(Guest article from Chris Wadsworth, co-author of “Buckingham Army Air Field” by Arcadia Publishing.)
In a matter of days, young men — fresh from high school hallways and fields on family farms — found themselves being shipped to a hot, desolate corner of Florida. There, they learned the art and skill of aerial gunnery — shooting from a moving bomber at enemy aircraft swooping and diving around them. It was a jarring experience — many flamed out before finishing — but it was critical to America’s success in World War II.Welcome to Buckingham Army Air Field circa 1942-45, near Fort Myers, Fla.
The enormous base and its Flexible Gunnery School is the subject of our new book, titled simply “Buckingham Army Air Field.” Published by Arcadia Publishing out of South Carolina, it’s a pictorial history featuring nearly 200 photos, most of them from the base during the war years.
For those of you familiar with Arcadia Publishing, the company has made a name for themselves by putting out “niche” or “local” history books. With more than 6,000 titles released, they have offered books on nearly every nook and cranny of the United States.
As a longtime TV and newspaper reporter in the Fort Myers area, I got the chance to explore much of the Southwest Florida region. I occasionally stumbled across great old photos of the communities I covered. This is what got me originally thinking about someday doing an Arcadia book. That someday came in 2008 when I signed a contract to put together and write a pictorial history of Bonita Springs, Fla. This soon led to a second book — a history of Cape Coral, Fla.
While working on this second project, I had the occasion to do some research at the Southwest Florida Museum of History. Sitting in its archive room, I noticed some boxes with the name Buckingham Army Air Field typed on the side. I had long heard of Buckingham AAF in the area, but never really knew much about its mission or the men who trained there. A quick look inside the box changed all that. I found hundreds upon hundreds of compelling World War II era photos and I was hooked.
Teaming up with Matt Johnson, a professional historian and the general manager of the museum, we spent the next few months culling down the photos, selecting the most interesting images and the ones that help tell Buckingham’s story best. We interviewed veterans who had worked or trained at the base, pored over archival newspaper clippings and military documents, toured the old base property and spoke to people who work at the site today.
Many fascinating topics made their way into the book.
Buckingham was home to an early version of “virtual reality” as student gunners practiced shooting “light guns” at images of planes projected on a giant screen. It was called the Waller Gunnery Trainer and we spoke to film historians in California who had done a documentary on the company behind the trainer.
There are tales of the WASPs — women pilots — who earned the respect of their male counterparts as they flew planes on critical training missions over Southwest Florida. The WASPs were often at the controls of the planes towing the aerial targets at which the gunnery students aimed. Big, long, billowing sheets of cloth fluttering behind the tow planes out over the Gulf of Mexico. Each gunnery student would have ammo tipped with different colors of paint. When the rounds struck the target, they would leave a bit of color and the students could track the number of hits they earned.
Poignantly, the last chapter of the book looks at the pieces of Buckingham AAF that are still with us. We explored the property that used to be the base and found many such remnants. There are foundations of former base buildings, overgrown with trees and brush. There are two small bridges sitting forlornly on the side of a country road that once lead to an officer’s club. Many of the roads in a nearby neighborhood were once traveled by military Jeeps.
And the heart of the old Buckingham AAF — the airport where the planes took off and landed — is still there. Today, the Lee County Mosquito Control District uses the old base apron as its runway and planes and choppers still buzz in the sky overhead.
As a journalist and history buff, I was long drawn to Arcadia’s books and their treasure trove of photos from times gone by. Admittedly, most Arcadia books are not heavy-duty scholarly tomes. Rather they are light, easy-to-read explorations of the past. But they are accessible and fun to read — drawing in people who may otherwise never pick up a history book. The fact that they cover histories of small towns and communities that the “big name” publishing houses ignore is another plus in my book. I also like that they get photos out of old boxes and file cabinets and dusty albums and into a format where they are preserved for everyone to enjoy and experience.
Working on this project was incredibly rewarding. Long interested in World War II history, I was mostly aware of the overseas events in the European and Pacific theaters. Discovering the history of my own community — how the land and the people here played a pivotal role in America’s war effort — was eye-opening. And meeting veterans, reading their memoirs and speaking with their families was an honor.
While the oldest generations in Southwest Florida may remember Buckingham, I fear the younger generations have never learned this vital history. I would bet if you asked 100 people in the Fort Myers area what Buckingham Army Air Field was, the vast majority would have no idea, with only a few even venturing that it was once a military base in the area.
I hope that this books begins to change that. I hope that the sometimes dramatic, sometimes whimsical photos attract readers and convince them to learn more about Buckingham. I hope the writing is clear and straightforward and gives a general overview of the base and its history. And I hope — in some small way — that the book honors the men and women who served at Buckingham AAF and elsewhere during World War II.
Chris Wadsworth is the co-author of “Buckingham Army Air Field.” The book is available at many online retailers, such as Amazon.com and Borders.com. It’s also available at bookstores in the greater Fort Myers, Fla. area. The book also has its own Facebook page where we are sharing interesting facts and photos from Buckingham AAF and elsewhere. Check it out at www.facebook.com/BuckinghamAAF.