Harlingen Army Airfield opened in
July 1941 and was used by the United States Army Air Forces (AAF) as a training base during World War II. It was initially assigned to the AAF Gulf Coast Training Center as a flexible gunnery school. Training was conducted in both air-to-air & air-to-surface gunnery. The air-to-air training used a variety of aircraft, including AT-6 Texans, BT-13 Valiants, P-63 Kingcobras, B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberators. For ground-based training, a number of facilities were available, including the moving target ranges and a number of gunnery simulators.
On 8 January 1943, the War Department constituted and activated the 79th Flying Training Wing (FTW) at Harlingen and assigned it to the AAF Eastern Central Training Command. In 1944, Harlingen began training B-29 Superfortress gunners. They received practically the same training as those for other aircraft, but at the end of the year a few of them began to receive training in B-24s modified by the addition of central fire control turrets to make them more like B-29s. Among the training devices used in this instruction was the manipulation trainer—12 towers arranged to resemble a formation of planes. The towers ranged in height from 10 to 40 feet, each equipped with 2 nose, 2 tail, 2 ring sighting, and 4 blister positions. As students in these positions faced simulated attacks from PT-13 and PT-17 aircraft, they “fired” camera guns at the attacking fighters.
The 79th FTW conducted flexible gunnery training until 1 October 1945. Redesigned as a basic training center 1 November 1945 and conducted basic training until inactivated 1 February 1946 and turned over to the city of Harlingen later that year. During the next five years, many lots and buildings were sold to individuals and to business organizations. By 1951, some two hundred civilian families were living on the base; six manufacturing concerns, Trans Texas Airways, and Air News Incorporated were operating from Harlingen. Also, several crop dusting operators were using the airstrip. The re-reacquisition of the property for Air Force use was complicated by those factors. But the need for navigators was vital in 1952 and most of the property was gained through mutual agreement on a fair purchase price.
Harlingen Air Force Base was activation on April 1, 1952 by the U. S. Air Force under General Order Number 12 who the base was named Harlingen Air Force Base and placed it under the operational control of the Air Training Command (ATC). Harlingen AFB’s focus was Undergraduate Navigator Training (UNT), primarily with Convair T-29 aircraft, until being closed in 1962. Undergraduate Navigator Training at Harlingen AFB ended on 6 June 1962 with the graduation of Class 62-22N. Thereafter, all new navigators were to be trained at Mather AFB, California and James Connally AFB, Texas.
Harlingen, as an Undergraduate Navigator Training Wing, had as the primary mission basic observer training. There were two phases: Phase I for Aviation Cadets, and Phase II for Student Officers. The major unit on the base was the 3610th Observer Wing, commanded by Colonel James F. Olive Jr.
The first entrants, the 48 Aviation Cadets of Class 53-01C, began training on June 27, 1952. Early classes were hampered by initial shortages of equipment, experienced instructors, and support facilities. Heroic efforts by all concerned overcame these difficulties in a relatively short time, and great improvements in training and in student moral were soon noticeable.
During 1952, student loads increased from 144 on July 1, to 747 on December 30. On January 22, 1953, the 35 persevering members of Class 53-01C became Harlingen’s first basic observer graduates.
The student load continued to increase, reaching 1314 by June 30, 1953. This expansion would have been even faster except for such limiting factors as a lack of suitable housing, training aircraft, and radar equipment. As new barracks were built and equipment was received, the number of students in training climbed to 1585 on March 31, 1954. The growth continued throughout 1954.
During 1955 and 1956, there were some reductions in the programmed number of graduates. The course was lengthened, four flight missions were added, and the first extended over water navigational training flights went to Ramey AFB, Puerto Rico. A change in student mix occurred, with more AFROTC graduates and fewer Aviation Cadets. The first foreign students (from Ecuador) were entered in the spring of 1956.
Unhappily, the first fatal aircraft accident since reactivating occurred on March 20, 1956. Captain C.J. Bryant and 1/Lt. D.S. Carillo, the only occupants of a Harlingen T-29B which was destroyed near Dobbins AFB, Georgia, died in the crash.
On September 15, 1956, the title of the major course was changed to Primary Basic Navigator (PBN) and the wing redesignated 3610th Navigator Training Wing. Five days later, Class 56-13C became the first to graduate as navigators rather than as aircraft observers.
There were many changes in 1957 and 1958. The programmed student load increased very rapidly; Harlingen assumed a greater share of navigator training as Ellington AFB was closed; electronics training was shifted to the advanced courses at Mather, James Connally, and Keesler Air Force Bases. And Colonel N. L. Calish replaced Colonel Olive as Wing Commander.
In late October and early November, the base broke routine to lend a hand during a civil emergency. Flood relief assistance, in the form of drivers, vehicles, personnel, and supplies, was provided along the lower Rio Grande Valley.
Colonel Callish was promoted to Brigadier General in June 1959, and moved to Mather AFB. Colonel James W. Newsome took command of the 3610th Navigator Training Wing on July 15, 1959. Meantime, training continued to be improved and standardized, and the number of students continued to increase until the peak was reached in the summer of 1960.
Special ceremonies and an Open House was held on March 19, 1960 to mark the graduation of Harlingen’s ten thousandth navigator. Lt. General James E. Briggs, Commander ATC, was guest speaker, and over 25,000 people visited the base on this one day. Also in 1960, Harlingen began pre-flight training for all Cadet Navigators when Lackland AFB phased out of the pre-flight training. And late in the year, PBN was replaced by UNT (Undergraduate Navigator Training).
On March 30, 1961, the Department of Defense would consolidate at James Connally AFB. Harlingen was scheduled to close at the end of the fiscal year, 1962.
When A3C Harold E. Williams signed in on February 7, 1962, he became the last member of all Aviation Cadet Class to enter UNT at Harlingen. Until graduation on June 21, Cadet Williams and his 33 classmates have but one goal in sight, their navigator wings.
The last class of Aviation Cadets to experience Undergraduate Navigator Training at Harlingen departed June 21, 1962.
Neither the oldest nor the largest navigator training base, Harlingen nonetheless has awarded more than 13,000 gleaming, hard earned navigator wings during the last ten years. In the summer of 1960, at the peak of its training load, the base provided daily instruction to 1800 Aviation Cadets and 300 Student Officers.
When Harlingen Air Force Base closed in 1962. The city’s population fell to 33,603 and it climbed to 40,824 by 1980. Local enterprise, focused on the purchase and utilization of the abandoned base and related housing, laid the groundwork for continuing progress through a diversified economy. The estimated population in July 1985 was 49,000, of which about 80 percent was Hispanic. In the late 1980s income from tourism ranked second only to citrus fruit production, with grain and cotton next in order. The addition of wholesale and retail trade, light and medium manufacturing, and an array of service industries has broadened the economic base. Large-scale construction for multifaceted retirement communities is a new phase of industrial development. The city of Harlingen operates a busy industrial airpark. At Valley International Airport the Confederate Air Force (now Commemorative Air Force) occupied hangar and apron space until 1991. The first hospital in Harlingen opened in 1923 and consisted of little more than two barracks as wings. The Valley Baptist Hospital was built nearby a few years later, and eventually the older hospital closed. The Valley Baptist Hospital has grown into the Valley Baptist Medical Center. The city’s outstanding network of health care specialists and facilities parallels the growth of the still-expanding center. Also serving regional health needs are the South Texas State Chest Hospital, the State Hospital for Children, and the Rio Grande State Mental Health and Mental Retardation Center.
According to the 62-21 & 62-22 Graduation Program, a total of 13,356 navigators completed training at Harlingen.
Thanks to Bill Day (Harlingen 61-09) for the above history of Harlingen.