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Answers to Go with Susan Smith

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Q. I believe that Gary Job Corps center used to be a military facility. What did the military do there? When did it open?

A . Our San Marcos/Hays County file on Gary Air Force Base is full of photographs and articles about Gary: its opening, changes in mission, its transfer to the Army, and ultimately the closing which was a major cause of concern to the local business community. If you’d like to see these original documents and photos, please ask at the library’s information desk. We can help you photocopy or scan and email any items found in the files.

For an organized overview of Gary Air Force Base, we’ll turn to the authoritative, six-volume “The New Handbook of Texas.” This set can be found at the reference desk or online at the Texas State Historical Association’s website.

The article begins: “Plans to open a military installation in San Marcos began in 1942. The site chosen for San Marcos Army Air Field was six miles east of town on State Highway 21 in Caldwell County. The city of San Marcos raised $100,000 to purchase 500 acres of land, and the federal government arranged for the purchase of another 1,500 acres. Construction began in late summer 1942, and the field was completed on Dec. 15 of that year.

“The mission of the new installation was navigator training. The first class of trainees arrived on Feb. 13, 1943. With classes arriving about every three weeks, by September 1945, when the navigator mission ended, roughly 10,000 navigators had been trained.

“Deactivation of the field was imminent after the navigator-training mission ended. However, due in large part to the efforts of Representative Lyndon B. Johnson and Senator Thomas T. Connally, the field was kept open.

“In May 1946, the field began training helicopter pilots. The 3586th Liaison-Helicopter Pilot Training Squadron was transferred from Wichita Falls to San Marcos Army Air Field. In 1947, the name of the field was changed from San Marcos Army Air Field to San Marcos Air Force Base. The 3586th moved to Waco in 1949, and the base was declared inactive in October 1949.

“It was reactivated in January 1951, and the 3585th Pilot Training Squadron arrived on Feb. 1, 1951. With 21 squadrons assigned to the base and over 4,800 personnel, San Marcos Air Force Base was the largest training operation for air force helicopter pilots in the United States.

“Pilot training was provided for both Army and Air Force helicopter pilots and maintenance training for Army and Air Force enlisted mechanics. A number of cadets from the Royal Norwegian Air Force trained at the field in 1952.

“The early 1950s, when the monthly operations budget was over $2 million, was the most active time for the base. On May 16, 1953, the base was renamed Gary Air Force Base in honor of 2nd Lt. Arthur Edward Gary, the first San Marcos resident killed in World War II. Gary was killed when Japanese bombers attacked Clark Field in the Philippines on Dec. 7, 1941.

“Gary AFB was transferred to the Army in 1956 and became Camp Gary. At the time of its closure in December 1963, the base consisted of 2,282 acres, 750 buildings, 1.7 million square feet of floor space, barracks space for 1,100 men, family housing for 108 families, five runways, and seven taxiways. The site is now used by the San Marcos Airport and by the Gary Job Corps Center.”

We noticed that this fine overview did not specify the mission of the last occupants, the 1,100 soldiers. Let’s return to our Gary local history file.

There I found details about the U.S. Army and Camp Gary in “21 Years at Camp Gary: A Story of Many Ups and Downs.” This article appeared in the San Marcos Record on Dec. 19, 1963.

The article covers the whole military history of Gary, but here is the section that leads up to the Army’s use of Gary: “Under the supervision of the Air Force, the base took care of the Army fixed wing pilot training and three Air Force programs — helicopter school, the military assistance program and rotary wing mechanics school.

“In 1956, this time without a closedown, the base entered its last active phase as it was transferred to the Army to be operated as a fixed-wing primary pilot training base under civilian contract.

“William Graham got the contract for training, and with about 800 employees taught several thousand Army men the fine art of small plane flying. It was under this last phase that the base took on the name of Camp Gary.”

Long-time residents (1946-1963) probably have memories of blue skies full of helicopters. Then after 1956, there would have been small fixed-wing planes. Of course, now we occasionally hear the rumble of the low-flying planes of the Central Texas Wing of the Commemorative Air Force.

San Marcos Record

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P.O. Box 1109, San Marcos, TX 78666