MOULTRIE (Tribune News Service) — To many residents of South Georgia, the mention of Spence Field conjures up the sights and sounds of the annual Sunbelt Ag Expo or the bi-annual Calico Arts and Crafts show or the car show. But eighty years ago, the sights and sounds of Spence Army Airfield included planes flying overhead as thousands of young men learned to fly in preparation for serving their country in World War II. Sixty-two air cadets and instructors were killed during the four years Spence Army Airfield was operational.
In 2015, Bill McLean, an Air Force veteran and history enthusiast, began researching the number of fatal aircraft accidents at Spence Army Airfield. In 2022, McLean reached out to the John Benning Chapter, National Society Daughters of the America Revolution, an organization noted for historic preservation, education, and patriotism, to find a way to appropriately honor the service and sacrifice of these individuals.
"Most people I've talked to have no idea that 62 men died in training at Spence Field during World War II," said McLean. Because there was often an instructor flying with a cadet, several of the fatal crashes claimed two lives. In fact, 12 of the crashes involved two or more victims. The final crash was on June 6, 1945, when a mid-air collision of two planes killed four men.
McLean researched the Moultrie Observer's digitized archives for copies of articles reporting each crash and located articles for all but three pilots who lost their lives in crashes at Eglin Field in Florida where Spence cadets took gunnery training. In addition, McLean has researched all 62 names through the Library of Congress records.
Using extensive genealogy and research skills, McLean and DAR members have located family members of all 62 pilots, according to the DAR chapter.
"Most of these young men were 19-20 years old and not married," said Jean Gay, one of the DAR members working on this project. "They didn't have children, so we had to look for their siblings or their siblings' children. The cadets were from 30 states and, of course, people moved around a lot over 80 years. Finding this many families is quite remarkable."
McLean and the John Benning Chapter NSDAR along with the City of Moultrie and the Colquitt County Commission have commissioned a marker bearing the 62 names and commemorating the role Spence Army Airfield played during World War II.
A ceremony to dedicate the marker is planned for Sept. 26 with appropriate military honors. Descendants of all the families have been invited to the marker dedication ceremony with several indicating they will attend. The community is also invited to attend the dedication. Details of the dedication will be announced later.
Nearly 6,000 pilots trained at Spence Army Airfield between the start of training in Nov. 15, 1941, and the base's transfer to temporary inactive status on Nov. 30, 1945.
From 1951-1961, the airfield was used by Hawthorne Aeronautics, who was contracted with the Air Force to train pilots, but the memorial is dedicated only to those who died during the war years.
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