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Abilene and Dyess

March 6, 2022Jay Moore

EDITORS NOTE: The Things That Really Matter

Living in a great place has its advantages.  It also has its challenges.

As residents, we sometimes find ourselves taking our own backyard for granted.  How many times have you thought of something and said to yourself, “I’m glad we have that?”  Let’s take Dyess Air Force Base, for instance.

I’d bet the majority of residents understand the tremendous impact our base has on our region.  Aside from the friendships and the leadership Dyess affords our community, there’s also an economic impact that can’t be overstated.  But what would happen if the more than $1 million each day that flows through Abilene weren’t here?  What if our community were absent more than 11,000 men and women in uniform and their families?  What would Abilene look like?

Over the next several weeks, we will share the story of Dyess Air Force Base and aside from it’s military significance, we’ll also talk about how it came to be, what lies ahead, the opportunities we foresee and the challenges that can impact us all.  It’s important to the Chamber and it’s 65 year-old Military Affairs Committee that we look beyond today at the long-range requirements of helping to keep our beloved base viable and our airmen and their families supported.  It all matters, and as exhibited by the generations of awards bestowed upon our city for it’s support of the base, we do it well.  But we can’t do it without those who understand and support the importance of maintaining Abilene’s place as America’s favorite and arguably most committed military community.

Doug Peters, President & CEO

Abilene and Dyess

Most afternoons at least one C-130 ‒ with “DYESS” spelled out across the tail ‒ angles across the sky just above my house heading east for practice touch-and-go landings at the Abilene airport, those four big turboprop engines cutting the air with a distinctive and familiar hum.  Also ‒ though seldom crossing directly over Abilene ‒ you can often hear – even feel – the sustained thunder from afterburners launching those sleek B-1B Lancers into the bright blue skies of Taylor County.  And, if I happen to see a B-1 on the news, and spot that big “DY” on the tail, well, I swell with a certain level of hometown pride: for the sights and sounds of Dyess Air Force Base are an Abilene accolade.

Few events, if any, in Abilene’s storied past have proven as significant as the one that occurred on a sweltering Thursday in the fall of 1953.  It was on September 24th that the groundbreaking for Abilene Air Base took place. (It would be three more years before it was renamed to honor Lt. Col. “Ed” Dyess.)  Military brass and local dignitaries assembled at 4 p.m. at what is now the north end of the 13,000-foot runway. Taking up shovels, the group physically turned the dirt on the site of the former Abilene Army Air Field, while symbolically turning a momentous page on Abilene’s future. Within minutes, equipment of Texas Bitulithic Company went to work with two bulldozers, two scrapers and a grader kicking up dust, turning mesquite scrubland into a runway and taxiways.

On hand that day was retired Col. Harry Weddington, former commander of the Abilene Army Air Field (originally named Tye Army Air Base) a facility where many WWII pilots received their final training for combat service in P-47 fighters.  Weddington happily reminded everyone within earshot with, “I told you so!”  The retired commander predicted in 1946 that a new base would one day rise on the site west of Abilene and he gave three reasons for his prophecy. First, he noted that the climatic conditions in this part of Texas are perfect for flying. Secondly, the central geographic location was strategically ideal.  Finally, and most importantly, he said it would be the friendly attitude of Abilene people that would win over the military.  Weddington’s optimistic assessment energized the Abilene Chamber of Commerce into motion after the war.

The Chamber created a National Defense Committee in 1951, with the goal of reactivating the old Army airfield and – fingers crossed – turning it into a permanent military installation.  The committee quickly set a course for achieving that civic ambition. Chaired by oil distributor W.P. Wright and with newsman Howard McMahon serving as vice-chair, the group focused their sights on the Pentagon. Other committee members working to bring the dream to reality were hardware store owner Gilbert Pechacek, attorney Maurice Brooks, retailers George Minter Jr. and E.L. Thornton, oilmen J.C. Hunter and French Robertson, and businessman Jack Simmons. (Descendants of nearly all these men still call Abilene home.) Their first trip to D.C. was in the summer of 1951.

By the following year the tireless committee work reached a milestone moment when, on July 14, 1952, President Truman signed into law the military construction authorization bill sent to his desk by the 82nd Congress. The bill included an initial $23 million for a two-wing base west of Abilene.  We now needed to complete our part of the deal by scraping together $850,000 to purchase adjoining property for the base.  That fundraising effort was led by McMurry President Dr. Harold Cooke along with WTU executive Price Campbell, banker Malcolm Meek and lifelong Abilenian Elbert Hall. The group quickly gathered pledges totaling $858,011.

Following WWII, the former Abilene Army Air Field had been given to the City by the War Department.  Now, Abilene was giving it back to Uncle Sam, along with an additional 1,500 acres, all for the price of one dollar.  Hands down, it was the best deal we ever made.

Today, the original 5,000-acre base covers 6,100 acres and the estimated monthly payroll of $1.5 million in 1953 has skyrocketed, with millions injected into the Abilene economy. The economic impact was immediate and enduring. Days after the base groundbreaking, local homebuilders took out a record number of building permits.  J.B. Fooshee got the go-ahead for eighteen homes in Elmwood West while Gerald Lawler set out to build twelve houses along South 20th.  And, Abilene needed to find room for an anticipated 3,500 additional students.  In 1951 we had two high schools (AHS and Woodson), two junior high schools, and ten elementary campuses.  By 1961, Cooper had opened, there were five junior highs and the elementary schools more than doubled to twenty-one in order to accommodate the mushrooming population. Abilene was a city of 45,000 in 1950, and by 1960, had astonishingly doubled to 90,000.

Dyess AFB helped make Abilene. The base is intrinsic to our collective hometown and ‒ just as steady as the hum of a C-130 passing overhead ‒ we work to ensure it always will be. The very creation of Dyess AFB stemmed from the dauntless campaign of earlier Abilenians and the resources of the Abilene Chamber of Commerce who turned a surplus WWII airfield into a national military asset and a sprawling economic juggernaut for the region.

However, far, far exceeding the military and financial benefits, the greatest gain for Abilene has been, and always will be, the prosperity of human relationships: a rich and continual blessing that cannot be quantified.  Abilene has been improved and enriched by an untold number of Dyess men and women who have passed our way, and by many who settled here permanently making Abilene an exponentially better place to live.

You could never name them all, but a handful include former Dyess physicians Herman Schaffer and George Dawson; Dr. Schaffer treated thousands of local children while Dr. George Dawson cared – and continues to care ‒ for multiple generations of Abilenians.  Dyess commanders have often stayed put, leaving their imprint as well. Major General Mike McMahan came to head the Abilene Chamber of Commerce and Dyess Wing Commander Bill Ehrie directed the Abilene Industrial Foundation.  Brigadier General Pintard Dyer retired to manage Abilene Aero, just as Col. Brian Yates did several years later, and former 7th Wing Commander Colonel Michael Bob Starr continues to make a local impact.  Another former Dyess pilot ‒ and the longtime grants administrator for the Dodge Jones Foundation ‒ Larry Gill, along with his civic-minded wife Mary, were named Citizens of the Year in 2020.  You cannot get more engrained into the fabric of Abilene than that.

Over the years an inestimable number of others retired from Dyess to become Abilenians-for-life: Tom Mann is integral to the Council of Governments, Jim Pizzorno donates his time to the library and local arts.  Others have opened their own businesses, coaching Little League while selling appliances at Sears, hardware at Home Depot or managing bank and newspaper departments.  Hundreds, past and present, volunteer in their churches and for local non-profits while also working civilian base jobs or selling insurance, cars, even piloting local business aircraft.  Hundreds of Abilene teens are better off having learned under Dyess retirees Al Dunlap and Steve Shinkle, longtime heads of the AHS and CHS ROTC programs.

To think of Abilene without Dyess is an exercise in futility.  Just as those big C-130s fly an angled path over Abilene, so the men and women of Dyess have made a line straight into the heart of this community.  When the dirt was turned at the north end of the future Dyess runway nearly seven decades ago, Abilene became Dyess.  And Dyess became Abilene.

Jay Moore

 

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