Since its founding in 1918, Maxwell Air Force Base has evolved into one of the most unique military bases in the United States. It served as an Army Air Service repair depot in World War I, an aerial operations field in the 1920s, and home of the renowned Air Corps Tactical School (ACTS) for senior officer education and air-power doctrine and tactics in the 1930s. During World War II, Maxwell was the home of Headquarters Southeast Air Corps Training Center (SEATC), which was responsible for all U.S. Army Air Forces (AAF) operational training in the eastern United States. After World War II, Maxwell became the home of Air University (AU), the U.S. Air Force's educational center for non-commissioned and commissioned officer personnel, resuming and expanding the old ACTS mission. Today Maxwell continues as the home of Air University, the intellectual and leadership center of the United States Air Force (USAF).
As World War I loomed, the War Department decided to establish an engine and repair depot in Montgomery, at the former site of the Wright Brothers' civilian flying school. Designated as Engine and Repair Depot No. 3, the facility was located just northwest of the city and serviced several southeastern army flight schools during the war. Unlike many of the post-war installations, the depot survived closure largely as a result of efforts by Alabama congressman Lister Hill. In 1922, the War Department changed the field's mission to that of an operations base and assigned it the Twenty-second Observation Squadron. On November 8, the base was renamed Maxwell Field in honor of Lieutenant William C. Maxwell, an Alabamian killed in an aircraft accident in the Philippines. The Twenty-second Squadron's primary duty was that of reconnaissance support of Army ground units. In 1929 the squadron commander, Maj. Walter Weaver, responded to a call from Alabama governor Bibb Graves for aid after massive flooding in south Alabama and organized his planes and personnel to deliver food, clothing, and medical supplies to people isolated in the flood areas. The air drop was one of the first of its kind in aviation history.
Weaver also strengthened the base's ties with Montgomery civic leaders. In 1931 Congressman Hill succeeded in having the Air Corps Tactical School moved from Virginia to Maxwell Field. This school was the Army's advanced professional education institution for air officers and also served as an air-power think tank. The majority of the Army's most senior air officers in World War II would be graduates of the school. ACTS instructors developed a strategic concept of precision bombardment from long-range bombers flying at high altitudes in daylight that dominated Army air tactics during that war. Bomber advocates on the ACTS faculty also believed that long-range bombers, suitably armed, would not require pursuit planes to escort them. To the contrary, faculty pursuit-plane advocates, led by Maj. Claire Chennault, challenged this concept, contending that too many bombers would be lost without pursuit escort. The ACTS bomber champions carried the day, however.
Maxwell's economic importance to Montgomery was underscored by the Great Depression of the 1930s. The base became an important employer, and field personnel purchased goods and services in the city and spent money in Montgomery, and some resided in the local communities. As in most base towns, commissioned officers were accepted in the middle-class and elite circles, but enlisted men generally were not.
After the outbreak of World War II in 1939, ACTS was phased out, and Maxwell became headquarters for all AAF operational training in the eastern United States. In 1940 Brig. Gen. Walter Weaver, SEACTC commanding officer, persuaded city leaders to lease the city's municipal airport to the Army so that Maxwell could become a second-phase (basic) flight-training field for aviation cadets. The new training facility was named Gunter Field after the recently deceased Montgomery mayor William A. Gunter.
On December 7, 1941, second lieutenants Gordon Sterling and Philip Rasmussen, recent graduates of Maxwell's final-phase flight-training school, were among a select group of Army pilots that engaged Japanese planes attacking Pearl Harbor. Each man shot down an enemy attacker, but Sterling was in turn shot down and killed. In 1944 First Lt. Leonard Travis Tobias from Montgomery, who had trained at both Maxwell and Gunter Fields, piloted a B-17 heavy bomber in the first AAF missions against Berlin. On one of these costly missions, which illuminated a fallacy in ACTS's self-defending bomber theory, Tobias died when his B-17 was shot down by German fighters. However, by 1944, the AAF in England had acquired a large number of long-range fighter planes. These planes, validating Chennault's ideas, soon shot down such a large number of German fighters and veteran pilots that it marked a turning point in the air war over Europe. Maxwell continued as headquarters for all AAF operational training in the eastern United States, and the base also served as a transitional training site for new crew members of the B-29 very heavy bombers, the type of aircraft that in August 1945 would drop atomic bombs on Japan.
In 1941 Maxwell's General Weaver was ordered to organize an aviation cadet unit at Tuskegee to train America's first black military pilots in the history of the U.S. armed forces. Later known as the Tuskegee Airmen, this first all-black tactical air squadron, the Ninety-ninth, served in North Africa in 1943, flying in support of the Allied drive across the Mediterranean toward Italy. On July 2, Ninety-ninth Squadron planes escorted AAF bombers on a mission in Sicily to bomb enemy targets, but two planes were shot down, the first two U.S. black military pilots killed in combat. One of the two was Lt. Sherman White Jr. from Montgomery. The Tuskegee Airmen proved that African Americans were equally skilled at flying and fighting and helped pave the way for the post-war integration of the U. S. armed forces.
In World War II, both military and civilian women played new but important roles. Women of the newly created Women's Army Corps (WAC) were assigned to Maxwell and Gunter, but their jobs were limited primarily to file clerks and secretarial duties despite praise from commanders at both bases for their efficiency and skill. At both air fields a few pilots of the Women's Air Force Service Pilots (WASPs) played a limited role in flight training. Many civilian women served as aircraft mechanics.
Romances between local women and military males stationed at the local air fields were numerous. Young women from the community often attended dances and cadet graduation balls at both installations. Community members also enjoyed the presence of various celebrities who were stationed at one time or another at Maxwell, including former Big-Band luminary Capt. Glenn Miller. Very few black troops were stationed at Maxwell and Gunter, where they largely performed menial duties. Civilians who came from near and far to work at Maxwell and Gunter created a housing problem in the city. In both white and black communities, prostitution targeting mainly enlisted men persisted, in spite of the efforts by air field and local authorities to prevent such activity. The financial contribution of the approximately 7,000 civilian employees at the two air fields combined with the purchasing power of the military to serve as the chief factor in ending the Great Depression in the Montgomery. The principal benefit to Montgomery's black community was an increase in low-wage employment at the two air fields.
Even before the end of the war in August 1945, plans were being developed for the development of an institution at Maxwell that would resemble the pre-war Air Corps Tactical School. The new school would operate on a larger scale as an advanced professional military education (PME) university on the Maxwell campus. It was given the name Air University (AU) in 1946, and its first commander was ACTS alumnus Maj. Gen. Muir S. Fairchild.
On September 3, 1946, Air University was formally dedicated at Maxwell. One of the speakers was Alabama senator Lister Hill, known as the "Godfather" of Maxwell for working to keep the base open and helping to bring both ACTS and AU to Maxwell. Senior colonels composed the student body of the Air War College (AWC), AU's crown jewel. Next in importance was the Air Command and Staff College (ACSC), whose students were majors and lieutenant colonels. Finally, the Squadron Officers School (SOS), the first in this three-tier PME system, was attended by captains. AWC's mission was to prepare its students for their roles in major commands of the U.S. Air Force (created in 1947) as air power strategists and senior commanders. ACSC's purpose was to prepare officers at the mid-level career point to lead groups and wings and hold other mid-level administrative responsibilities. The goal of SOS was to prepare junior officers to lead squadrons and serve in other low-level staff positions.
Air University evolved first as an institution influenced by air power as shaped in World War II, then by the Cold War and under the threat of nuclear annihilation, by air power in the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. In the early twenty-first century, the emphasis shifted to air power's role in confronting terrorism. AU grew materially from inadequate quarters, classrooms, and instructional technology into a campus that is as modern and up-to-date as those of any other in the U. S. armed forces. Construction of Maxwell's Academic Circle, Air University's primary education complex, began in the 1950s. Its centerpiece was the Air University Library, eventually one of several major libraries on a military installation. Also located at the site was the USAF Historical Research Agency, a support organization and repository for air-power scholars and AU students.
Air University has faced challenges from without and within since its inception. For a time, many of the brightest Air Force colonels chose to attend the top PME schools of other services. Air University responded to this situation by increasing the number of distinguished civilian faculty, refocusing its curricula to emphasize fighting an air war, and creating an air war-gaming center. Scholarship was also reinforced and enhanced with the establishment of the School for Advanced Air Power Studies, which offered an accredited master's degree. Disagreement among the Air Force's senior leadership over the similarities and differences between education and training led to Air University's loss of major command (MAJCOM) status in 1978 and its placement under Air Training Command (ATC). Air University regained MAJCOM status in 1983 only to lose it again in 1993 and to once more become a subordinate organization of Air Training Command, later re-designated Air Education and Training Command (AETC). The following year AETC relocated its Officer Training School to Maxwell, where it joined with the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps as subordinate units of the newly created Air Force Officer Accessions and Training School. Maxwell was also home to the Ira C. Eaker College for Professional Development, the Center for Aerospace Doctrine, Research and Education, and HQ Civil Air Patrol–USAF. Tenant units at the base included the Air Force Historical Research Agency, Air force Doctrine Center, and the 908th Reserve Airlift Wing.
The Gunter Annex (formerly Gunter Air Force Base) is the home of the College of Enlisted Professional Military Education and
its primary subordinate unit the Air Force Senior Noncommissioned Officer (NCO) Academy, the top PME school for NCOs. The
Air Force Institute for Advanced Distributive Learning (essentially the former Extension Course Institute) is also located
at this installation. In addition, Gunter serves as the host base for several tenant organizations, including the Standard
When the U.S. armed forces were officially integrated in 1948, all of the facilities at Maxwell quickly followed suit. A new Maxwell grammar school was the first integrated public school in the city. Prior to the well-known Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, some black and white airmen from Maxwell purposely created "incidents" on the city buses, with whites sitting in the rear and blacks in the front of the buses. During the 1970s, the women's movement helped increase the number of women serving in the armed forces, and women became an increasingly evident presence at both Maxwell and Gunter. The climax of the gender revolution at the base came when Brig. Gen. Susan Pamerleau became commandant of the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (AFROTC) in 1995.
The Air Force presence has steadily increased as an important factor in Montgomery's economy, generating several million dollars
in revenue each year. Air Force personnel are valued members of the community, and a number of military personnel retiring
from Maxwell and Gunter have chosen to remain in the city. Retired Lt. Gen. Charles Cleveland, while serving as the AU commander,
instituted in 1984 a Glenn Miller-style big-band concert to commemorate a 1942 Christmas Eve concert conducted by Miller in
a Maxwell hangar. The Glenn Miller Holiday Concert has continued to be staged each Christmas season at a downtown venue, playing
to packed houses of civilians and Air Force personnel stationed at Maxwell and Gunter Annex. Today Maxwell and Gunter employ
more than 8,000 military and civilian personnel.
Ennels, Jerome A., and Wesley Phillips Newton. The Wisdom of Eagles: A History of Maxwell Air Force Base. Montgomery, Ala.: River City Press, 2002.
Jerome A. Ennels
Maxwell Air Force Base
Wesley Phillips Newton
Published September 5, 2007
Last updated June 17, 2014