Greenville Army Air Base was the third major military installation in Greenville, South Carolina and was operational from 1942-1950, when it became Donaldson Air Force Base. During the Spanish-American War, Greenville was home to Camp Wetherill, and World War I brought Camp Sevier to the Greenville suburbs in what is today Taylors.[1] One soldier stationed at Camp Sevier said, “Greenville has always been a good soldiers’ town, and the soldiers in turn have always left a good taste in the collective mouths of Greenvillians.”[2]

In September 1941, Greenville created a Defense Project Committee to encourage the establishment of an Army camp in Greenville.[3] The Army initially suggested an army camp for 65,000 troops but later cancelled that proposal because of the lack of suitable land in Greenville County. Rural Pickens County was considered an alternate location, but its residents opposed being plagued by artillery fire and perhaps permanent shell damage.[4]

The larger base idea proving impossible, the Army proposed a smaller military installation, an air base.[5] Greenville Mayor Fred C.  McCullough, the “untiring champion” of the air base, and key Defense Project Committee members such as A. G. Furman, scouted land with the necessary prerequisites.[6]  One site at Augusta Road was initially rejected because it was less than five miles from CAA Airways and might have caused chaos for air traffic controllers. Another site off Buncombe Road, twelve miles northwest proved less suitable. After further consideration, Greenville decided that despite its proximity to CAA Airways, the Augusta Road location was the best option.

After Wuest’s arrival, McCullough showed the military board the Augusta Road site, 1,800 acres of land approximately eight miles from the Greenville city limits.[7] Wuest was enthusiastic, his board analyzed the details of construction, and engineers at J. E. Sirrine & Company drew up profiles for the runways. During Wuest’s visit, it was agreed that the cost would be split fifty-fifty between Greenville and the United States government for an estimated total of $250,000 - $260,000.

On 30 September 1941, a special City Council meeting authorized by unanimous decision the acquisition and leasing of the site to the US government “within thirty days after the government had accepted the site.”  Progress on the lease signing was halted when a local dairy business owner sued the city because he claimed his creek near the site had been polluted by “incompetent treatment of sewage.” Greenville did not sign the lease until 11 October 1943, after the issue had been resolved and Congress had intervened.[8]

Soon after the joint meeting of 30 September, Greenville took options on the 1,800-acre site. The land was rented to the government for a dollar per year, the lease renewable for twenty-five years. It was the understanding of the Greenville council that it would lend the land to the government and would inherit any improvements when the government gave it back.[9] Greenville residents seemed eager to have the base, especially since it was rumored the base was a special type used in choice locations.[10]

Negotiations continued after September, and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor insured the creation of the base. On 10 December 1941, South Carolina Senator Maybank sent a telegram to McCullough reading, “DELIGHTED TO REPORT ARMY AIR BASE HAS BEEN CHOSEN GREENVILLE.”[11] Two days later, McCullough thanked the Army and expressed the appreciation of Greenvillians that their city had been chosen.[12] In the meantime, the US government utilized a “Right of Entree,” which gave it the legal right to access the property while Greenville attempted to resolve the lawsuit with the dairy owner.[13]

               On 26 December 1941, another Army board inspected the Greenville property and reviewed the work of Wuest’s board. The second board declared the property unsuitable for the kind of base the Army had in mind, a dispersed airfield with runways, facilities, vehicles and aircraft widely spaced to minimize damage in the event of an air raid.[14]

 An additional 1,000 acres was requested by the Army and once again, McCullough rose to the challenge of finding more land. The Augusta site boundaries were amended during the visit of a third Army board in January 1942. McCullough worked on the property issues that were the result of the new boundaries.[15]

After the alterations to the boundaries, five months of negotiations ended when the War Department decided that the site was completely satisfactory.[16] Construction began immediately.[17] Charles Ezra Daniel and the Daniel Construction Company received the contract for most of the construction.[18]

There was apparently some discussion about the name of the base. A Mr. Marshall Moore requested the base be named “McSwain Field” after the late South Carolina congressman John J. McSwain, but Captain Charles J. Himes of the AAFNB decided the base would be called “Greenville Army Air Base” (GAAB.)[19]

The new base was placed under the command of the Third Air Force, which chose Colonel Robert R. Selway as first commander on 30 April 1942. Born 31 December 1902 in Sheridan, Wyoming, Selway was a West Point graduate who had volunteered for the Air Corps while a second lieutenant and had served in the United States and the Philippines as a senior pilot and combat observer.[20]



[1] The 30th, 81st and 20th Infantry Divisions were stationed at Severe throughout the war.  A.V. Huff, Greenville: The History of the City and County in the South Carolina Piedmont (Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1995), 256, 284-285.

[2] Interview from 17 March 1944 with G. Heywerd Mahon Jr. Corporal George K. Gelbach, assistant to the Historical officer. Edited by Captain Robert L. Burger, Historical officer, Greenville Army Air Base 1942-1945. “History of Greenville Army Air Base.” South Carolina Room, Hughes Library, Greenville, SC, 3 vols. (HGAAB) 1, 1.

[3] The committee first met 7 September 1941.

[4] Interview 17 March 1944 with Mr. Glenn, President of Greenville Chamber of Commerce. HGAAB 1, 2.

[5] The Army believed the base would require a budget of over a million dollars per year to accommodate 400 officers and 4,000 enlisted men.

[6] A certain Colonel Wuest asked Greenville County to find a suitable site and be prepared to discuss the details of the location before he arrived with a military advisory board to assess it.  McCullough wrote a brochure titled “Requirements For The Establishment of an Air Base.” Ibid., 1, 5. Exhibit #2.

[7] This site had been considered by city advisor Ike Jones one year earlier for an auxiliary airport.

[8] See records of City Council in mayor’s file. Ibid., 1, 7.

[9] This was one of few wartime leases that were extended over six months after the war. Ibid., 1, 10.

[10] There is no recorded opposition to it after 30 September 1941. According to Gelbach, Greenvillians’ eagerness was also due to the belief that the Army Air Corps was the finest branch of the Armed Services at the time. Ibid., 1, 10

[11] Telegram, 10 December 1941, Maybank to McCullough.

[12] Letter, 12 December 1941, McCullough to Lt. Col. Frank Kimble; the public knew nothing officially until 11 December 1941 when the Greenville News published the announcement.  HGAAB 1, 11. 

[13] For copy of lease, see Exhibit 4. See letter in Post Engineer files 601.5, Greenville Army Air Base from T. J. Wesley, Major, Corps of Engineers, to the Chief of Greenville Army Air Base, 21 January 1944. About that time the Greenville News published an article detailing the base negotiations and stated that construction was imminent. Huff, 378.

[14] HGAAB 1, 12.

[15] The base property went from 1,800 acres to 2,000 acres. Huff, 378-379.

[16]  Lieutenant Colonel Cox of the Army Division Real Estate Office, Atlanta, Georgia sent a telegram to McCullough on 23 January 1942. The Greenville News, 24 January 1942, see “exhibit 6.” HGAAB 1, 12-13.

[17] It was estimated to take four to six months.

[18] The Daniel Construction Company, Anderson, South Carolina, moved its headquarters to downtown Greenville Because of the base construction, Daniel’s company became a main player in the development of post-World War II Greenville. It is also noted that Greenville companies’ involvement in the base construction led to a “war-time Greenville” atmosphere. Huff, 379-380. Per request of Bob Jones Sr., Daniel’s company also built many campus buildings for Bob Jones University, which had recently moved to Greenville. Interview with Dr. John Matzko, Chairman of BJU Social Science Dept. 5 April 2011.

[19] Moore had mailed the Army Air Forces Naming Board (AAFNB) a letter on 17 February 1942. The suggestion was originally made by senator Maybank and congressman Bryson in the state house.  McSwain had served in World War I. It appears that Maybank and Bryson believed McSwain highly deserved having the base named for him and that such an honor would help preserve the history of Greenville John J. McSwain was captain of Company A, One Hundred and Fifty-fourth Infantry, honorably discharged 6 March 1919. He is buried in Springwood Cemetery. The AAFNB had either already determined the name GAAB or thought it would better serve the purpose of preserving Greenville’s history; Himes gave no further explanation. The Greenville News, 21 March 1942.

[20] He had attended Kentucky Military Institute while only thirteen. He was relieved of command from his position as Executive Officer of Savannah Air Base on 18 May 1942 and ordered to Greenville.  Special Order 152, paragraph 7, Headquarters, Third Army Air Force, 1942. While at West Point, he received instruction from future Pacific commander General Douglas MacArthur. HGAAB 1, 25. 

 

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