Air Force Bases

Charleston Air Force Base, South Carolina

Location: Located in the NNW part of North Charleston, SC.

Origin of current name: Named after a city in South Carolina.

Date current name was assigned to base: June 1, 1953

Previous Names: Charleston Municipal Airport (redesignated Charleston Municipal Airport, First Air Force, Charleston, SC), August 21st 1942; Charleston Army Air Base, October 22nd 1942; Charleston Army Air Field, June 15th 1943.

Date Established: December 11, 1941

Date Occupied: March 23, 1942

Construction Began: March 1, 1942

Base Units: 29th Air Base Group, Distribution Point #2: ca. April - ca. 12 July 1942; 17th Station Complement: 13 July - 27 October 1942; 421st Base Headquarters and Air Base Squadron: 27 October 1942 - 10 April 1944; 113th Army Air Forces Base Unit: 10 April 1944 - 1 June 1945; 593d Army Air Forces Base Unit (6th Operational Training Unit): 23 August 1945 - 28 May 1946; 456th Air Base Group, Detachment #1: ca. 16 February - ca. 15 July 1953; 456th Air Base Group: ca. 15 July 1953 - 1 March 1955; 1608th Air Transport Wing: 1 March 1955 - 8 January 1966; 437th Military Airlift (later, 437th Airlift) Wing: 8 January 1966 - present.

Changes in Capability: Initially a training site for B-17 and B-24 crews and ground personnel, and later C-54 crews; on acquisition of nearby land, base area grew from 1,011 to 2,084 acres 1942-1943; a runway extension, new runways, aircraft parking and dispersal areas completed mid-1943; on assignment to MATS, became terminus for C-54 airlift to Eurpoe and Near East; City of Charleston deeded all but 42 acres of Charleston MAP to Charleston AFB January 1956; construction of facilities for and arrival of first C-5s June 1970; AICUZ area (649 acres) acquired January 24th 1980; hazardous loading pad occupied August 1980.

Changes in Status: Surplu, April 25th 1946; custody assumed by Army division Engineers, June 29th 1946; transferred to WAA, May 24th 1947; assined AF in inactive status, July 11th 1952; activated August 1st 1953.


The history of Charleston Air Force Base, South Carolina began in 1919 when U.S. Army Col Herbert A. Dargue, then Chief of the Air Service (forerunner to the Federal Aviation Administration), visited the area looking for a suitable landing field for "aeroplanes." But it was Charles Lindbergh's nonstop solo crossing of the Atlantic Ocean in 1927 that heightened city officials' interest to establish air operations in Charleston. In 1928, the City of Charleston rented land and began operating a simple airfield about ten miles north of city limits. Foreseeing a commercial future in air travel, the city formed the Charleston Aircraft Corporation to acquire the land for a municipal airport. In May 1931, the corporation purchased 432 acres for $25,000 from the South Carolina Mining and Manufacturing Company. Later in the year, the city acquired the airport facility for $60,000 and immediately began improvements.

During the 1930s, airport operations expanded to keep pace with advances in general and commercial aviation being experienced throughout the country. Despite the Great Depression, the Federal Government stepped in to assist the city with modernizing the airport. In 1935, the Works Progress Administration literally poured $313,000 into the airport. Workers paved one 3,500-foot-long runway and constructed a second 3,000-foot one. The project also improved upon the existing lighting system with up-to-date field lighting.

Given the continuing growth in passenger aviation, Pan American Airways selected Charleston Airport as its western terminus for trans-Atlantic flights. Although this plan never came to fruition, it contributed to a burgeoning increase in traffic for the airport. As a result, the city purchased 300 more acres of land surrounding the airport for $300,000 in 1937 to accommodate additional service buildings and hangars.

Beginning in September 1939, the German Army and Air Force swiftly conquered Poland, Norway, Holland, Belgium, France, and within one year had driven the British off the European continent. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had already acknowledged the growing importance of airpower, and he recognized that the U.S. might be drawn into a European war "that airpower would win." Thus, the Army Air Corps began a massive build up of troops, bases, and equipment in preparation for war.

As a result, Charleston acquired more land in 1940 for additional airport improvements that included construction of a hangar and administration building and lengthening of the runways to 5,000 feet. Prior to the U.S. entering World War II, in 1941 the War Department allotted another $199,000 to the Charleston Airport for runway extension and other improvements needed for aircraft dispersal against attack.

World War II

On 7 December 1941, "a day which would live in infamy," the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and thrust the U.S. into World War II. Almost immediately after word spread of the attack, orders went out across the country to be alerted for attacks by air or ground. The possibility of invasion or air attack upon the continental U.S. loomed large in many people's minds. The attack had put the U.S. on the defensive and "suggested that the homeland itself was not beyond the range of similar carrier-borne air assaults." Despite the large appropriations in 1939 and 1940 to build up the Air Corps, it did not have enough resources available to provide even "token defenses for all vital targets" in the country. Despite being at its limits, the Army Air Forces responded quickly to the challenge.

On 10 December 1941, the 56th Pursuit Group based at Charlotte, North Carolina, and its 61st Pursuit Squadron arrived at the Charleston airport. The squadron's P-39 Airacobra and P-40 Warhawk aircraft provided coastal defense operations for the Southern Defense Command, Third Air Force, Carolina Sector. Arriving later that month, the 67th Observation Group’s 107th Observation Squadron provided antisubmarine patrols along the east coast with O-47 and O-49 observation aircraft.

On 11 December the War Department assumed de facto control of Charleston Municipal Airport yet allowed Delta and Eastern commercial airlines to continue their civilian operations. Although Air Corps personnel had operated from the airport since the war began, true occupancy did not take place until 23 March 1942 when the City of Charleston and the War Department signed a lease and formally activated the installation.

Effective 1 April 1942, the base was assigned to Air Service Command and 29th Air Base Group, Distribution Point #2 became the first host unit responsible for building, maintaining and operating the installation infrastructure. On 9 June that same year, the base transferred to First Air Force and was officially named Charleston Army Air Base on 22 October 1942 under the command of Col Hoyt L. Prindle. The installation transferred back to Air Service Command in December 1942, then moved back to First Air Force in September 1943 where it remained until the end of the war. At the same time as the base struggled to find its niche, the 16th Antisubmarine Squadron operated B-34 Lexington bombers helping defend the eastern seaboard from possible attack.

Renamed Charleston Army Air Field on 15 June 1943, initially the base served mainly as an air depot training station, providing the final phase of training to service groups and air depot groups departing home for the war overseas. Concurrent with its reassignment to First Air Force, in September 1943 the base changed missions. Now it would give the final phase of training to B-24 Liberator crews. The 454th Bombardment Group arrived in September and left Charleston for the European Theater of Operations in December 1943. This same month the 400th Bombardment Group arrived, but this organization was to function as a replacement training unit rather than an operational training unit.

Coupled with these mission changes, the base grew from 1,011 and 2,084 acres between 1942 and 1943. Approximately $12 million was spent to build various facilities and make airfield improvements during the war years. On 10 April 1944, the 113th Army Air Field Base Unit (CCTS-H) activated and took over as Charleston's host unit. But the need for B-24 crews ended with Hitler’s defeat and end of the war in Europe. In their place, however, the Army Air Force required a large number of transport crews. Consequently, the base was transferred to Air Transport Command on 1 June 1945 and began C-54 Skymaster crew training that lasted until late August 1945.

Only a few months after the Japanese surrender, on 25 April 1946 the government placed the base in surplus status as part of the massive postwar drawdown. The City of Charleston requested that the field, which originally had been leased to the U.S. Army for $1 per year, be returned to the municipality. By this time, the field consisted of 2,050 acres with more than $12 million worth of facilities and improvements. Despite not being official returned to the city until 19 October 1948, the city council voted to construct a new air terminal in 1947, and commercial air operations resumed on a full-time basis at the now fully civilian airport.

Korean War

On 25 June 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea and the conflict immediately embroiled the U.S. military in a fierce police action. The conflict also resulted in the now independent U.S. Air Force requesting funds from Congress to begin troop carrier operations at the Charleston airport. By August 1951, Congress approved a $28 million public works improvement package, and during the remainder of the year, preliminary work was underway to construct facilities for a troop carrier wing. In March 1952, the City of Charleston signed a lease agreement with the U.S. Air Force for joint use of the airport. For $1 per year the lease allowed the U.S. Air Force to occupy all properties south and west of the Southern Railways tracks while the city retained terminal buildings, hangars, and other buildings along the north and east boundaries of the airport. Construction of base facilities, meanwhile, began in May 1952.

By early 1953, elements of the 456th Troop Carrier Wing, assigned to Tactical Air Command and under the command of Col James L. Daniel, Jr., arrived at Charleston to prepare the base for operational status. On 1 June 1953, the base received its current name of Charleston Air Force Base and activated on 1 August. Two weeks later, on 15 August 1953, the arrival of 50 C-119 Flying Boxcars effectively made the base operational. Although numerous construction projects were still underway, the wing held a dedication ceremony on 13 November 1953 to open the base officially.

When the U.S. Air Force submitted plans for Congressional approval in 1951 to reoccupy Charleston Airport, the request programmed for two troop carrier wings. With the 456th already in place, advance elements of the newly activated 1608th Air Transport Group, assigned to Military Air Transport Command (later, Military Airlift Command), first arrived in February 1954 to establish operations. One month later on 4 March 1954, the group received its first C-54 Skymaster transport. As the 1608th increased in size, MATS and TAC negotiated ownership of the base. Eventually, on 1 March 1955, Charleston AFB came under the jurisdiction and control of MATS and the 1608th Air Transport Wing (Medium), under the command of Col Clinton C. Wasem, became the base's host unit. Also upon assignment to MATS, the base became the terminus for all C-54 airlift to Europe and the Near East.

Late 1950s

On 16 February 1954, Air Defense Command established the 444th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron as a tenant unit on Charleston flying F-86 Sabre fighter aircraft as the east coast's air defense against airborne invaders. Soon after, the base achieved permanent status and with that declaration MATS began various facility construction projects to further improve upon the base's status. Meanwhile, the 1608th received its first C-121C Constellation appropriately named "City of Charleston" on 16 September 1955 (tail number 54-153). Shortly thereafter the base was designated as an aerial port of embarkation, giving Charleston AFB more prominent role in MATS. The 456th left Charleston on 16 October 1955, which also ended the base's association with the C-119 Flying Boxcars.

In the late 1950s, the 1608th participated in Charleston's most significant humanitarian effort to date: Operation SAFE HAVEN I from December 1956 to January 1957. In October 1956, thousands of Hungarians rebelled against their Communist Party leader demanding the removal of Soviet troops from Budapest. By 1 November the revolt appeared successful and the Soviet Union agreed to leave. However, three days later about 200,000 Soviet troops and 2,500 tanks and armored cars attacked Budapest. Thousands of Hungarians fled to Austria. In December, President Dwight D. Eisenhower offered political asylum to more than 15,000 of these refugees and MATS began sending aircraft to Munich, including several of the 1608th's C-121s. SAFE HAVEN I airlifted 6,393 passengers to McGuire AFB, New Jersey on 107 flights.

Where is Touhey AFB?

In January 1956, the Air Force and the City of Charleston concluded 13 months of negotiations that deeded all but 42 of 1,614 acres of the Charleston Municipal Airport to the U.S. Government. The overriding effect of this action served two purposes. First, it provided the Air Force the permanency it required to continue long-range planning for the base. Second, it gave the city the assurance it sought that the Air Force intended to remain in Charleston.

Coupled with this action, base officials informed MATS in July 1956 that they had received inquires from the South Carolina Congressional delegation concerning the naming of Charleston AFB after an individual. An effort to rename the base had not been made largely because of prevailing opinions that the base was not a permanent installation. However, the Air Force Director of Real Property informed MATS and base officials that selection of a name for Charleston AFB was not dependent upon its permanent status "inasmuch as other conditions [were] favorable to memorialization as soon as an appropriate name [was received] and selected."

As a result of the interest generated during the summer of 1956, the wing commander, Col Clinton C. Wasem, directed that a base memorialization committee be formed to review and recommend names for Charleston AFB. The committee first met on 27 December 1956. Three weeks later on 18 January 1957, the committee had broadened its charter by first recommending approval to name the streets in the planned family housing area on base and rename existing streets after local heroes.

Following submission of the recommendations for street names, the committee met again on 15 March 1957 to consider names recommended for the base. Ten nominations were received-five from the Citadel and five from the Air Force. After the committee examined the service records of each, they narrowed their choices to two names-Lt Col Julius E. O'Neal and Capt Robert F. Touhey, Jr. The final vote was unanimous for Captain Touhey given his record and his past residence in Charleston, SC.

Interestingly, at the 18 January 1957 meeting, the committee already had selected Touhey's name for a street in the housing area. Since the committee decided to name the base after Touhey, they renamed the street originally to honor Touhey as O'Neal Avenue. At the time the base committee was considering its choices, Colonel Wasem received information that the Air Force Memorialization Committee was reviewing requirements and policies of the memorialization program. Unfortunately, resolution of that study was not forthcoming, the naming of Charleston AFB was held in abeyance, and the matter was not brought up again.

The 1960s Meant Change

With its name and permanency solidified, Charleston AFB underwent a significant change on 18 June 1958 when the 1608th received its first C-124C Globemaster aircraft, then again a month later when it lost its last C-54 transports. The 444th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron's aircraft changed as well. In February 1960, it began operating F-101 Voodoo aircraft and lost its F-86s.

From May to June 1960, the 1608th once again participated in a massive humanitarian operation: AMIGOS AIRLIFT. Volcanic eruptions, avalanches, and tidal waves had left 10,000 dead in southern Chile and another 250,000 homeless. Fourteen Charleston C-124s assisted the operation to airlift more than 1,000 tons of material to Chile, including two 400-bed Army field hospitals, two Army helicopter units, 64 tons of mobile radar landing approach equipment, 140 tents, 2,000 blankets and tons of other equipment and supplies.

The next big change came in 1962. The Air Force decided to retire the C-121 fleet and sent the 1608th its first replacement C-130 Hercules on 16 August 1962. The last C-121 Connie left Charleston AFB on 9 February 1963. Only two years later, on 14 August 1965, the wing received its first C-141 Starlifter, the newest airlifter in the Air Force inventory. But, unlike the previous aircraft changes, the arrival of this new aircraft meant a change in host units.

The 437th Airlift Wing Arrives

On 8 January 1966, the 437th Military Airlift (now, 437th Airlift) Wing took over as Charleston AFB's host unit. Although the 1608th inactivated and the 437th activated its place, it appeared that every unit with a "1608" in its name simply changed it to "437." The 1608 ATW Commander Brig Gen Howard E. Kreidler thus became the 437 MAW Commander and all of the 1608th's people, aircraft, buildings, etc. became the 437th's. The operational history of Charleston AFB is now inextricably tied to the 437th Airlift Wing's history.

Other Base Units

Soon after the wing's arrival, on 30 September 1968 the 444th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron inactivated, ending Charleston AFB's long-standing association with air defense and fighter aircraft. In September 1969, the Air Force Reserve Command's 943d Military Airlift Group activated at Charleston making it the first associate unit in the southeastern U.S. On 1 July 1973, the 315th Military Airlift Wing (Associate) activated and replaced the 943d as the 437th's associate Reserve wing, similar to how the 437th replaced the 1608th a few years earlier. On 1 October 1979, the base assumed real property jurisdiction, control, and accountability over North Field from Shaw AFB, South Carolina. More recently, on 1 April 1992, the 1st Combat Camera Squadron arrived on station and is now assigned to the Twenty-First Expeditionary Mobility Task Force.

On 18 September 1987, Charleston AFB formally dedicated its Air Park with a C-47, C-121, and C-124, which was then located between the 437 AW headquarters building 1600 and the flight simulator building 108. Almost exactly two years later, Hurricane Hugo decided it did not like the aircraft where they were and tossed them around a bit. So, the base moved the static displays to different locations and they eventually came to rest in their present locations. On 24 September 1994, the base added the C-141B now on display.

The Future

Composed of almost 3,500 acres by 2006, Charleston AFB still shares the flightline with Charleston International Airport. The 437th and 315th Airlift Wings are also still here, now operating the C-17A Globemaster III, the Air Force's newest and most demanded airlifter. These thousands of active duty and Reserve personnel, their families, and the hundreds of civilian employees working around the base epitomize the "Future Total Force" concept as they combine to make Team Charleston. Although the future is always uncertain, the people assigned to Charleston AFB will continue to heed their nation's call for decades to come. Just as the Statue of Liberty looked over the burning New York City skyline on 11 September 2001 and showed both enemies and friends that she would not be overcome, so Charleston Air Force Base will continue to bear her torch across the globe to demonstrate to the world the global vigilance, reach and power of the United States Air Force.