Harlingen in the ‘40s: Harlingen WW2 Air Force Base: Part 2

By Norman Rozeff and John Bourg


‘Snuffy’ Smith’s citation reads, “For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action above and beyond the call of duty. The aircraft of which Sgt. Smith was a gunner was subjected to intense enemy antiaircraft fire and determined fighter plane attacks while returning from a mission over enemy-occupied continental Europe on 1 May 1943.

The airplane was hit several times by antiaircraft fire and cannon shells. Two of the crew were seriously wounded, the aircraft’s oxygen system shot out, and several vital control cables were severed when intense fires were ignited simultaneously in the radio compartment and waist sections.

The situation became so acute three of the crew bailed out into the sea. Sgt. Smith on his first combat mission elected to fight the fire by himself. He administered first aid to the wounded tail gunner, manned waist guns, and fought the intense flames. The escaping oxygen fanned the fire to such intense heat the ammunition in the radio compartment began to explode; the radio, gun mount, and camera were melted; and the compartment completely gutted. Sgt. Smith threw the exploding ammunition overboard, fought the fire until all the firefighting aids were exhausted, manned the workable guns until the enemy fighters were driven away, administered first aid to a wounded comrade, and wrapped himself in protecting cloth to extinguish the fire by hand.

The plane managed to limp back to the nearest landing strip in England, but split in two after setting down. Smith had fought the flames with extinguishers, drinking water, and finally urine in collection containers.

This soldier’s gallantry in action, undaunted bravery, and loyalty to his aircraft and fellow crewmembers, without regard for his own personal safety, is an inspiration to the U.S.

Armed Forces. Smith’s heroic efforts had saved the crew as well as himself.” (Editor: Talk about unimaginable bravery!)


Gunnery school graduate Tech Sgt. Forrest Vosler also received a Congressional Medal of Honor. His citiation reads, “For conspicuous gallantry in action against the enemy above and beyond the call of duty while serving in a mission over Bremen, Germany, 20 December 1943.

After bombing the target, his aircraft was severely damaged by antiaircraft fire, forced out of formation, and subjected to repeated vicious attacks by enemy fighters.

A 20-mm cannon shell wounded Sgt. Vosler in the legs and thighs, while a direct hit seriously wounded the tail gunner and knocked out the tail guns. Realizing the plane’s extreme vulnerability without tail guns, Sgt. Vosler kept up a steady stream of deadly fire.

Another 20-mm enemy shell exploded, wounding Sgt.

Vosler in the chest and face.

Pieces of metal lodged in both eyes, impairing his vision to such an extent that he could only distinguish blurred shapes. Displaying remarkable tenacity and courage, he kept firing his guns and declined to take first-aid treatment.

When the pilot announced he would have to ditch the plane, lapsing into unconsciousness and nearly blinded, Sgt. Vosler finally got the damaged radio set operating enough to send out a distress signal.

When the aircraft ditched in the water, Sergeant Vosler managed to get out on the wing and hold the wounded tail gunner from slipping off until other crew members could help them into a dinghy. Sergeant Vosler’s actions on this occasion were an inspiration to all serving with him. His extraordinary courage, coolness, and skill in the face of great odds, handicapped by injuries that would have incapacitated the average crew member, were outstanding.” (Editor: Another example of unimaginable courage under fire!) yesterday.”


The Harlingen Chamber of Commerce’s 1943 brochure “Birth Place of Uncle Sam’s Aerial Gunners” included a question & answer section.

Q: What is the Harlingen Army Gunnery School (“HAGS”)?

A: It is one of the three Aerial Gunnery Schools for training men who protect bombers with fire-power in the air.

Q: What is location of HAGS?

A: It is in deep South Texas, 3-1/2 miles northeast of Harlingen on Rio Hondo Road.

Q: Is there an auxiliary portion?

A: Yes. A huge ground range is 22 miles east of the school across from Padre Island, where students spend a week learning to fire various machine guns.

Q: Why was Harlingen selected?

A: The year round weather conditions permit more

than 300 days of flying each year.

One film company selected it after visiting nearly every other air field in the south, and another lost only one day filming “Aerial Gunner”.

Q: Has the Air Base contributed to Harlingen’s national fame?

A: Very definitely. Many daily newspapers and a few national magazines have featured pictures and stories of Harlingen air base.

Q: Have Harlingen civilians supported this school?

A: Yes. The Chamber of Commerce Military Affairs Committee has sponsored entertainment organized by representatives from our service organizations and churches.

The first B-29 gunnery class started in late May 1945, and 55 graduated five weeks later.

A second class of 175 graduated in early July, while the first full size class of 500 started in late June.

The war ended when Japan signed an unconditional surrender on the U.S. Missouri in Tokyo Bay September 2, 1945.

Reassignment of the HAAF command began immediately. Commanding officer Col. Roy T. Wright received his overseas orders two weeks later, and Col. Hughes succeeded him.

Col. John R. Morgan, commanding officer of the 79th Flying Training Wing, headquartered at HAAF, was ordered to assume command of Keesler Field, Mississippi on October 5th.

HAAF was the fourth and last RGV military facility deactivated. The others were Moore Field, the Brownsville Army Air Base, and the Laguna Madre HAAF SubBase.

HAAF still had 5,000 men split almost evenly between trainees and permanent personnel.


Once HAAF was officially declared surplus property on February 5, 1946, the barracks and other buildings on the base were sold or donated.

A number of barracks were used for Colonial Acres Elementary. The Harlingen School District bought HAAF buildings for other elementary schools and the high school.

Quite a few barracks were rented or sold as small houses and small businesses.

The A& I Citrus Center moved barracks to its Weslaco campus, and the Hansen family made a one-story barracks its Weslaco home.

The Grace Lutheran Church of Harlingen moved two barracks to Jackson and 10th Street for a sanctuary and parish hall.

The Molder family made a two-story barracks the popular Green Gables Restaurant and Lounge. TheValley Baptist Academy relocated several barracks to its East Harrison Street campus.

John and Betty Rugaart purchased half of a two story barracks for their Valley Rehabilitation and Treatment Center at 2415 East Harrison, to treat polio victims. In late 1966 the Rugaarts purchased an adjacent one story building, and moved all the buildings to Combes in the late 1990s.


Harlingen Army Air Force base in World War 2, coupled with the reopened base in the 1950s, was arguably the crown jewel of Harlingen’s 110 year history.

Harlingen residents were proud to assist the WW2 effort with ‘their’ air base, and were sad to see it close. They got to know the officers and students by hosting them for meals and visiting with them in churches and stores. Locals worked at the base; some local women dated the students or staff officers; and a few married one of them. It was a great union between the air base and the city!

Here’s a toast to the memory of the Harlingen Army Air Force base and to the brave gunnery graduates who joined the fight in Europe and the Pacific — especially the thousands who never came home!

HAAF carried out its mission proudly in the spirit of the Army Air Force motto at the time: “Aim High”