Since the first biplane flew over the skies of Laurens County just about a century ago, our young men, and a few young women, have dreamed of flying up and into the skies above us. Many of these young men went on to serve in the Air Force during the wars of the 20th Century. On this Veteran’s Day, let us salute the Fly Boys, the warriors in the skies.
The first glimpses of the flying machines came during fair and festival times when barnstorming pilots thrilled thousands of curious onlookers.
The first Laurens County pilot was Corporal Walter Warren. Warren, a member o the American Expeditionary Force, was the first American airmen to be wounded in World War I in early December 1917.
After World War I, flying became a national obsession. It was in 1919, when Dublin, then one of the largest cities in the state, became the destination of pilots around Georgia. Recruiters out of Souther Field in Americus flew in and out of Dublin in hopes of getting some local boys in the seat of plane.
But it was in the 1930s, when interest in flying exploded. The Dublin City Council established the first airport on the Phelps Place on Claxton Dairy Road in 1929. Mayor T.E. Hightower urged that “Dublin be put on the air map of the United States Aeronautical Association as soon as possible.” “All the world has taken wings and Dublin must take to the air, too, or be left behind,” Hightower added. Another landing strip was on the west side of town on the E.T. Barnes place on the Macon Road. This primitive landing strip, probably located near the Dublin Mall
The kids of Dublin formed a Junior Birdmen Club in February 1935. Emory Beckham was elected the wing commander, while Jack Baggett was chosen as the club captain. Billy Keith served as the secretary-treasurer. Other members of the club were Earle Beckham, Luther Word, Owen Word and Jimmie Sanders. The club, organized to promote an interest in aviation, was the only club between Macon and Savannah.
The enthusiasm of the Junior Birdmen inspired city officials to begin construction of a municipal airport two miles south of town on the Dublin-Eastman Highway south of the present site of Mullis’ Junkyard. With the support of Monson Barron, the city’s oldest aviation afficionado, Clafton Barron, and Ellison Pritchett, who had worked for Boeing, Lockheed, and Douglas, a four plane hangar was constructed on the site. Local officials continued to push the Barnes site on Highway 80 West, as well as the Cullens site in East Dublin on Highway 80 East. Neither of the three sites ever attained the status of a first class airport.
By far, the greatest interest in flying came when the United States entered World War II. Robert Werden, Jr. loved to fly and was so anxious to fly planes in World War II that he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force. When the United States declared war, he joined the Army Air Force, only to be shot down and killed in the early years of the war.
Lt. Lucian Bob Shuler, a former Cadwell High School basketball coach, was an ace, having shot down seven Japanese planes in combat. Captain Shuler (LEFT) was awarded eleven Distinguished Flying Crosses and twelve Air Medals. Cpt. William A. Kelley, a former Dublin High School coach, was flying the “Dauntless Dotty” when it crashed into the sea on June 6, 1945. The B-29 Superfortress was the first B-29 to bomb Tokyo. Kelley and his crew, who flew in a bomber named “The Lucky Irish,” were the first crew in the Pacific to complete 30 missions.
Lt. Colonel J.R. Laney, former residents of Dublin and graduates of West Point, was cited for their actions in India and Europe. Laney was a member of the three-man crew of the Douglas XB-42 Mixmaster, the world’s fastest transcontinental plane, when it crashed into a Washington, D.C. suburb in December 1945. Lt. Col. Laney survived the crash to complete a distinguished thirty-year career in the Army.
Marion Rodgers, (LEFT) who spent his early years in Dublin, was a squadron commander of the Tuskegee Airman in the years after World War II. Major Herndon Cummings was a Tuskegee bomber pilot in the 477th Bomber Group. Cummings was incarcerated along with a hundred other fellow pilots for attempting to integrate an all-white officers club at Freeman Field in Indiana in 1945 in one of the country’s first major civil rights incidents. John Whitehead, who grew up in Dublin like Rodgers, was the Air Force’s first African American test pilot, was also a Tuskegee Airman.
Major Herndon Cummings
Col. John Whitehead
Captain Alvin A. Warren, Jr., of Cadwell, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for flying 70 missions in the Indo-China Theater night and day through impassable mountain ranges and high clouds. Walter D. Warren, Jr. was a member of the famed Flying Tigers in China-Burma-India Theater. Flight officer Emil E. Tindol also received the same award, just days before he was killed in action while “flying the hump” - a term used for flying over the gigantic mountain ranges of India and Burma.
For his battle wounds and other feats of courage and bravery, Lt. Clifford Jernigan was awarded the Purple Heart, an Air Medal and three Oak Leaf clusters in 1944. Lt. Garrett Jones was a highly decorated pilot who participated in the first daylight bombings of Germany. Lt. Col. Ezekiel W. Napier of Laurens County, a graduate of West Point, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and retired from the Air Force in 1959 as a Brigadier General. The "Pilot's Pilot," Bud Barron of Dublin, was credited with the second most number of air miles during the war, mainly by ferrying aircraft to and from the front lines. Barron has been inducted into the Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame.
Near the end of the war, the U.S. Navy established an airport northwest of Dublin to support the Naval Hospital in Dublin. That airport became the Laurens County Airport after the war. Passenger and air freight service began in and out of Dublin in 1945 with flights on Southern Air Express Airlines.
J.P. McCullough was an aviation instructor in the Air Force. Among his more famous pupils were two of the country’s better known aviators, United States Senators John Glenn and John McCain.
Major James F. Wilkes, (left) a Forward Air Controller flying a modified civilian Cessna airplane, was awarded a Silver Star for directing fighter aircraft in between friendly and enemy positions and saving the lives of many American soldiers. Major Wilkes also won two Distinguished Flying Crosses and fifteen Air Medals. Lt. Col. Holman Edmond, Jr. in his two tours of duty in Vietnam was awarded 2 Bronze Stars and 17 Air Medals.
Today, flying remains a popular pastime in Laurens County. And, still there are young men who fly missions for our country on a regular basis to preserve the freedoms e still enjoy at home and around the world.
Lt. George Spicer
Lt. Roy Malone