The Birth Of An Air Station

By Col T.J. Saxon Jr., USMC (Ret.) - Originally Published May 1974

Twenty years ago a new Marine Corps baby was born amid the truck gardens, pecan orchards, and tomatopacking plants that covered the air station at Beaufort, S.C. The midwives were four Marine pilots-members of a functional planning staff, a new concept in military construction.

Although the job description of such a staff has never appeared on Marine Corps tables of organization, the construction of a master jet base in the continental United States generated a need for such a group in the mind of one farsighted officer. This is the story of how such a staff was formed and functioned-and how its efforts helped build MCAS Beaufort.

Development of an additional air station in the United States had been in the Marine Corps' long range plans since late in the 1940's. The need was evident: operation of larger and faster aircraft, which required longer runways, more parking aprons, and bigger hangars, and the return of aviation units from overseas bases had saturated the air stations at Cherry Point, Miami, El Torn, and Edenton.

The old World War II Naval Air Station at Beaufort was selected as the site for this new field. Selection of an existing field as the foundation for a newer and larger base offered two obvious advantages. First, certain portions of the existing runways, taxiways, and parking areas could be used. Second, a number of old buildings could be rehabilitated and utilized until such time as new, permanent buildings could be approved, funded, and constructed.

This arrangement enabled the base to become operational months earlier than if all buildings and runways were started from scratch.

Other factors influencing the selection of Beaufort as the site of the new field included the fact that a 300-bed naval hospital, built in 1947, was in Beaufort and could provide medical facilities for the air station. Likewise, the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island, S.C., only 12 miles away, had many facilities-such as disbursing, exchange, and subsistence-that the fledging station could lean on in its early days. Finally, a base at Beaufort would forge another link in the air defense chain along the Atlantic coast.

Construction of the air station at Beaufort was to be, in many instances, a first for Marine aviation. The master plan for the base was premised on the Marine concept of a master jet base. Furthermore, it was to be the first allpermanent air station ever planned by and built for Marine aviation. Every structure was to be of concrete block or masonry, designed to meet the specific need of a certain tactical unit.

Although plans for the development of Beaufort date back nearly 30 years, the funds required to initiate purchase of additional land and to start construction were not authorized and allocated until 1953. Actual construction, however, did not commence until late in 1954 and then only in a token amount. It wasn't until late 1955 that several major items, such as hangars and ordnance storage facilities, broke ground.

The first Marines to arrive at Beaufort for duty were Col Frank M. June and Maj J. Denvir Stith, both naval aviators. These two officers arrived early in 1955, prior to the beginning of the major construction program.

Col June's assignment as officer-incharge of the then Auxiliary Landing Field at Beaufort, oddly enough, completed the full circle of his military career.

Col June, commissioned in 1927, had his first introduction to aviation nearly 45 years ago when he volunteered to "build an airfield over night." The incident occurred in the Spring of 1928. Lt June and his detachment were charged with keeping a road open while confiscating weapons near El Sauce, Nicaragua. This road was actually a bullcart trail, which required a clearing party to break trail for all vehicles; but it was still a major communications artery for the Marines fighting Nicaraguan bandits.

One of Lt June's men-the only corpsman in the area-had been badly burned when some confiscated black powder caught fire. Lt June telegraphed for a plane to fly in and evacuate the corpsman.

"The field will be ready by morning," the lieutenant promised.

Building a field overnight was not the impossible task it may now seem. "The biggest problem was removing fences, filling holes, and marking off the runway for the 2000-foot strip," Col June recalled.

Marines borrowed axes, shovels, bulls, and ropes. Native labor, anxious to get a close look at their first airplane, volunteered to help. By the next day a field where an airplane could land was finished, but it was not used to evacuate the injured man. Instead a vehicle, led by a road-clearing party, arrived to evacuate the man. However, Lt June was told to finish his field. This he did, by cutting a number of trees and extending the strip. Then, after the field was complete, he got $500 to pay to have the grass cut. This $500 was the only money ever spent on the construction of the airfield at El Sauce, despite the fact that the field remained in operation for several years.

Between the time he built his "vernight field in Nicaragua and 1955, Col June was instrumental in preparing fields in Cuba and on the island of Ulithi. But none reached the scope of his latest job: supervising the functional design of and planning for the organization of the master jet base at Beaufort.

Upon Col June's assignment to Beaufort, BGen Frank Croft, then the Commander of Marine Corps Air Bases, Cherry Point, N.C., of which Beaufort was a subordinate command, emphasized that the personnel ordered to the new South Carolina base would have the primary responsibility in functional planning of the field as well as activating critical operational departments. Technical supervision of construction, of course, was the responsibility of the Bureau of Yards and Docks and a Navy resident officer-incharge of construction, Cdr. I. L. Herring, CEC, and his staff of Navy Engineering officers and inspectors were already at Beaufort.

Initially, Col June relied upon the CG and special staff section at Cherry Point for functional planning assistance. Likewise, staff officers at the Sixth Naval District and in the Aviation Shore Establishment sections of HQMC and the Bureau of Aeronautics furnished valuable assistance and guidance.

However, Col June soon recognized that the magnitude of the job of developing the 5000-acre station would require a special staff of officers, stationed at Beaufort, to devote full time to planning and functional supervision. BGen Croft and the Commandant concurred with Col June's recommendation that three naval aviators with the rank of major be assigned to Beaufort to serve on this functional planning staff.

Of course, Col June realized that there were few Marine pilots of this rank, who had had architectural or construction backgrounds, and these probably were not available for transfer to Beaufort. Consequently, he requested that one of the three officers assigned have staff experience in personnel, one in operations, and one in logistics. Accordingly, Majs L. E. Lovette, F. K. Tomlinson, and T. J. Saxon, each with several years experience in the staff billets specified, arrived at Beaufort in July 1955. None of these jet pilots had any experience in airfield construction or planning.

The separate responsibilities of the Marine functional planning staff and the office of the Navy resident officer-incharge of construction were emphasized by Col June to the three officers immediately upon arrival. Basically, the functional planning staff's tasks consisted of the following:

* Review requirements of tactical squadrons and support units. Based on these requirements the planners reviewed the master plan to make sure sufficient facilities were programmed to fulfill these needs. If not, then they initiated action to expand the facilities and provided justification for such modification.

* Review the architect-engineering advance planning and detailed planning for future construction. This functional study took into account construction already underway or programmed for future years. (This particular task was essential since the majority of the projects were seldom constructed as originally planned. The reasons for this were many: change in criteria, higher construction costs, reduction in space and money by some department in Washington.) The planners were required to make certain that all deleted items are included in future programs.

* Actual inspection of projects under construction. These daily inspections were primarily to analyze the functional aspects and to anticipate the requirement for functional changes before the construction had advanced to a point which made changes impractical. During these inspections the Marines did not enter into technical aspects of construction nor give any instructions to contractors, inspectors, or members of the Navy staff. Naturally, the three planners frequently asked questions of all of these technicians and when they saw matters which they felt might be technically incorrect in any detail, they discussed the matter in question with the Navy staff.

These three tasks illustrate how the Marine planning staff was soon involved in initiating action on projects encompassing several years' programs. For example, at one point the planners were engaged in these activities simultaneously:

  • Inspecting nearly $22,000,000 worth of projects under construction for FY 1956 and earlier.
  • Reviewing detailed planning for FY 1957 construction, valued at over $16,000,000.
  • Reviewing advance planning for FY 1958 projects.
  • Providing to the shore establishment section of BuAer, additional or modified material to support the FY 1958 program.
  • Preparing the FY 1959 public works program. (The planning staff also served in the capacity of the shore station development board since the public works department had not yet reached the degree of organization where it could assume this function.)

In addition, the planning staff had the responsibility of initiating the organization and activation of critical departments at Beaufort. These included industrial relations, motor transport, and communications.

The natural question at this point is how could three inexperienced pilots assume the responsibility of functional design of this master jet base with assurance that the finished product would, indeed, meet the requirements of FMF units?

Naturally, the Navy planning standards for Naval air stations and certain other criteria established at the Washington level were primary yardsticks. To these documents the planners applied the Marine Corps' concept of a master jet base. Armed with these guideposts the three officers became "legmen." Realizing that the best functional designs for the myriad of structures scheduled for construction at Beaufort could come only from experts in the corresponding fields, the planners sought out the experts.

For example, before submitting requirements to the architectural firm designing the air control squadron cornpound, Maj Lovette had several conferences and discussions with staff officers at Marine Air Control Group One and the control squadrons attached to 2dMAW. After he had their thoughts on the "ideal" control squadron compound he went to work. The first step was to fit the requirements into the space limitations specified. The resultant rough floor plan was sent to the architect as a guide. Ten days later the architect's adaption was back. Then Maj Lovette, after first checking that the plan met all specified criteria, took the layout back to the experts at 2dMAW for another review. It was then ready to go back to the A&E for incorporation into the advance planning packet. Maj Lovette's review of all his operational structures followed a similar pattern as did Maj Tomlinson's approach to the logistics category and Maj Saxon's review of barracks and recreational buildings.

It took only a few weeks for the efforts of the planning staff to pay dividends. Errors in earlier plans-such as multishower units in the main exchange building-were detected and corrected.

Nor did the planners limit their activities to consulting with Marine staff experts and reviewing preliminary plans. They began taking field trips to Army, Navy, and Air Force installations which had new structures that might furnish additional ideas or improved designs. These trips generated several new concepts, all with a common feature: better facilities for a lower price.

A major concern of the planning staff was to protect ecological and aesthetic features wherever possible. "Build around the trees" was more than an empty phrase to Col June's staff. Building sites, roads, and parking lots were redesigned to allow ornamental trees' and vegetation to remain. One such parking lot, serving the Officers' Club, now winds through a large pecan grove, where pecan picking is a major fall pastime for Marines and their families.

Utilitarianism was another watchword. As a result, a system of adjoining parking lots was designed to surround the shopping and recreation hub of the base. The lots permitted one-stop services for all activities. For example, the service wife parks her car and uses the bank, post office, exchange, commissary, dispensary, bowling alley, swimming pool, theater, or chapel without having to walk more than a block. This feature is of major significance today with the energy crisis.

Just as the base facilities sprouted in the first 18 months, so did the personnel. In late 1956, 200 officers and men were stationed at Beaufort. Most of these were engaged in activating critical departments or base security (part of Maj Stith's responsibilities). And by late 1957 station personnel at Beaufort numbered some 500 officers and men. Then all the essential operating facilities and welfare-morale type structures required to support jet squadrons were finished and the first tactical units were ordered to Beaufort.

The functional planners were involved not only in planning operational and support facilities on the base but also in building a city of 12,000. This new "city"-which would become the ninth largest community in the statewas the Capehart housing authorized for Beaufort. Some 2,565 housing units were authorized for the Beaufort Capehart program. This figure represented the largest number of units authorized anywhere in the United States. The new community was to be constructed in increments, paralleling base construction, over several years. The initial phase called for 1,100 units, including 228 for officers and 872 for enlisted. However, land was purchased for all 2,565 units to prevent real estate speculation when additional housing would be authorized. (The 1,100 units were the only quarters constructed under the Capehart program. Another 176 units on the air station proper were constructed as part of the FY 1956 construction package.)

The magnitude of this community, with its associated need for schools, churches, and support facilities posed a number of different problems for the planners. For example, the economic impact of the base on the quiet town of Beaufort, a quaint old southern community of 5,000, was a major concern. The thundering jets, the air station with its sprawling Capehart community, and a new bridge across the Broad River, making Savannah only 35 miles away, all would contribute to a changing life style of the area where truck farming and fishing had been the primary occupations for centuries. True, the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island was nearby, but the nature of its mission kept the military personnel stationed here from having a major economic impact on neighboring towns. For example, a study conducted by the planners showed that less than 500 cars left Parris Island daily. This average included both civilian and military personnel living off the station. On the other hand, it was estimated that nearly 50 per cent of the air station personnel would leave the base at the end of each working day-either to return home or to go on liberty. Additional civilian support facilities, such as recreational and shopping centers in Beaufort, would call for up to 300 new commercial establishments-employing 5,000 new workers either directly or indirectly.

The town of Beaufort in the 1950's had a reputation of being the best "good neighbor" community that any of the air station personnel had known. To retain that good will, Col June initiated a program of gradual civic indoctrination. His officers spoke to civic and religious groups, joined civic organizations, and initiated tours of the new installation for interested civilian groups. In this manner, Col June hoped to have the town's welcome sign sparkling when the first jets arrived. And it was.

This, then, is a brief account of the functional planning staff-Col June's experiment in practicality that paid off at the Marine jet base at Beaufort. The success of such a staff hinged on the principle that a base that might eventually cost more than $100 million, depends on several officers who do nothing but explore the functional ramifications of the master plan and its phased development.

However, these officers had to be completely divorced from the time-consuming and disconcerting problems associated with daily operational matters. Therefore, the command that undertakes a project of this scale must, in reality, have two separate and distinct staffs-the planners and the doers. Naturally the planners will have to call for technical assistance from the doers, who must not pass their details and problems along to the planning group.

At Beaufort some 20 years ago this functional concept worked-the Marine Corps and the taxpayers reaped the dividends.