Buckingham Airfield Ft. Myers, FL.
days in WWII training
Reprinted from the Lehigh Acres Citizen
There's a whole history of Buckingham Field locked up somewhere in the archives, Lehigh Acres resident Fred Schlosstein told members of Lee County Joint Veterans at their meeting at the American Legion Post here the other day.
"It's a story of the lost city of Buckingham Air Field," Schlosstein said.
The former resident of Massachusetts and one time state senator there who has retired to live in Lehigh Acres, said there are so many "untold stories," about Buckingham and hoped one day they would be told.
"But right now, not much information is available about Buckingham Air Field. Maybe it can be gotten by someone through the Freedom of Information Act" he said.
Schlosstein, who today lives at 1411 Irondale St., knew Buckingham Air Field well. He was stationed here for several weeks to learn to become a gunner in World War II. Thousands of young men like him went through the five weeks of training them before they were shipped off to other bases and then overseas to fight in the second World War in the air.
The Buckingham Air Field or as it was actually known on military paper in Washington was the The Army Air Force's Southeast Training:Center, the Flexible Gunnery School at Fort Myers. It was located on Buckingham Road just outside what is now Lehigh Acres, heading north. The only use of the field today is for chasing mosquitoes and hoping to eradicate them during the rainy season. Part of the old landing strip is used for planes taking up chemical sprays to.help keep the mosquito population under control. The rest of the base has been sold as land to the Flint family.
But back in the 1940s when Schlosstein was stationed here at-the base for a time, it was a thriving facility with its own hospital, its own theater and PXs for airmen and soldiers to buy whatever items they wanted.
"Buckingham was a city," Schlossteinn said. "It was larger like Lehigh, but there was no Lehigh Acres then ... just nothing but swamp land. I would think about who would ever want to live here."
But Schlosstein liked his stay at Buckingham and never forgot the weather down here.When he went back to Massachusetts he told his father about the area and he moved down and so did Schlosstein a few years ago.
Fort Myers was just a small town," Schlosstein said. "But the boys did like to go over there and have fun ... they called us the boys from Buckingham... a lot of the guys who came through this gunnery training camp came back here to live many years later ... many retired here," he said.
Schlosstein said he remembers reading a story in the Fort Myers paper about a typical training day at Buckingham. The article said the training was from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day. "Well they sure didn't know what was going on out here," he laughed."There was training during the night and all hours. There was little information given out about Buckingham. It was all secret and nobody seemed to know much about h except it was a gunnery school," he said.
Schlosstein said young men were killed at the base during training and he couldn't guess how many...that is the type of information nobody knows about today," he said.
The old yellowing paper in Fort Myers in its Dec. 11, 1942 edition noted that "today training planes are flying from fields which dot the southeast and new gunners are being turned out by the hundreds each week at ... Buckingham."
"Back 60 years, the U.S. was ill-prepared for a war in Europe, much less than in the Pacific," Schlosstein said.
He said in 1942 on some 7,000 acres of land, the base was built. It was begun in March of 1942 at a cost of $10 million.
"We had our own self-contained city, our own fire department, MP's and a police force, our health centers and a hospital, larger than Lee Memorial was then in Fort Myers," Schlosstein said.
The hospital had 287 beds, he said. The area in Buckingham and around where Lehigh is today was swampland.
"It had to be drained with ditches. They drained the 7,000 acres, built ditches all around the whole place which ran nine miles into the Orange River.
Schlosstein said he couldn't begin to guess "how much lead there must be in the ground at Buckingham where the training was held," "But none of that was told then because of censorship. None knew about the deaths there of the boys who came to be trained ... nothing was ever given out about the place," he said.
"How many AT6 aircraft crashed all over the place, nobody knows, too," Schlosstein said.
Many of the pilots who helped train the gunners came from nearby Page Field, which was just outside Fort Myers at that time. Today, there are shopping centers and sprawl all around a part of what was Page Field.
Over the years, Schlosstein says more than 60,000 men "experienced Buckingham" and many of them came back to visit and some stayed.
The training program at the big flexible gunnery school (as it was called) consisted of five weeks of intensive training, according to a story in the Fort Myers paper.
"The rigorous program of instruction has been worked out so that each student will receive the greatest possible amount instruction during his five-week stay on the field.
"Five training squadrons or classes are on the field at all times and one is graduated each week. Every squadron is divided into four flights headed by commissioned officers and they in turn are subdivided in 10 sections which are under commissioned officers." Lt. Col. Richard B. Waugh, who was director of training, told the paper the program was not divided into clear cut stages but generally speaking, each of the five weeks represent a different phase of the student training schedule,
The gunnery student began his first week with a thorough course in weapons, taking an intensive study of the 30 and 50 caliber machine guns. He had to learn to tear them down and reassemble them again. Subsequent weeks were devoted to the study of sights, their construction and operation. Gunners had to learn about "harmonization and relative speeds." That is the study of the operation of the sight in order to adjust for gravitation and speed of the aircraft from which the firing was being done.
A part of the second week was also used in the study of aircraft identification and recognition. Students learned the principles of estimating the distance of a plane so that he would not begin firing too soon or too late. Students then learned to shoot from moving trucks at a moving target. Later they learned how to operate the turret from which the soldier would someday fire the bullets that were to shatter the enemy.
Then came the actual aerial training in machine gunning. Turret drill and maintenance followed and soldier took up practice firing on the "jeep" ranges where, targets were mounted on automatically propelled jeeps which ran on large circular tracks. They also learned blinker code, a system of signalling from one plane to another.
On the final and fifth week came the stage that really tested the mettle of the student. At this point, the student was taken up into the sky for air firing.
According to a story in the paper in 1942, the student went into the air and fired at a flag or sleeve target towed behind another plane. The sleeve was mounted on a 60 foot tow line and the bullet holes were counted when the sleeve was returned to the base to determine the gunner's:actual score."
Then on Sunday night of the fifth week, graduating gunners met with incoming gunners at the Post Recreation Hall during ceremonies that earned the students a sergeant's rating and the coveted silver wings of the Army Air Force.
It was quit a recognition since privates who came into the military could soon afterwards apply for gunnery school and jump to sergeant's rank
If there was one main job at the "flexible gunnery school at Fort Myers," it was to turn out young gunners who could shoot straight with-machine guns.
I enjoyed it all. I learned a lot here and I was eventually shipped to Utah and assigned to a bomber group" Schlosstein said.
"There's a story about Buckingham that has not been told ... I hope someone will look into the activities here and get all the true stories, the number of lives that were lost, how much lead was expended in the ground, etc, Schlosstein said.
Today Buckingham Air Field is gone, no more than a memory to those who trained here. Houses with garage/hangars with owners who have planes in them are located in one of the areas. The mosquito control airstrip is being used. And Schlosstein said there is still evidence of some of the buildings, the foundations, etc., that once were there.
"It was quite a little city of its own. It played a big part in preparing men to fight in World War II. I won't ever forget it," Schlosstein said.
"Somebody needs to write a book about it," he said.
We all owe thanks to that great generation who dedicated their lives to our freedom! Next time you autocross at Buckingham, take a minute and thank them.-John Taylor