Homestead Air Reserve Base, Florida
In September of 1942, Lt. Col. William L. Plummer, with a handful of officers and enlisted men, made his way through the long pines and palmetto scrub of rural south Dade County to assume control of an isolated airstrip located about a mile inland from the shore of Biscayne Bay. The airstrip had been turned over to the government by Coconut Grove-based Pan American Ferries, Inc., which had carved it out of the rocky landscape in the 1940s. Shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Army Air Corps officials decided the site would better serve defense needs as a maintenance stopover point for aircraft being ferried to the Caribbean and North Africa. In September, officers with the Caribbean Wing of the Air Transport Command sent Colonel Plummer to the site to begin construction of a fully operational military base.
For its first six months of existence, Homestead Army Air Field served as a scheduled stop on a well traveled air route from northeast U.S. to the Caribbean and Africa. On January 30, 1943, the base assumed a more vital role with the activation of the 2d Operational Training Unit. The mission of the permanently assigned cadre of nine officers, 15 enlisted men, and 12 civilian flight instructors was to provide advanced training for aircrew members who would one day pilot C-54s, C-87s and C-46s along the 188,000 miles of ATC’s globe-girdling routes.
During this period of time the base was under two commands. The runway itself, Homestead Army Air Field, belonged to the Caribbean Wing of ATC, while the 2d OTU fell under the War Department’s Domestic Transportation Division.
As the need for trained transport pilots grew during 1943, officials in Washington decided to beef up the training program at Homestead. As a result, the entire base was transferred to ATC’s Ferrying Division, and by the end of the year, the 2d OTU’s sole mission was to prepare C-54 air crews to fly the famed “Hump” from Burma to China.
By 1945, Homestead AAF represented the largest four-engine transport training operation in the entire ATC – the 2d OTU had graduated 2,250 C-54 pilots, 14,505 copilots, 224 navigators, 85 radio operators and 1,375 flight engineers. But it all came to a rather abrupt end.
On September 15, 1945, three years to the day of the base’s founding, a massive hurricane barreled through, sending winds of up to 145 mph whistling through the cinderblock buildings. Enlisted housing facilities, the nurses' dormitory and the base exchange were all destroyed. The roof was ripped off what would later be Bldg. 741, the "Big Hangar". The base laundry and fire station were both declared total losses. The few remaining aircraft were tossed about like leaves.
Following an evaluation of the damage, the decision was made. On October 25, 1945, officials announced that Homestead AAF would shut down, with a target date for complete closure of December 1, 1945.
By the time a separate Air Force was created on September 18, 1947, the old Homestead Field lay in ruins. When the Soviets began the total land blockade of Berlin in June 1948, the Air Force responded with an unprecedented airlift effort known as Operation Vittles. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, for 16 months, Air Force “Skymasters”, many of them piloted by Homestead graduates, were winging into and out of Berlin, keeping one of the world’s great cities alive.
In the early 1950s, as the Korean conflict was winding down, defense officials once again looked toward Homestead with an eye at making the site a key player in our continental defense. In mid-1954, an advance party arrived at the old base to begin cleaning it up, and on February 8, 1955, the installation was reactivated as Homestead Air Force Base. The base quickly became home for the 823d Air Division, an umbrella organization encompassing the 379th and 19th Bomber Wings.
By the end of the decade, Homestead housed more than 6,000 permanently assigned members, twice the size of its busiest World War II days, and a fleet of B-47 "Stratojet” bombers. In June 1960, the last B-47 left Homestead to make way for the mighty B-52 “Stratofortress”.
The year 1962 brought two events that shaped Homestead AFB. The 31st Tactical Fighter Wing, a tactical air fighter unit with a proud history dating back to 1940, was moved from George AFB, California, to Homestead in response to the growing Communist threat from Cuba. And in October 1962, it was discovered that the Soviet Union was placing medium range missiles on the island, giving it an unprecedented offensive capability in the region.
Troops and aircraft were rushed to Homestead, swelling its population to tens of thousands. A tent city of more than 10,000 Army troops was erected on the grounds later occupied by the Naval Security Group Activity. The 31st TFW, in cooperation with two other tactical fighter wings assigned here for the duration of the crisis, had already identified targets on Cuba and were prepared to strike at a moment’s notice. The world was on the brink of war, with Homestead at the very edge.
After several weeks of tension, the Soviets backed down. The missiles were removed. The crisis was over, but many of the changes to Homestead spawned by the Soviet threat remained. Though still nominally a SAC Base, Homestead now maintained a dual mission: to stand ready to project air power around the globe, and to maintain an operationally ready tactical air force.
With the presence of the 31st TFW made permanent, the role of the Tactical Air Command at Homestead AFB increased rapidly throughout the 1960s. In late 1966, the 31st TFW was deployed to Tuy Hoa AB, Republic of Vietnam. But with its departure, the 4531st TFW was activated to maintain TAC’s presence at Homestead. Two years later, on July 1, 1968, TAC officially took control of the installation. In 1970, the 31st TFW returned from Southeast Asia and became the host unit.
In 1981, the 31st TFW and Homestead AFB again took on a new task: the training of F-4 aircrews. On March 31, 1981, the 31st TFW became the 31st Tactical Training Wing. Training was to remain the base’s primary mission until October 1985, when the first F-16 arrived. With the arrival of F-16s, the 31st TTW reverted to the designation of the 31st Tactical Fighter Wing.
The largest tenant unit on Homestead AFB was the 482d Tactical Fighter Wing (AFRES). The 482d TFW was the first Air Force Reserve unit to receive the F-4 Phantom fighter jet. In 1989, the 482d TFW converted to the F-16s.
In the early morning hours of August 24, 1992, Hurricane Andrew roared ashore at Homestead AFB. The base was ground zero for the powerful, category 4 storm, which virtually destroyed the base.
The base faced its next serious threat from the Base Realignment and Closure Committee, which sought to close the ravaged base. The civilian community allied its support of the base, and launched a fight for the base’s very survival and the return of the fighter operations to south Florida. The BRACC withdrew Homestead AFB from the closure list.
The Air Force Ball held on March, 5, 1994, was a bittersweet event. The event was a “Hail and Farewell” to “hail” the return of the 482d FW from its post-Andrew exile to MacDill AFB, FL, to its new role as the predominant unit at the “new” Homestead Air Reserve Base, and to bid “farewell” to the 31st TFW. The 31st TFW was deactivated at Homestead AFB and reactivated at Aviano AB, Italy.
Homestead AFB was redesignated as Homestead ARB on March 31, 1994.