Sunday, April 17, 2016

MacDill Air Force Base celebrates 75 years

Tampa Mayor Robert E.L. Chancey speaks at the dedication of MacDill Army Air Field on April 16, 1941, while Gen. Clarence Tinker stands by at right. Flight operations at MacDill, under Tinker’s command, officially began that year. 

MacDill Air Force Base, located at the southern end of Tampa’s Interbay Peninsula, has been a vital part of the city, and the United States military, since its inception 75 years ago.

Initially called Southeast Air Base, Tampa, the name soon changed to MacDill Army Air Field in honor of Col. Leslie MacDill, who died in a plane crash in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 9, 1938.

Construction on MacDill began on Sept. 6, 1939, and the first troops arrived six months later.

The base was formally dedicated on April 16, 1941.

Flight operations at MacDill, under the command of Gen. Clarence Tinker, began that year with the base’s first mission: transitional training in the B-17 Flying Fortress. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, MacDill Field became a major staging area for Army Air Corps flight crews and aircraft.

Tinker had taken over command of MacDill in April 1940 as head of the 29th Bomb Wing. He was promoted to brigadier general on Oct. 1, 1940. In addition to his command at MacDill, Tinker was also the commanding officer at nearby Drew Field.

Tinker was a member of the Osage Indian tribe and grew up on the tribal reservation in Oklahoma. He started his military career as a third lieutenant in the Philippine Constabulary in 1908. Four years later, he received a commission as a lieutenant in the U. S. Army Infantry. He joined the Air Service in 1920 and graduated from the Army’s Command and General Staff School in 1926. The following year, he became the commandant of the Air Corps Advanced Flying School.

By the time the United States entered World War II, Tinker was the highest-ranking American Indian in the history of the Army. And yet, he could not cash his own paycheck; his pay went through the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Tinker was assigned to Hawaii’s Hickam Field as the commander of the Seventh Air Force. He was promoted to major general on Jan. 14, 1942.

Tinker died at the controls of his LB-30 just six months later — during the Battle of Midway on June 7, 1942. He was the first American general to die in the war. On Oct. 14, 1942, the Oklahoma City Air Depot was renamed Tinker Field in his honor.

Pilots began training in B-26 Marauders at MacDill Field in 1942. It was the B-26 that earned the slogan “one a day in Tampa Bay,” because the aircraft proved difficult for trainees to fly and land. However, in the hands of experienced pilots, the B-26 was an excellent plane. In combat, the B-26 enjoyed the lowest loss rate of any Allied bomber.

Nine of the 12 combat groups that flew the B-26 in Europe were activated and trained at MacDill. Approximately 100,000 soldiers trained at MacDill during World War II.

After the Air Force became a separate military service in 1947, the base formally became MacDill Air Force Base in 1948. Personnel at MacDill took an active role during the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, and air training, from bombers to the sleek F-16 fighter jet, kept the skies around Tampa buzzing with activity.

MacDill continued to be a dominant presence in the post-war era, both for the military and in the community. Pilot and crew training transitioned to B-29s toward the end of the war and continued through 1953. The Strategic Air Command was also stationed at the newly renamed MacDill Air Force Base, with both fighter (P-51) and bomber training, including the new B-47 medium jet bomber.

Despite its importance, MacDill is not immune to change. The Air Force leadership introduced plans to close the base in 1960, but when the Cuban Missile Crisis focused attention on the strategic location of the South Tampa air base, it was spared.

More changes came in the 1960s, including the arrival of the U.S. Strike Command and the Tactical Air Command, as well as training for the F-84 and F-4 fighters and B-57 bombers.

Today, MacDill is known worldwide as the home of the military’s Special Operations Command. Begun in 1987, the command’s training and planning operations took on renewed importance at MacDill during Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm.

And yet, MacDill was again in danger of closing in the early 1990s. All flight operations were transferred out of MacDill, only to quickly return in 1994 with the arrival of the 6th Air Base Wing, and its position was strengthened in 1995 with redesignation as an Air Refueling Wing.

The current military operations in the Middle East are coordinated through U.S. Central Command, which has used MacDill as its headquarters since 1983.

Today, MacDill is home to the 6th Air Mobility Wing, which focuses on midair aircraft refueling, airlift and contingency response. In addition, MacDill is host to several military commands, including U.S. Central Command and U.S. Special Operations Command, and it houses military personnel from U.S. allies around the world. Both the Persian Gulf War and Operation Iraqi Freedom were, in essence, fought from MacDill Air Force Base.

Rodney Kite-Powell is the director of the Touchton Map Library and the Saunders Foundation Curator of History at the Tampa Bay History Center. He welcomes your questions and comments and can be reached at or (813) 228-0097.

Free Day at History Center

In honor of the 75th anniversary of the dedication of MacDill Army Air Field, the Tampa Bay History Center is offering free admission to the public from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. today. 

Learn about the history of MacDill with World War II-era re-enactors and check out the new MacDill exhibit in the War Stories gallery. 

The event is sponsored by the New York Yankees Tampa Foundation, and guests will get free Tampa Yankees giveaways and can meet Blue, the Tampa Yankees’ mascot.

For information, visit or call (813) 228-0097.

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