A Promise Unfulfilled

“What if’s” are the things that dreams are made of.  Whether mere conjecture or near reality, pondering what might have happened “if” has long been the preoccupation of historians and sociologists alike.  Laurens County is not immune from such speculation.  In the 1830s, county leaders blocked an effort to run the Central of Georgia Railway through the heart of the county, the effect of which would have been a long lasting economic boom to a decaying and overlooked river port town.  The negative impact would have been a total destruction by General William T. Sherman’s right wing as it passed through the area on its “March to the Sea.”

In the post World War II years, the Defense Department was surveying sites for the location of the Air Force Academy.  Milledgeville congressman, long time supporter of Laurens County, and supplier of Federal monies, Carl Vinson, wanted the new installation to be located in his district and particularly in Dublin.  Though Dublin was one of 582 possible sites, Vinson was the most influential congressional Democrat when it came to military affairs.  After the project faltered for six years into a government in control of the Republican president and Congress, Vinson failed, but he wasn’t deterred.

As the Cold War continued to heat up after the end of the Korean War, military strategists stepped up their plans for global warfare.  In 1946, the Pentagon established the Strategic Air Command, or “SAC” for short.  The flagship of the command was the highly dependable and long range bomber dubbed the “B-52.” More than fifty-three years later, these heavy bombers remain as an integral part of the United States Air Force.

These flying fortresses needed places to stay when not in combat or engaging in training missions.  Once again enter Carl Vinson.  No longer yielding the power he had during World War II as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Vinson, the leading  minority member, was highly regarded as an expert on military affairs.

Seeing his chance to give his district an eternal economic boost, Congressman Vinson inserted into a joint House-Senate committee resolution a proposal to build a huge base in Dublin as the headquarters for strategic bombing operations.

The 838-acre site of the base would be centered on the former Naval Air Field northwest of Dublin and which is now the Laurens County Airport. With three near mile-long runways already in place and configured in a triangle, the site was much preferable to a secondary site on the Laurens/Johnson County line in the Buckeye District.   Built in 1943, the old airport was originally designed to accommodate flights in and out of Dublin for staff and patients of the United States Naval Hospital,
the Carl Vinson VA Medical Center.

If the largest base, a bomber wing facility, was built, a total of 5,000 acres would have been necessary.  The mid-sized choice, designed for a squadron, was the most likely choice.  Even if an emergency landing facility, the smallest of the three options, had been constructed, its runways would have needed to be extended to a distance of 12,000 feet, or more than two miles long.

The conference committee, chaired by Vinson, approved the new base as a part of the government’s plan to decentralize the operations of the B-52 in the event the bombers were necessary to carry out retaliatory strikes against nuclear attacks on the United States - in other words against the Russians.

Local officials were beyond ecstatic.  Mayor Felton Pierce proclaimed that the air base would be of such magnitude it would help Dublin considerably.  Pierce further stated, “even Macon and other Middle Georgia towns would feel the effect of such a thing.”   Initial estimates anticipated the location of 15 to  45 planes manned by 270 officers and 1800 airmen and aided by 1700 to 5200 civilian employees, the latter representing one-sixth of the entire county population.

In June of 1956, Vinson and his colleagues appropriated 6.5 million dollars for the project in which the existing runways would be lengthened and reinforced with stronger concrete.  Pierce and others didn’t seem to mind that the community’s private airport would be obliterated, believing instead that the city and county could work together and build another one well away from the flight paths of incoming and outgoing bombers.

The early July deal between the two houses wasn’t a done deal.  President Dwight D. Eisenhower wasn’t happy with the projects in the bill.  He threatened to veto the measure, and he did.  The resident stated that Congress had overstepped the constitutional line between the legislative and executive branches because the legislation provided that the Defense Department could have not spent money on missile sites without congressional approval.    Remember Georgia was a solid Democratic state and even though he was a hero of World War II, he was a Republican.  In that year when racial relations came to the forefront of the legislature, many Georgians simply didn’t “like Ike.”  The big problem was that the Air Force hadn’t even requested the base in Dublin as well as two others.  In order to get the military spending bill beyond an Eisenhower veto, the conferees dropped
the projects at Mitchell, South Dakota, Hobbs Air Force Base, and in Dublin from the compromise bill.   A contingent of Air Forces officials came to Dublin on August 1 to determine the propriety of locating the installation in Dublin.  Vinson continued to adamantly promise the location of the base, either presently or in the future.  He was once quoted as saying that the base would be built, “as sure as Christmas comes.” Many Christmases came, but the base never did.

Though there were  promises of future surveys and Vinson’s determination to build some sort of military installation in Dublin, the plans were officially dropped in the winter of 1957, when an Air Force report determined that there was no military need for a base in Dublin.

Carl Vinson had tried.  Though the base was never built, the Congressman did give us a Naval Hospital, an Interstate highway, the funds to build the first Federally funded county courthouse in the United States, and one of the first Federally funded county libraries in the country.

Thus begs the inevitable hypothetical questions.  What if the government had built the base?  What would Dublin and Laurens County have looked like today?   Would we have looked like Warner Robins?  We probably would.  Our athletic teams would have been nearly unbeatable. Our highways would be wider and busier. Our neighborhoods would been denser and more numerous.

But is that what we really wanted?  Yes, progress is nice and necessary, especially moderate growth with the ability to expand our infrastructure.  But an overnight life-altering and radical changes in our county wouldn’t be right for me or you.  I love where we live just the way it is.  With our eyes and hearts continuously focused on improving our community,   we have fared much better than if the
bombers shook and rattled our lives as they kept the World at peace.