U.S. Army Garrison, Hunter Army Airfield History
Nearly 70 years ago, a progressive group of citizens in Savannah, sensing that aviation would develop into a major mode of transportation, persuaded city officials to establish a municipal airport to the southwest of the city. Scarcely could these individuals envision that the tiny underdeveloped grass landing strip would one day develop into a major training center of the U.S. Army.
In 1929 the general aviation committee of the Savannah City Council recommended that the 730-acre Belmont Tract, belonging to J.C. Lewis, be accepted by the Council as the future site of the Savannah Municipal Airport. The coast of the land was $35,000. By September 1929, the runway and several buildings were ready and the city officially opened the new facility.
The airport became part of Eastern Air Transport Incorporated intrastate route on December 2, 1931, when Miss Ida Hoynes, daughter of the Mayor and Mrs. Thomas M. Hoynes, broke a bottle of Savannah River water on a propeller blade of an 18-passenger Curtiss Condor during the christening ceremony.
The airport was named Hunter Municipal Airfield in May 1940 during Savannah Aviation Week in honor of Lt. Col. Frank O’Driscoll Hunter, a Savannahian and World War I flying ace. Lt. Col Hunter, who would later climb to the rank of Major General, was not scheduled to appear in Savannah that week. However, he paid a surprise visit to the field on the first day of Aviation Week while enroute to France to serve as a United States Military Air Attaché.
Washington gave the Army Air Corps approval to build a base at Hunter on August 30, 1940. The Third and 27th Bombardment Groups and the 35th Air Base Group with 2,700 soldiers from Barksdale Field, Louisiana, were the first tenants. Official dedication of the base, renamed Savannah Air Base, took place February 19, 1941.
The base was an operational training unit for several years. B-10s, B-18s and B-23s gave way to A-20s, P-38s and P-40s as the air arm of the nation matured. It later became a final staging base for B-17 crews on their way to the European Theater of Operations. The Army’s Eighth Air Force was activated at Savannah Air Base during that period.
Return to Peace
At the end of the war, the field was used as a separation center until its return to the City of Savannah in June 1946. Hunter returned to its peacetime role as a civilian airport. Many of its buildings were leased to industrial plants. Some of them became apartment houses. An orphanage was located in the commanding officer’s quarters and the University of Georgia established an extension campus on part of the old base.
In 1949, the recently re-activated Second Bomb Wing was moved from Tucson, Arizona, to Savannah’s Chatham Air Force Base. The limited facilities at the base, located eight miles northwest of Savannah, made the site unfit for permanent use. Rather than see the Air Force move elsewhere, Savannah offered to exchange airfields with the Federal Government. The City and County governments purchased 3,500 acres of additional land around Hunter for future base expansions. Following a token payment of $1.00 to make the transaction legal, Hunter was back in uniform in September 1950 as an Air Force installation.
The Department of Defense announced in 1964 that the base, along with 94 other military installations, would be closed. The base was given a period of three years to phase out.
The Cold War Heats Up
In December 1966, at the height of the Vietnam conflict, the Department of the Army announced that the Secretary of Defense had approved an increase in the number of Army helicopter pilots to be trained. Because of this increase, coupled with the fact that the United States Army Aviation School at Fort Rucker, Alabama was operating at capacity, Hunter Air Force Base was turned over to the Army and operated in conjunction with Fort Stewart, located 40 miles southwest of Hunter.
Brigadier General Frank Meszar, commanding general of Fort Stewart, formally accepted the base from Col. James A. Evans, Jr. commanding officer at Hunter, in a formal change of command and service ceremony on April 1, 1967.
The headquarters of the U.S. Army Aviation School Element, which was established at Fort Stewart during the summer of 1966 to train fixed-wing pilots, was moved to Hunter. The mission of the element was to coordinate the training of fixed wing and rotary wing aviators as an extension of the Army’s training program at Fort Rucker and Fort Wolters, Texas.
On July 28, 1967, the combined facilities of Fort Stewart and Hunter Army Airfield were re-designated the United States Army Flight Training Center.
Advanced helicopter training for Republic of Vietnam Air Force students began March 13, 1970, with the arrival of the first class of students.
Concurrent with the increase in the Vietnamese student input flight training for U.S. Army officers and warrant officers was gradually phased out. The final class was on June 16, 1970.
A New Mission
In 1973, Hunter Army Airfield went into caretaker status. It was reopened in 1975 as a support facility for the re-activated 24th Infantry Division (Mechanized), at Fort Stewart. The 24th Infantry Division (Mechanized), or Victory Division, became part of the nation’s Rapid Deployment Force on October 1, 1980.
The Victory Division’s ability to deploy on short notice was enhanced by Hunter’s 11,340-foot runway (the Army’s longest runway east of the Mississippi River and capable of accommodating the Air Force’s C-5 Galaxy transport aircraft), Savannah’s deep-water port facility and excellent rail and road networks.
The 24th Infantry Division’s rapid deployment capability was put to the supreme test in 1990 after Iraq invaded Kuwait. Alerted on August 7, the first soldiers of the division deployed from Hunter Army Airfield in just six days. Six and one-half months later, on February 24, 1991, the Division attacked 370 kilometers deep into the enemy’s flank and rear. Moving farther and faster than any other mechanized force in military history, the 24th severed Iraqi lines of communication with Baghdad and systematically destroyed six Iraqi divisions while taking more than 5,000 prisoners.
Hunter Army Airfield Today
Currently, Hunter Army Airfield has approximately 5,000 soldiers on station. It is home for units of the 3d Infantry Division (Mechanized) headquartered at Fort Stewart. There are also a number of non-divisional units assigned to Hunter as well.
The major divisional units stationed at Hunter include the 3d Aviation Brigade, and 603d Aviation Support Battalion. Non-divisional units which make up the major tenant units include: the 260th Quartermaster Battalion; the 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment; 3d Battalion, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne); and the 224th Military Intelligence Battalion (Aerial Exploitation).
The Coast Guard Air Station Savannah is also located on Hunter Army Airfield. It is the largest helicopter unit in the Coast Guard and provides Savannah and Coastal Georgia with round-the-clock search and rescue coverage of the area.