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Remembering DeRidder Army Air Base (February 2014)

Remembering DeRidder Army Air Base
By Rickey Robertson

In west central Louisiana there is a remnant of the days of the Louisiana Maneuvers and World War II that is very often overlooked. Nestled and preserved in the town of DeRidder, Louisiana is the location of the old DeRidder Army Air Base, with its original hanger, runways, streets, and remains of some of the World War II buildings still intact and in use ! Yes, the old base is now the Beauregard Regional Airport and is continuously in use even to this day. Let's look back and see the origins of this famous piece of World War history right in our back yards.

The air base was actually not a product of World War II itself, but of the Great Depression. With the depression raging across America, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his administration came up with many ideas to bring about jobs and created different agencies to institute the programs that were enacted. One of these much needed work projects began in DeRidder in 1933 under direction of the Army Emergency Relief Authority. The site of the project was 160 acres of land on the western side of town. The site was leased for 5 years and what was of greatest importance was that it provided jobs for 400 men. But the work was hard and tough for the men since they were clearing off this area filled with pine stumps and brushy undergrowth. But the area was cleared and ready for use as needed.

In 1939 Germany began to run rampant over all of Europe. General George C. Marshall saw that the United States would be involved in this war that loomed closer on the horizon each day. In 1940 the U.S. Army began filling its ranks out with draftees and recruits and General Headquarters began planning maneuvers to train this new army of men. In 1940 Louisiana was chosen as the site of the army maneuvers. In 1940 the first small maneuvers began and it brought out how unprepared the army was in manpower, weapons, and equipment. Here in Louisiana many army camps sprang up overnight to support these maneuvers. But forgotten is the fact that the U.S. Army Air Forces were also involved in these maneuvers. Beginning in the 1940 maneuvers the site at DeRidder was used as a landing field for various types of aircraft that was used in the support of the ground and armored forces. Some of the very first planes were the small "grasshopper" observation aircraft manufactured by Aeronca and Piper Aircraft . These planes could land and take off on a short and rough runway and proved to be extremely useful in the future of U.S. Army aviation. Little did the army know but these small planes would forever change the thinking of General Headquarters as to their usefulness as liaison , artillery spotter , fire direction, and observation aircraft in the coming months and especially during the Great Louisiana Maneuvers of 1941.

In February 1941 a National Defense Project conducted by the U.S. Army Air Force built several airfields throughout Louisiana in which there would be training of combat pilots and aircrews, and in anti-submarine patrols over the Gulf of Mexico due to the menace of German U boats. At DeRidder the USAAF on July 1, 1941 leased from the Beauregard Parish Police Jury the site of the original small airstrip that had been built in 1933 and began to build an airbase. On December 25, 1941 the DeRidder Army Air Base was started when the 3rd Quartermaster Company arrived and began operations at the site. The 22nd Observation Squadron soon arrived and began operations at the field.

As the base grew it totaled up to 4300 acres. The base would soon house from 3,000 to 5,000 men throughout its tenure. Soon A-20, B-17, B-25, B-26, P-40, P-51, L-4, and L-5 aircraft would be operating out of this growing air base. Since it was a training base, it was placed under the 3rd Army Air Forces . By 1944 Colonel George MacIntyre was the commander of the base.

But to provide training areas for these pilots and crews, bombing and gunnery ranges were needed. A large bombing range of 20,000 acres was laid out near Merryville, La. These ranges were known as "Tokyo Range" where medium altitude bombing was conducted, "Burma Range" was the strafing, machine gun, and skip bombing area, and the "Berlin Range" was used to conduct high altitude bombing missions. Many bomber crews and fighter and observation pilots were trained at this base until training ceased in February 1945. After the victory had been won over the Axis Powers, DeRidder Army Air Base was declared "war surplus" on October 2, 1946. On December 23, 1948 the former base was deeded to the Beauregard Parish Police Jury.

Today you can still immediately see that this was a former military base. The original hanger, where mechanics and technicians worked on all the many types of aircraft, aircraft components, machine guns, and all other aspects of these planes still is standing and is in use to this day. You enter a special place when you walk into the old hanger. You immediately go back to the World War II days and can almost picture the mechanics and flight personnel checking their aircraft. Also on the base are many of its original streets and even the remains of the original concrete vault used by the Base Finance Office is still standing. The only thing missing is the control tower but when you walk out on the flight line you can almost just hear B-17's, P-40's, and other aircraft taking off and landing.

Today this old army air base is known as the Beauregard Regional Airport (KDRI) and is used in this role. The runways are even today being overlaid to keep everything up to FAA standards with all types of modern equipment those flying into the airport.

And of importance, there is a special group of people based at KDRI…The Friends of DeRidder Air Base (DAAB), a 501c3 non- profit organization. Formed in 2009, their mission is to bring about public awareness and provide support in preservation of the rich history of the base. Annually, they have hosted Living History Events, Fly-ins and other events. They also sponsor youth aviation programs via the Aviation Explorer Post (AEP) 3093. They are currently assisting AEP 3093 in the building of a Zenith SH750 airplane.

This year's Living History Event will bring back memories close to home for many. On May 2nd 3rd, 2014 the Friends of DAAB will sponsor a Living History Re-Enactment of the Louisiana Maneuvers of 1941 ! Yes, the Great Louisiana Maneuvers will be re-enacted as best as possible with cavalry, infantry, and other units comprised of re-enactors from across the nation. And yes, even something very special. There will be a "Grasshopper Fly-In" of Piper Cub aircraft such as was used during the maneuvers and possibly even some other World War II era aircraft. People will get to see the Red and Blue Armies battle each other and the aircraft on display and in the air.

This is a great opportunity for you to bring your children, grandchildren, family and friends to see actual re-enactments of the maneuvers and the aircraft that were used during that historical time. And just stop and think, if you actually lived through the Louisiana Maneuvers of 1941 you can re-live your childhood. Come and have a very enjoyable day and see history in action!

You can check updates on this upcoming event online at www.deridderarmyairbase.com or "like" them at www.facebook.com/FriendsOfDAAB, or contact Sharon Hyde-Beltz at 337-238-1024. Hope to see you there!