1942 minutes of the Maxton Town Council. The Council appointed a special committee to work with the USO Committee in selecting a lot for a building. The building was erected the following year on Saunders Street (now Martin Luther King Highway). An article in the July 28, 1943 edition of The Slipstream announced the opening of the Maxton USO from 6pm until 11:30pm with Miss Minnie Lou McRae serving as hostess. An average of fifty men a night have enjoyed singing and dancing along with the piano and juke box.
When World War II ended in 1945 talk began about the closing of the Laurinburg-Maxton Airbase and what the Towns of Maxton and Laurinburg would do with the property. Beginning in February 1946 joint discussions between the two towns yielded a desire to turn the base hospital over to the Scotland County and to lease the airport facilities to Presbyterian Junior College for an aviation training program.
In May 1946, the towns entered into a lease agreement with Airports Operations, Inc. a corporation established by Presbyterian Junior College to operate the aviation program. In June 1946, the towns voted that Scotland County Hospital Association could operate the base hospital but due to the fact that the towns did not obtain clear title to the property until March 1947 it was not until April 1948 that the hospital and forty-four acres were actually donated to the association.
Maxton and Laurinburg entered into an agreement in 1948 to form the Laurinburg-Maxton Airport Commission to administer the airport property. Today, the airport still functions, not only as a working airport, but as a tangible reminder of the area’s contribution to freedom during World War II.