Harlingen History

Harlingen Main GateHarlingen Army Airfield opened in July 1941 and was used by the United States Army Air Forces (AAF) as a training base during World War II. It was initially assigned to the AAF Gulf Coast Training Center as a flexible gunnery school. Training was conducted in both air-to-air & air-to-surface gunnery. The air-to-air training used a variety of aircraft, including AT-6 Texans, BT-13 Valiants, P-63 Kingcobras, B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberators. For ground-based training, a number of facilities were available, including the moving target ranges and a number of gunnery simulators.

On 8 January 1943, the War Department constituted and activated the 79th Flying Training Wing (FTW) at Harlingen and assigned it to the AAF Eastern Central Training Command. In 1944, Harlingen began training B-29 Superfortress gunners. They received practically the same training as those for other aircraft, but at the end of the year a few of them began to receive training in B-24s modified by the addition of central fire control turrets to make them more like B-29s. Among the training devices used in this instruction was the manipulation trainer—12 towers arranged to resemble a formation of planes. The towers ranged in height from 10 to 40 feet, each equipped with 2 nose, 2 tail, 2 ring sighting, and 4 blister positions. As students in these positions faced simulated attacks from PT-13 and PT-17 aircraft, they “fired” camera guns at the attacking fighters.

The 79th FTW conducted flexible gunnery training until 1 October 1945. Redesigned as a basic training center 1 November 1945 and conducted basic training until inactivated 1 February 1946 and turned over to the city of Harlingen later that year. During the next five years, many lots and buildings were sold to individuals and to business organizations. By 1951, some two hundred civilian families were living on the base; six manufacturing concerns, Trans Texas Airways, and Air News Incorporated were operating from Harlingen. Also, several crop dusting operators were using the airstrip. The re-reacquisition of the property for Air Force use was complicated by those factors. But the need for navigators was vital in 1952 and most of the property was gained through mutual agreement on a fair purchase price.

Harlingen Air Force Base was activation on April 1, 1952 by the U. S. Air Force under General Order Number 12 who the base was named Harlingen Air Force Base and placed it under the operational control of the Air Training Command (ATC). Harlingen AFB’s focus was Undergraduate Navigator Training (UNT), primarily with Convair T-29 aircraft, until being closed in 1962. Undergraduate Navigator Training at Harlingen AFB ended on 6 June 1962 with the graduation of Class 62-22N. Thereafter, all new navigators were to be trained at Mather AFB, California and James Connally AFB, Texas.

Harlingen, as an Undergraduate Navigator Training Wing, had as the  primary mission basic observer training. There were two phases: Phase I for Aviation Cadets, and Phase II for Student Officers. The major unit on the base was the 3610th Observer Wing, commanded by Colonel James F. Olive Jr.  A total of 13,355 graduated from Navigator Training at Harlingen.

Thanks to Bill Day (Harlingen 61-09) for the above history of Harlingen.

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