MacDill recognizes ‘forgotten’ service members of years past

  • Published
  • By Stephen Ove, 6th Air Refueling Wing historian

Construction workers from the 6th Civil Engineer Squadron erected the final new roadside heritage markers around the installation June 24.

Envisioned as the capstone of a project to recognize underrepresented groups whose memory had become wholly forgotten, a team of U.S. Air Force personnel sought to restore their legacy.

“I have a great sense of pride knowing these historical markers will stand for years,” said Sandra Kobelia, 6th Force Support Squadron deputy director and historical marker site selection committee member. “This is long-overdue recognition for the personnel that led the way for the later establishment of headquarters U.S. Central Command and U.S. Special Operations Command at MacDill.”

These early groups were forgotten about due to their marginalized status, brief tenure, or simply lost to the passage of time and are now showcased both as trailblazers in their day and the foundation of work still accomplished at the base. 

These groups include the engineer aviation battalions, manned almost exclusively by African American service members and the Women’s Army Corps personnel who first began serving at MacDill in 1943 during World War II.

The new heritage markers are located near the site of their once segregated facilities, what is today the MacDill Exchange Mall and Child Development Center 1, respectively.

Others include a WWII prisoner-of-war camp located near the base fitness center and the site of the first unified command at MacDill, U.S. Strike Command, at the 6th FSS Headquarters Building.

The efforts of African American service members during WWII are widely known through the Tuskegee Airmen but MacDill was once home to thousands of aviation engineers.

Known as MacDill’s “Fighting Engineers” these expeditionary service members built and sustained airfields needed to advance Allied airpower from the shores of the continental United States to Tokyo and Berlin by the end of WWII.

What they didn’t learn about Agile Combat Employment at MacDill they learned in the heat of battle at places like Iwo Jima leaving behind bases and a legacy of American Global Reach in the process.

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Rickey Gray, 6th ARW flight safety noncommissioned officer, volunteered to research their history and develop the historical marker.

“I met a gentleman in the community who confirmed everything that I wrote about regarding the Black Troops area,” said Gray. “He had heard the stories from his grandfather. Having him confirm it made me feel good because that was the most difficult marker to research.”

Kobelia, who served with Gray on the site selection committee, was stunned by what he produced.

“I had no idea there was a secondary area for Black service members,” said Kobelia. “There's an entirely ‘lost history’ of what these patriots endured just so they could help the war effort. I hope the designation of this area reminds people of those amazing contributions and I hope it starts more conversations.”

The historical markers are the conclusion of a 5-year project to disseminate historical information throughout the base.

A plaque displaying a map to all 12 marker locations greets visitors to the MacDill Community Park which also now includes a new history wall, historic aircraft and unit displays, where base personnel can learn more about these groups and all eras of base history at their own pace.

Earlier this year, unveilings of the Aviation Engineers and Women’s Army Corps historical markers coincided with MacDill’s Black History Month and Women’s History Month observances.

“MacDill has a very long and storied history of African Americans and women service members serving among our ranks,” said U.S. Air Force Col. Benjamin Jonsson, 6th Air Refueling Wing commander. “And today, with these new historical markers, we are acknowledging the immense contributions of these barrier-breaking service members so others following in their footsteps can learn of their contributions to our nation. I want to thank the volunteers and the historical marker committee for their outstanding efforts to recognize these Americans.”