Courtesy photo: Scot Stinett This towering building at the former Fort Sumner Army Air Field is a focus on the property’s past and what graduate student John W. McCullough thinks could be the key to a whole new future for the community.
By John W. McCullough
Along with the many extraterrestrial mysteries and legends of New Mexico is the towering white building rising above concrete at Fort Sumner municipal airport.
With NASA painted on its sides and a crown of antennae and communication dishes, this mysterious building is closed to all but a select few.
More mysterious but open to all who wish to help research it is Fort Sumner Army Air Field (FSAAF), which was located at Fort Sumner municipal airport.
Was FSAAF only a glider school? How many men (and women) trained there during WWII? What type of training occurred? How many civilians did the Field employ? What about the POW camp located on the Field? What was the financial impact of the Field upon the village of Fort Sumner and De Baca County? How many veterans are still alive to tell the tale?
As a volunteer research assistant at Silent Wings Museum in Lubbock, I discovered all these many mysteries but only a few teasing answers.
I visited Fort Sumner from Dec. 31, 2009, through Jan. 3, 2010, to research FSAAF. I had read a brief amount about FSAAF at Silent Wings Museum’s library. Before traveling to Fort Sumner, I contacted Steve Gamble, president of Eastern New Mexico University in Portales. I asked Dr. Gamble about any persons in Fort Sumner who could be of help in research on FSAAF. He directed me to Scot Stinnett of the De Baca County News.
Stinnett provided me with information as well as the names and Emails of other persons in Fort Sumner who could help with his research. Former Fort Sumner native Dale Burge, now of Alamogordo, e-mailed me digital copies of the FSAAF yearbook when the field was a twin-engine training field.
I found much information on FSAAF in the now defunct Fort Sumner Leader newspaper. Richard Terrell of the Fort Sumner water department also took me on a tour of the municipal airport.
Denise Cones gave me a very large color map of FSAAF from WWII. Then, on New Year’s Day 2010 I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing Bob Parsons in Roswell.
Parsons talked about the early days of aviation in Fort Sumner prior to the arrival of the US Army Air Force (USAAF) in 1942 as well as his memories of the glider school. Finally on Jan. 2, I went to the Fort Sumner municipal library and reviewed a very large stack of paper and photos donated by Mary Ann West in 1994.
After all this preliminary research and after talking with West on the phone, it was clear to me that a very large amount of data existed on FSAAF but no real, cohesive analysis and history of FSAAF.
Two things were certain to me after his visit: One, the former field and its hangar and two warehouses were in very good condition; and two, there are plenty of highly-motivated people in Fort Sumner and the surrounding area who want to have these many mysteries solved.
In an email to the people of Fort Sumner sent after my visit, I outlined my plan for continuing research on the air field and my challenge to Fort Sumner residents to rebuild the wood hangar and turn it into a first-class WWII museum.
In addition to the indoor museum exhibits, photos, uniforms, and archival material, I also want to see an outdoor walking trail for visitors from one side of FSAAF to another with plaques and markers which will give information about each area of the field. I borrowed this idea from the layout of many of the landing zones and battlefields of Normandy, France. I have researched the D-Day campaign considerably on my five trips to Normandy.
The French D-Day museums place numerous plaques, markers, signs, and photo displays at the many landing zones, drop zones, and battlefields which give the visitors considerable information about the action at that site.
No doubt a very large source of economic impact for Fort Sumner during WWII (at least into the hundreds of thousands of dollars annually) FSAAF could once again be a large source of economic revenue for Fort Sumner — this time as an FSAAF Museum. Such a museum would tell the story of the early days of aviation in New Mexico, the creation of the municipal airport, the conversion of the CCC camp into FSAAF glider school, and the conversion of the glider school into a twin-engine training field.
The scope of the museum would cover the economic impact of FSAAF on the village of Fort Sumner, the civilian contractors and workers who benefited from and worked for FSAAF, the many aspects of training and the POW camp. An FSAAF Museum would also tell the post-WWII story of the dismantling and disbursement of the many barracks and buildings and of NASA’s eventual interest in the former air field grounds for scientific research and balloon launches.
I have challenged Fort Sumner to open just such a museum by September, 2012.
I will be working through email and phone calls with several persons in Fort Sumner regarding this research and I plan to return to Fort Sumner in July for more direct research and possibly a presentation to the Fort Sumner Lions Club and chamber of commerce.
I want to remind everyone of the WWII National Glider Pilot’s reunion in October in Oklahoma City, Okla.
I hope to help Fort Sumner organizes an FSAAF WWII veteran’s reunion to coincide with the opening of FSAAF Museum.
If you have any information which can help me and the village of Fort Sumner in our research, please contact me at the email address or phone number below.
John W. McCullough is a graduate student of history at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. He can be contacted at email@example.com or 806-793-4448.