A Story of Airpower from World War I to the 21st Century
By Philip Handleman
Historian, Selfridge Base Community Council
Following the success of Wilbur and Orville Wright in launching the first powered airplane on December 17, 1903, Detroit area automotive executive and realtor Henry B. Joy aspired to join the growing ranks of air-minded adventurers who found the world of flight to be an alluring and rewarding domain. He converted 641 acres of mud flats northeast of the town of Mount Clemens into a primitive landing site known as Joy Aviation Field.
Given the site’s low elevation and proximity to Lake St. Clair, the transformation of the old bog into an operational airfield proved daunting. Despite the unaccommodating features of the local terrain, the wide open space and remote location drew planes and pilots. In fact, the Packard Motor Company used the airfield to test its 12-cylinder Liberty engine.
America’s entry into World War I was destined to change the face of this fledgling airport. Gearing up for combat in foreign skies, the government leased the land. Just accessing the place was a challenge for construction vehicles and trucks laden with building materials. The main road to the swampy airfield simply gave out. Even a specially built plank road, comprised of four-inch oak timbers, collapsed.
For a time, the answer was having big tractors drag almost all of the essential delivery vehicles from Mount Clemens. Herculean efforts and engineering innovations eventually brought the base to operational status. Even then, upkeep was not easy. The expansive grassy tract was maintained by horse-drawn mowers.
On July 1, 1917, with the arrival of Company G of the 33rd Michigan National Guard, the military began its permanent association with this inauspicious piece of real estate. At that time, the name was changed to Selfridge Field in honor of First Lieutenant Thomas Etholen Selfridge, a pioneer aviator and the first Army airman to perish in an aircraft accident.
Army aviation pioneer Thomas Selfridge
Flight training at Selfridge Field commenced on July 16th, only three months after the United States plunged into the maelstrom of war. The base’s first contingent of military flyers came from the 8th and 9th Aero Squadrons of the Army Signal Corps having been transferred from Kelly Field in Texas. Instruction was given in the Curtiss JN-4 Jenny, a wood-and-fabric biplane noted for its benign handling qualities.
Initially, the fundamentals of airmanship were imparted in a course lasting only a matter of weeks. The students were then shipped overseas for advanced training. Michigan’s harsh winter weather caused flight training activities to be shifted to southern bases, and Selfridge turned into a school for aviation mechanics.
Calamity struck in March 1918 when the Clinton River overflowed. The base was flooded, necessitating a general evacuation. The local community took in the more than one thousand servicemen, providing them lodging until the flood waters receded. The base’s proclivity to flood was eventually addressed when a seawall was constructed and some 63 miles of underground drains were installed. In April, Selfridge initiated a busy aerial gunnery school with instructors on loan from the French, British, and Canadian air arms. Indeed, by the end of World War I the base had trained more than one thousand aerial gunners.
The character of the base changed on June 27, 1919 when the highly publicized 1st Pursuit Group, famous for its exploits in France as an aggressive fighter unit and claiming the American Ace of Aces, Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, as one of its pilots, arrived at Selfridge Field, its new home. No longer a training facility, Selfridge was now a fighter base, its newly resident unit a darling of the press having produced some of the country’s highest-scoring aces and having been victorious in the crucible of battle.
Famed World War I American Ace Rickenbacker
However, the base’s glory was fleeting, or so it seemed, since with hostilities concluded an uncertain future for the installation soon prompted the transfer of the 1st Pursuit Group to Texas. With the war at an end, the government considered buying the base property. But Mr. Joy, the owner, was asking $190,000.
At first, government officials balked at what they perceived was an exorbitant price for essentially an overgrown swamp. Then the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics weighed in, suggesting that the base possessed intrinsic value in that significant industrial and manufacturing resources were located relatively close by. In 1921, Mr. Joy got his price. On July 1, 1922, the 1st Pursuit Group returned to Selfridge where it stayed for nearly 20 years.
The period between the two World Wars came to be known as the Golden Age of Flight, an era marked by a boundless enthusiasm for aviation’s potential and by an unfolding series of aeronautical advancements. Selfridge Field exuded the spirit of the time, hosting a number of spectacular air races and flying meets, which set the standard for the base’s exciting air shows of recent years. In 1922, six pilots of the 1st Pursuit Group raced against each other in their hot pursuit planes in the first annual Mitchell Trophy Race, named after John L. Mitchell, the late brother of the outspoken airpower advocate William “Billy” Mitchell.
Also, one of the six Pulitzer Trophy Races, conceived by Ralph Pulitzer of the publishing family, was held at Selfridge that same year. The world speed record for a closed course was established when Army Lieutenant R. L. Maughan pushed his Curtiss biplane racer to a sizzling 205.8 miles per hour. That speed bested the winning military aircraft that had raced the same course earlier in the day by 57 miles per hour!
In 1924, an unheralded lad who had just completed an Army flight training course in San Antonio arrived at Selfridge. The paucity of flying slots soon caused him to resign his newly received commission. He reverted to the reserves in pursuance of a career flying the airmail.
Three years later, this unassuming young man, named Charles Lindbergh, returned to Selfridge amid unprecedented fanfare in the wake of his triumphant nonstop solo crossing of the Atlantic in his Ryan monoplane, The Spirit of St. Louis. On July 1, 1927, Lindbergh permitted his friend, base commander Major Thomas G. Lanphier, to pilot his historic airplane for a brief flight over Selfridge. Later that year, the famous plane was hangared at Selfridge for two weeks while the “Lone Eagle” fulfilled his training obligation as an air reservist.
Technological breakthroughs became a part of the Selfridge Field heritage. In 1923, the first detachable external fuel tank, fastened to the bomb rack of a Thomas-Morse MB-3A, substantially extended the aircraft’s range. Night flying, a haphazard affair at Selfridge because of the absence of a formal illumination system, became an accepted routine in 1927 with the aid of a five-million candlepower beacon.
The 1920s and 1930s represented a time when the 1st Pursuit Group was expanding the performance envelope for fighters and proving that combat units could project themselves over considerable distances. Pursuit planes deployed at Selfridge Field during this period included the streamlined Curtiss P-6 Hawk, the durable Boeing P-12, and the bumblebee-shaped Boeing P-26 Peashooter, which was the first of the Army Air Corps’ monoplane fighters.
With the advent of World War II, Selfridge Field was noticeably impacted. Two days after the surprise air raid on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, the 1st Pursuit Group was sent to San Diego to conduct coastal patrols, protecting the major population centers of southern California from possible enemy attack. Meanwhile, the exigencies of war and the bigger, more capable fighters rolling off production lines required expanded facilities. The government expropriated adjoining land, and by 1942 Selfridge Field had grown to 3,660 acres.
During the war, many units received training at Selfridge. Notable among these were three squadrons of the 332nd Fighter Group, which arrived in 1943 to obtain their final preparation for combat flying the Curtiss P-40 and the Bell P-39. All the pilots were African Americans coming from Tuskegee, Alabama where they had recently earned their Army Air Force silver wings. Known as the Tuskegee Airmen, they were commanded by Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. who had already led the first all-black unit, the 99th Pursuit Squadron, in the North African theater of operations.
General Benjamin O. Davis Jr
Attitudes on and around Selfridge Field tended to reflect the larger society’s latent prejudices, making life difficult at times for the men assigned to this segregated fighter group. They persisted anyway, and distinguished themselves in combat by, among other things, tallying a remarkable record of protecting friendly bombers against enemy interceptors during their many escort missions. The Tuskegee Airmen’s superb performance under fire and allegiance to a sometimes intransigent nation, opened the way for the desegregation of the armed forces following the war.
Ben Davis went on to become the first black general in the Air Force. Of the three Tuskegee Airmen to rise to general officer rank, one of them, namely Lucius Theus, moved to metropolitan Detroit after retiring from the Air Force. Until he passed away from natural causes in 2007, he was often on base offering his wise and gracious counsel.
In 1946, the 56th Fighter Group was reactivated at Selfridge. This unit, under the command of Hubert “Hub” Zemke, had racked up the record of downing more enemy aircraft in Europe during World War II than any other fighter group in the Eighth Air Force. When hostilities broke out in Korea, the pilots of the 56th provided six of the first 15 jet aces, including such well-known figures as “Boots” Blesse and “Gabby” Gabreski. As a result, the base was nicknamed “Home of the MiG Killers.”
The heightened tensions of the Cold War prompted the Defense Department to take precautions against a possible aerial assault aimed at the heartland of the country. In 1952, as part of a nationwide defensive network, the Army’s 28th Artillery Group established its headquarters on the base and placed Nike missile batteries in tactical positions around metropolitan Detroit including one at the base.
With the creation of the Air Force as a free-standing service on September 18, 1947, the base’s name changed from Selfridge Field to Selfridge Air Force Base. The 56th transitioned into the 575th Air Defense Group as part of the 1952 reorganization of Air Defense Command. Then, in 1955, the 575th was re-designated the 1st Fighter Group, circuitously returning to Selfridge the famous fighter unit with roots dating back to the immediate post-World War I era. The 1st Fighter Group’s most famous squadron, the 94th, in which Eddie Rickenbacker had served and later commanded, was once again ensconced on base, its recognizable “Hat-in-the-Ring” insignia on proud display.
In the early 1960s, base mechanics donated their time to rebuild in an almost totally authentic way a donated SPAD pursuit plane of the type flown during World War I by the legendary Captain Rickenbacker. The sparkling restoration, which included the famed insignia of the 94th Aero Squadron emblazoned on the fuselage, brought the vintage aircraft up to airworthy standards in 1964. The then commander of the 1st Fighter Wing, Colonel Converse B. Kelly, climbed into the open cockpit and piloted the old biplane over the base to the delight of spectators, Captain Rickenbacker among them. During that day, the fabled ace and war hero had a chance to reacquaint himself with the aircraft.
The crowd was held at bay, and “Captain Eddie,” attired in business suit and fedora, posed for photographers much as he had a generation earlier on a French airfield, then wearing knee-high leather boots, jodhpurs, and Sam Browne belt. With left foot raised atop the SPAD’s port wheel, looking as if he were ready to take off once more, should his country call, the Medal of Honor recipient replicated the image that had been frozen in the minds of schoolchildren, grateful citizens, and fellow airmen for nearly 50 years. In 1965, the immaculate SPAD was entrusted to the care of the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio.
The lithe fighter from Captain Rickenbacker’s young adult years stood in stark contrast to the operational fighters occupying the base’s ramp. The 1st Fighter Wing was flying the supersonic Convair F-106 Delta Darts. These delta-winged fighters were designed as high-speed interceptors to thwart any mass bomber attack against the U.S. by a Cold War aggressor. In an interesting turn of events, these aircraft along with an enormous armada of bombers, other fighters, and missiles were never engaged against an adversarial superpower. Their presence alone succeeded in vanquishing the Iron Curtain.
Convair F-106 Delta Dart, Cold War interceptor
A tornado wreaked devastation on the community north of the base in May 1964. Base personnel promptly stepped in, offering myriad forms of assistance including temporary shelter for those made homeless. In a way, the base was reciprocating for the local area’s good deeds when the base itself had been subjected to severe flooding in its first year of existence. The base’s support for the townsfolk in their hour of need was a convincing reminder of the extent to which the military and civilian populations in this sector of the Detroit metroplex are integrally intertwined.
In 1967, the 50th anniversary year of the 1st Fighter Wing, one of its two squadrons, the 71st, was transferred to Missouri, leaving only the well-known 94th. Two years earlier, the 71st Fighter Interceptor Squadron had garnered prestige for Selfridge Air Force Base by winning first place honors in the F-106 competition of the Air Force-wide William Tell Weapons Meet at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida.
One of the pilots assigned to the 94th at Selfridge from 1963 to 1966 was Donald E. “Digger” Odell. In 1967, as the Vietnam War heated up, he transferred to the 34th Tactical Fighter Squadron in Thailand. During a strafing run on the railyards at Dep Cau, located 18 miles northeast of Hanoi, his F-105 Thud was shot down by ground fire. His 17th combat mission concluded with his capture. Unfortunately, he was repeatedly beaten and tortured until his release five-and-a-half years later on March 14, 1973.
In 1978, Digger Odell retired from active duty at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Having been born in southeastern Michigan, he returned to the area and served as the Selfridge public affairs officer for 12 years. As a highly decorated veteran whose patriotism never wavered, his example served to inspire base personnel. He continues to motivate military and civilian audiences with stories of his unflagging faith in America while being brutalized as a prisoner of war.
The late 1960s brought a time of change and reflection to the base. The Nike missiles were removed from Selfridge. Sadly, in a budget-cutting move, the 1st Fighter Wing was deactivated, concluding a longstanding and colorful episode in the base’s history. This was also a point at which it was becoming clear that many of the Air Force’s leaders over the years had spent a portion of their careers at Selfridge. Altogether nearly 150 generals emerged from service at the base.
This cadre of senior commanders in the Air Force’s history includes the illustrious Charles Lindbergh; the cigar-chomping head of Strategic Air Command and Chief of Staff, Curtis LeMay; airpower pioneer and the Air Force’s first Chief of Staff, Carl “Tooey” Spaatz; and the immortal James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle who led the intrepid Tokyo raid and later commanded the Eighth Air Force. Not surprisingly, Selfridge picked up another well-deserved nickname, “Home of the Generals.”
The decade of the 1970s started with the arrival of the Michigan Air National Guard’s 127th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing, equipped with three dozen aging reconnaissance jets and several support aircraft. The 127th, which had been stationed at the area’s main commercial air terminus, Detroit Metropolitan Airport, instantly became the base’s largest flying unit and has remained the host organization on base ever since.
Command of the base transferred from the Air Force to the Michigan Air National Guard on July 1, 1971. On that day, the base’s name changed from Selfridge Air Force Base to Selfridge Air National Guard Base. Speaking on the occasion of the transfer, Michigan’s Assistant Adjutant General, Brigadier General J. A. Johnston, captured the right balance of past, present, and future when he declared, “We expect to continue to grow and maintain the Selfridge reputation as one of the finest bases in the world.”
The next year, the composition of the 127th changed completely. Its two groups went from being photo reconnaissance units to tactical fighter units: the 127th Tactical Fighter Wing assuming primarily air-to-ground fighter responsibilities and the 191st Fighter Interceptor Group assuming primarily air defense responsibilities. Through the ensuing couple of decades, these units were equipped with a variety of aircraft including the North American F-100 Super Sabre, the Convair F-106 Delta Dart (which had been sent up to Wurtsmith Air Force Base from Selfridge in 1970, but then returned to Selfridge in 1973 in a strange case of “musical chairs”), the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, and the Vought A-7 Corsair II.
McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II
Vought A-7 Corsair II
Growing strains on the federal budget and the changing geopolitical situation in which the Soviet Union disbanded caused policy makers to rethink U.S. defense posture. The result was significant downsizing. Certain units that had been resident on the base were either transferred out or closed down. For example, the Naval Reserve’s VP-93, an anti-submarine patrol squadron flying the Lockheed Martin P-3 Orion, is no longer here. Similarly, the Air Force Reserve’s 305th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron, operating fixed and rotary wing aircraft, is also gone now.
In 1990, the 127th and 191st transitioned to the Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon. Elements of both units participated in Operation Desert Storm, the campaign that ended the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait. With the end of the Cold War, domestic fighter defense was no longer deemed critical so the 191st converted to the Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules, a versatile cargo aircraft.
Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon
Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules
Eventually, the 191st Airlift Group and the 127th Fighter Wing were consolidated into the 127th Wing, such that the flying units of the predecessor organizations retained their designations, the 171st Airlift Squadron and the 107th Fighter Squadron, respectively. Aircraft of the 107th patrolled no-fly zones over Iraqi airspace leading up to the toppling of the noncompliant regime in 2003.
Given the high operational tempo of the U.S. military in wartime, it is easy to understand that the people and planes of the 127th have often been called upon to perform in hot spots around the globe. The missions of the 127th included everything from providing close air support to ground forces to delivering vital supplies on humanitarian relief flights.
Since the surprise attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, the Wing has been indispensably involved in the war on terrorism. The airlift element operated in remote areas of the globe and the fighter element operated from Kirkuk Air Base in Iraq. Until the autumn of 2008, a detachment of F-16s at Selfridge stood alert around the clock, prepared to scramble into the air on a moment’s notice to respond to any homeland security threat.
The other major flying unit on base was the Air Force Reserve’s 927th Air Refueling Wing, which operated the venerable Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker. A major component of the Wing, the 63rd Air Refueling Squadron, traced its lineage to World War II. When first arriving on base in the early 1960s, the 927th was a tactical airlift group. It eventually transitioned to the inflight refueling mission. Like its Air Guard counterpart on base, the 927th was performing at a hectic pace.
Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker
Wherever the Air Force deployed flying units, it was likely that they needed to be backed up by aerial refuelers. In the late 1990s, the 927th flew in support of NATO operations in the Balkans. More recently, the unit’s tankers supported Operations Noble Eagle (homeland defense), Enduring Freedom (the liberation of Afghanistan), and Iraqi Freedom (the liberation of Iraq).
In 2005, the decisions of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) brought a new round of changes to Selfridge. To foster greater efficiencies throughout the Department of Defense, the 127th Wing was directed to cease flying the C-130 transports and instead to begin operating the KC-135 tankers, including those of the 927th ARW. Some of the 927th ARW’s personnel transitioned to the 127th Wing, which helped to smooth the conversion.
The remaining airmen of the 927th ARW transferred to MacDill Air Force Base in Florida in 2008. On the fighter side of the house, the 127th Wing replaced its F-16s with A-10s, most of which have come from the Michigan Air National Guard facility in Battle Creek. The transition from the supersonic multi-role fighters to the ground attack aircraft continued into 2009. Pilots and crews are readying for their first operational deployments in the battle-proven A-10 Thunderbolt II, more commonly known by the nickname Warthog.
Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II
There are more than twenty tenant units on base, some with a flying component. The Michigan Army National Guard operates a detachment of hefty CH-47 Chinook helicopters, which have been used to carry troops and equipment in combat zones abroad. The Coast Guard’s air station at Selfridge operates several HH-65 Dolphin helicopters painted in high-visibility orange for search and rescue missions over the lakes. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection service has expanded its on-site presence in recent years and through its Air and Marine Wing operates a variety of fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft on patrols along the border with Canada.
Boeing CH-47 Chinook
Eurocopter HH-65 Dolphin
Currently, Selfridge Air National Guard Base has the distinction of being home to a team of dedicated personnel from all branches of the armed forces as well as agencies integral to homeland security. The men and women assigned to Selfridge represent a wealth of talent in a broad range of disciplines. They are known for applying their patriotism and skills to accomplish any mission and to uphold the proud traditions of this historic base.
The author acknowledges the assistance of the 127th Wing Public Affairs Office; retired Lieutenant Colonel Louis Nigro, MANG, the director of the Selfridge Military Air Museum; and the late Ed Stoll, former Curator of the Selfridge Military Air Museum. Also, the author acknowledges the material in prior base histories as well as the articles of Dave Jankowski and Vivian Baulch.
Philip Handleman is the author/editor of twenty-one aerospace related books, including Combat in the Sky: The Art of Air Warfare, the Air Combat Reader (with retired Colonel Walter J. Boyne, USAF), Beyond the Horizon: Combat Aircraft of the Next Century, Aviation: A History Through Art, Air Racing Over Reno: The World’s Fastest Motorsport, and the children’s book A Dream of Pilots. He has served on the board of the Michigan Air Guard Historical Association and he has been a private pilot for38 years.