Fond memories of Bainbridge

Published 2:16 pm Friday, April 3, 2009

The front page story in the Saturday, March 14, Journal by Donita Naylor (Now appearing in Bainbridge, Ga.: Rhode Island) brought back many fond memories for me.

This small southern city, tucked in the southwest corner of the state, was the site of 30 of my 39 months of World War II service—and where I met my wife, as well.

In August of 1942, the U.S. Army Engineers began to construct an air base for the Army Air Corps four miles north of the city. It was to be known as Bainbridge Army Air Field and was in the final phases of construction when I arrived Sept. 27, 1942. Officially, it became the 1035th Army Air Force Basic Flying Training Base where pilot cadets went through nine weeks of intense Ground School and flight instruction before moving on to the Advanced training. Not all successfully completed the severe regimen or met the high standards. I was just one of a detachment of enlisted Instrument Flight Instructors who taught the cadets basic instrument flight techniques to be used in bad weather or night flight.

Once I was instructing an Army major who had transferred to the Air Corps. He was having a difficult time with the magnetic compass and the directional gyro, both of which rotate opposite to the turn being made. He consistently started turning in the wrong direction. Exasperated after several of my corrections, he called back to me on the radio: “Feel free to shout at me when I screw up again. It just might do some good.”

He finally got it.

The base closed initially in 1945 after attaining a peak personnel compliment of 9,600 officers, enlisted men, women and cadets as well as employing 700 civilians. Several hundred German POW’s were also detained there and used as a work force on and off the base.

The base had been a boon for the local economy and its closing had an impact on the city—it could not support the number of workers the base had attracted.

Several unsuccessful local attempts were made to reactivate the abandoned buildings and runway. In 1951, with the developing Korean War, Southern Airways contracted with the U.S. Air Force to train cadets at Bainbridge Air Base once again, this time with T-33 jets instead of the BT-13 and BT-15 propeller craft of the original operation.

Once again Decatur County flourished under this government contract. In 1961, the contract ended and the base closed once more, the federal government turning the 2,053 acres over to Decatur County for private development.

There has been a gradual industrialization of the base over the years since and it is now a thriving site under the name Decatur County Industrial Air Park. Today a marker stands at the entrance road to the park heralding the history of the site.

Even though time has moved the city and county out of a strictly agricultural influence, the center of Bainbridge retains its Southern charm. Commercial buildings surround a memorial park with a guardian—a Confederate soldier statue rising out a goldfish-rich pool—offering shade trees, flowers and benches for relaxation.

The city is the seat of Decatur County government, and has grown in population to just under 12,000 with many a charming older dwellings still standing. It offers to visitor and vacationer alike great freshwater fishing and water sports at nearby Lake Seminole, with ample accommodations.

Having met and married a girl from one of the city’s oldest families who worked at the base—Rachael E. Smith, youngest child of Robert F. and Mary (Knight) Smith’s 13 children—I soon became very comfortable fishing with my brothers-in-law, enjoying Southern cuisine and living off base as duty would allow.

My father-in-law was a Southern gentleman of some 60-plus years and hard of hearing. One Sunday at the in-laws’ home, as the women prepared the noon meal, my wife asked where I was. Her sister promptly responded: “Oh, he and Poppa are on the porch hollering at each other.”

My oldest daughter was born in 1944 in the local Riverside Hospital, which has since been replaced by a larger more modern facility.

My “Georgia peach” returned to R.I. with me at the end of the war and gave me two more daughters. Sadly, she was only able to see and hold one grandchild before succumbing to cancer in 1968. Although all of my generation of in-laws has expired, I still have nieces and nephews in the area who communicate.

Ah yes, Bainbridge holds many fond memories.

Kenneth I. Hincks, Cranston, R.I.

Editor’s Note: Mr. Cranston’s letter was first published in The Providence Journal, and is reprinted here with permission.