In the midst of war, some towns stay far removed from the action. For Waco in 1917, this was far from the case. Engineers and workers broke ground for Camp MacArthur training base in July, famously taking up over 10,700 acres of the small Texas city. But its smaller counterpart, Rich Field Army Air Base, had just as much to offer. After studying meteorological reports, topography, and location, the War Department and the Military Committee of the Waco Chamber of Commerce approved the 690-acre plot in August 1917.
Rich Field was born from an explosion in aeronautics. After a poor performance of US planes in Mexico, President Woodrow Wilson realized that American aircraft were disturbingly inferior to their European counterparts. American planes were slower, had no mounted weaponry, and lacked performance characteristics. Therefore, when the United States entered World War I in April 1917, Wilson approved $640 million to expand the air division of the army (the air force as a separate military unit did not yet exist). The money would fund the building of 6,000 pursuit planes, 3,000 observation aircraft, and 2,000 bombers. With such an increase in air power, pilots were now in high demand.
Sitting upon the land that is now Extraco Events Center, Waco High School, and Lions Park, the US military named this new sixteen hanger base after Second Lieutenant C. Perry Rich, who died when his plane crashed into Manila Bay in the Philippines in 1912. The first man to arrive was medical officer Major Emory C. Gaffney, followed by First Lieutenant Frederick T. Ealand and Captain J. S. Foster, who were sent to get everything in shape. Within two months, First Lieutenant Lotha A. Smith piloted the first flight out of Rich Field in a J-1 Standard plane with a 100 horsepower A7A Hall-Scott motor. By late November, twenty-five aircraft arrived to the $2 million base, and on a chilly Thanksgiving Day twenty-five eager cadets began their training in Standard J-1s, later to be replaced by Curtiss JN-4s.
While today seeing an airplane may be nothing spectacular, residents of Waco felt quite differently in the 1910s. The Wright Brothers flew for the first time in 1903, and a mere fourteen years later Waco residents marveled at the planes now flying regularly above their homes. They clamored to see the planes practice maneuvers out at the base. On top of free air shows, Camp MacArthur and the air base also bolstered the Waco economy by bringing in 35,000 soldiers and their families, ready to spend their monthly wages at the stores downtown. Waco residents fully supported the construction and operation of both the camp and air base, as it spurred tremendous growth and put Waco on the map.
Rich Field quickly developed a culture of its own. With its own publication, the Rich Field Flyer, enlisted men could keep up with the events of the war, the camp, other aviation training centers, and much more. The publication was intended first and foremost to be a morale booster, its pages filled with humor, cartoons, poems, and “kadetograms” from the men at the base. Kadetograms could be as simple as a shout-out to a friend or poking fun at an officer because they were all anonymous and simply grouped by squadron. The Flyer also had a sports section to keep everyone up to date on the rivalries between the base football teams, especially keeping tabs on Rich Field’s rival, Love Field Air Base in Dallas, Texas. The local YMCA used the Flyer to advertise its programs for the soldiers and encourage activities and attendance.
The three main units assigned to Rich Field were the 39, 150, and 249 Aero Squadrons. Other squadrons were equipped and trained at Rich Field to then be moved to other bases. Others also went straight from Rich Field to the American Expeditionary Forces in Europe and received further training from the Royal Air Force of Britain. In all, four hundred pilots were trained at Rich Field, and only eight training fatalities occurred. Most of the young men who made it through training saw combat in France.
After the war, the airfield stayed in business until the 1940s, much longer than its counterpart Camp MacArthur, which closed in 1919. Yet at the end of World War I, those at Rich Field knew the base would never quite be the same, and to them its future remained uncertain. In the final edition of the Rich Field Flyer, the men paid tribute to Waco:
"No history of Rich Field would be complete without a mention and sincere appreciation of the debt it owes to the citizens of Waco. A hospitable people always, they have left no thing undone to make the lives of the personnel of this post pleasant… We have railed at Waco, but then too ‘I have eaten your bread and your salt, I have drunken your water and wine, the deaths we have died I have watched beside, and the lives that ye led were mine.’ We have laughed together. There has been marriage and giving in marriage. We have carried our dead through your streets. And when this field echoes no more to the cry of ‘Contact!’ and the thunder of half a hundred motors, when we who played here our little parts in the Great Drama are scattered over the seven seas, be sure that each of us carries the most pleasant memories of this post and wherever two or three foregather the name of Waco will be mentioned with affection."
Later Waco Municipal Airport, the former Rich Field offered flying lessons and even ten minute flights to downtown and back for one dollar. One airline even operated limited commercial passenger service to Waco until the beginning of the Second World War. After World War II, the air base closed for good, as it was not large enough to accommodate the newest commercial planes now in use. The Heart of Texas Coliseum (Extraco Events Center) claimed some of the available land in 1951, and the city constructed Rich Field High School on the grounds in 1960, later to be renamed Waco High.
Rich Field blessed and invigorated the small town of Waco at a time when America needed it most. Though it was war that brought the men to Waco, the resulting growth and prominence changed the face of Central Texas forever.