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The founding of Charleston Air Force Base

By Stanley Gohl, historian | 437th Airlift Wing | April 19, 2017

JOINT BASE CHARLESTON, S.C. — JOINT BASE CHARLESTON, S.C. - On December 10, 1941, only three days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, The Army Air Force’s 56th Pursuit Group based at Charlotte, North Carolina and its 61st Pursuit Squadron arrived at the Charleston Municipal Airport. The squadron’s P-39 Airacobra and P-40 Warhawk aircraft provided coastal defense operations for the Southern Defense Command. 

The next day, the War Department assumed de facto control of the airport. However, they continued to allow Delta and Eastern airlines to operate from the airfield. 

On March 23, 1942, approximately three months after taking control, the War Department signed a lease with the City of Charleston; formally activating and renaming, Charleston Municipal Airport, as Charleston Municipal Airport, First Air Force (a reference to the joint use). 

Approximately seven months later, the name was shortened to Charleston Army Air Base, and then to Charleston Army Air Field on June 15, 1943. At the time of occupancy, Charleston Municipal Airport consisted of 732 acres, two runways and several buildings.  

Later in 1942, the 16th Antisubmarine Squadron, flying B-34 Lexington bombers joined the fledgling arsenal of aircraft. Their mission was to provide defense of the eastern seaboard from possible attack by German submarines. 

By 1943, the base served primarily as an air depot training station, providing the final phase of training to service groups and air depot groups departing for the war overseas.

In September 1943, the base saw a mission change. It now was responsible for the final phase of B-24 Liberator training. 

In December 1943, the 454th Bombardment Group was the first group to complete their training before being transferred to European Theater of Operations. The same month, the 400th Bombardment Group arrived but their mission was to serve as a replacement training unit rather than an operational unit. Also, by 1943, the base had grown from 732 acres to over 2,084 acres and had spent over $12 million to build new facilities and other airfield improvements. 

By 1944, with the defeat of Germany, the need for B-24 crews had diminished considerably.  However, the need for air transport crews grew. So, on June 1, 1945, the base was transferred to Air Transport Command and began C-54 Skymaster crew training. That mission was short lived, ending in late August 1945 after the surrender of Japan and the end of hostilities. 

A little known fact about Charleston Army Air Field was that it served as a prisoner of war camp. German prisoners were used as manual labor on base and as farm labor in several of the surrounding communities.   

On April 25, 1946, as part of the massive postwar drawdown, Charleston Army Air Field was officially placed in a surplus status. Soon after, the City of Charleston requested that the field, which originally had been leased to the U.S. Army for $1 per year, be returned to the municipality. In 1947, the city council approved the construction of a new civilian air terminal and on October 19, 1948, the former Army Air Field was officially returned to the City of Charleston.   

After a few years of operating as a civilian airport and the advent of the Cold War, more changes occurred. Congress awarded the Air Force a $28 million public works package to begin troop carrier operations out of Charleston.

Construction began in 1952 and, in 1953; the facility was named the Charleston Air Force Base.