Thursday, May 11, 2017

McGuire AFB - From Ballon to the Moon - NJ's Amazing Aviation History

From the Balloon to the Moon – New Jersey’s Amazing Aviation History  

(HV Publishers, Oradell, NJ, 1992, p. 234-235) by H.V. Pat Reilly – (Forward by Astronaut Walter M. Schirra)

McGuire Air Force Base

On September 17, 1949 the Fort Dix Army Air Base was renamed the McGuire Air Force Base in honor of Thomas B. McGuire, Jr., a Ridgewood, N.J. native, a World War II Medal of Honor winner and America’s second all-time leading flying ace.

The air base had its beginnings in 1937 as a single sod runway on property owned and maintained by the U.S. Army, adjacent to Fort Dix, near Wrightstown, N.J.

As war clouds loomed on the horizon in 1940, the Army acquired 17,000 additional acres for the airport and paved runways were installed.

By 1942, the Fort Dix Army Airfield was a beehive of activity. The Anti-Submarine Command’s B-25s moved onto the field, and the base provided for the overhaul, servicing and preparing of aircraft for overseas shipment.

Parachute jump training and a secret mission for the development of guided missiles were all part of the activity.

In 1945, the air base was the western terminus for the return of wounded military personnel from Europe, and for returning veterans, who were then flown to separation centers throughout the United States.

When the field became the McGuire Air Force base in 1949, the 91st Reconnaissance Squadron moved in.

Then the air base became the home of the 611th Military Air Transport Wing (MATS).

In 1954 C-118 aircraft arrived with the 18th and 30th Air Transport Squadrons.

By the late 1980s, McGuire Air Force base occupied 4,000 acres in Burlington Country. Like a small city, it had a population of 5,200 military and 2,000 civilian personnel with approximately 8,500 dependents.

One of the 22 major tenant organizations based at McGuire was the New Jersey Air National Guard. The Guard had been organized at Newark Airport and was based there until 1965.

An appropriate memorial to Major Thomas McGuire, a P-38 fighter plane painted with the same markings as those on the plane he flew in combat, was erected on a pedestal in the center of a traffic circle near the main gate of the base.

It had been through the determined efforts of William J. Demas of Wrightstown, that money was raised for the memorial. Demas had negotiated with the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum for the P-38, one of only five left in the world in flying condition. It was flown from California. Then, under the direction of Lt. Patricia Harem at McGuire, the fuselage was stropped to its original aluminum finish. The words “Pudgy V” (a term of endearment to McGuire’s wife) and 38 Japanese flags representing the planes the ace shot down were painted on the fuselage. The plane was then ready to mount.

On May 5, 1982 the P-38 memorial was dedicated. Present at the ceremony were U.S. Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger, U.S. Rep. H. James Saxton, (R.13), Governor Thomas H. Kean and Marilynn Beatty, formerly Mrs. Thomas B. McGuire.

Standing on the sidelines that day was F. J. Kish, who had been McGuire’s crew chief in the Pacific. To reporters he told the story of McGuire’s last evening alive.

“Tommy was due to go back to the States in a week,” he said. “He had hoped to bag enough Japanese planes the next day to assure himself of the ‘leading ace’ title.”

“He told me that he wasn’t taking his own plane up, but some other fellow’s, and I said to him, ‘Major, why change horses in the middle of a stream?’ You know what he said to me then? He said he thought he’d pushed his luck in ‘Pudgy’ and that his number might be up.”

Kish was at another airfield the next morning when McGuire took off. When Kish returned later, a fellow mechanic called him over, placed a hand on his shoulder and said, ‘Your boy’s not coming back.’”

The year the memorial was dedicated, the people of Ridgewood, under the leadership of Dr. Anthony Cipriano and Gerald DeSimone, raised funds for the creation of a bronze bust of McGuire and donated it to the small museum dedicated to the ace’s memory in the Welcome center at the Air Force base. At the presentation, in January of 1983, Col. Larry D. Wright, Commander of the 438th Military Airlift Wing Command, said:

“A country which has no heroes is wanting.  A country which has heroes but forgets them is sorry. With this presentation here today, we can be assured that this hero will not be forgotten.”

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