Urban excavating the remnants of Greensboro’s Army Air Force Base
My pal Nathan Stringer, his one-year-old daughter Emery and I spent several days exploring the side streets off Greensboro’s Bessemer Avenue, extending East from Summit, in search of remnants of the Army Air Forces base that sprang up 75 years ago. It was the largest military training facility located within a single city limit.
Armed with an antiquated, sketchy map we were excited to discover a plethora of former barracks, processing centers, churches, recreation halls (that are somehow still in use) repurposed as warehouses, manufacturing hubs and auto body shops.
Before Basic Training Center 10 was established in March of 1943, the United States’ involvement in World War II had been anything but a rousing success. Devastating setbacks unnerved the folks back home but events were beginning to turn in our favor.
This was a global war destined to be won in the skies. The original Army Air Forces training center was located in Missouri; following the attack on Pearl Harbor a second facility was established in Atlantic City, New Jersey. When that became overwhelmed, a nationwide search took place to determine the ideal location for what would be a critical point of embarkation for replacement troops headed to Europe and Asia.
Not since General Greene led his Carolina Regulars into battle at Guilford Courthouse had there been such a large military contingent in this state.
Constructed on 652 acres of dirt and freshly cut pine trees, BTC-10 brought with it millions of dollars in infrastructure spending. Some 330,000 troops passed through its gates; air cadets who left a large portion of their paychecks in local restaurants, shops and movie theaters during their four to six-week stays here, spurring an economic boom. Greensboro was as much an Army town then as it is a college town today.
The initial 943 trainees encountered, according to the base newspaper, “A scattered few warehouses bordered the railroad tracks. Beyond, wooden sidewalks covered the muck; a single drill field was flooded, and the majority of squadron streets remained avenues of red North Carolina mud. It was also cold and raining.” More importantly, there were no airplanes, much less any flying fortresses or fighter jets like those they’d soon be commanding. Contrast that to the morning of July 4, 1943, a mere four months later, when the polished and perfect trainees marched in formation for the first time through the center of town.
Within 10 months that muddy field off Summit had been transformed into a military metropolis with three libraries, five chapels (with 11 chaplains holding services daily), one of the finest and fully-equipped hospitals in the state, three large gymnasiums, dance halls, the Red Cross, telephone centers, seven pharmacies and a weekly newspaper.
In May of 1944, BTC-10 was reassigned as Overseas Replacement Depot, where its main purpose going forward was to facilitate the transfer of troops and Air WACS fresh from basic training into the Pacific theater of war, as well as redeploying veteran pilots and crew members arriving from the European conflict.
Over 3,000 military personnel and hundreds of civilians worked on what everyone referred to as “The Base.” The Officer’s Lounge was said to be the finest in the country with formal dances on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday nights, where students from Women’s College (now the University of North Carolina at Greensboro) would be bussed in from downtown.
There were nine post exchanges (PX) where soldiers could grab a candy bar or a beer from what was basically the largest department store chain in the nation. It was stocked with comic books, pornographic magazines, cigarettes, feminine products– –pretty much anything anyone needed from soap to nuts.
In addition to the eight theaters in town, there were four first-run movie houses on base with 15-cent ticket prices as well as the Kitty Hawk Big Top, an all-weather amphitheater for boxing exhibitions and variety shows.
North Carolina A&T’s athletic field today fits almost exactly into the footprint of what was the two rifle ranges.
Three hundred of the 10,000 German prisoners of war in North Carolina were housed at ORD under relaxed conditions. Local farmers would round them up to work in the cotton and peanut fields where the Krauts earned 80-cents a day, per the Geneva Convention. Loosely supervised, not a single one escaped.
They were treated so well it created a furor when African-American airmen complained, ever so rightly, that Nazis were afforded better accommodations than they were. This proved to be a sad glimpse into the future for black veterans who believed WWII would be the tipping point for equal rights.
A cavalcade of Hollywood stars and dignitaries paraded through Greensboro to entertain the enlisted men including Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman, Jeanette McDonald, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, opera singer Grace Moore, boxer Max Shapiro, Lon Chaney and Louis Armstrong.
Inductees of note included motion picture stars Donald O’Connor and Sabu (Dastigir) the Elephant Boy but by far the most famous recruit was 20-year-old, Charlton Heston. Before his deployment, the future movie idol had been trying repeatedly, without success, to get Lydia Marie Clarke (a student at Northwestern University he’d fallen for three years earlier) to become his bide.
Heston wrote in Chicken Soup For The Couple’s Soul, “After I left for basic training, I redoubled my effort to get Lydia to marry me. ‘Just think, darling,’ I wrote. ‘If we’re married and I get killed, you get $10,000 free and clear.’ This… failed to move her. Exhausted by the grind of basic training, I gave up even mentioning marriage in my letters. One day I shambled back to my barracks after hours on the obstacle course to find a yellow envelope on my bunk. ‘HAVE DECIDED TO ACCEPT YOUR PROPOSAL,’ the telegram said. ‘LOVE LYDIA.’”
Slipping a $12 ring on her finger (all he could afford) at Grace Methodist Church on Friendly Avenue, the two were wed on March 17, 1944, a simple ceremony witnessed by two strangers. It was one of the longest-lasting marriages in Hollywood history because when the actor who as NRA president coined the phrase “From my cold, dead hands” passed away in 2008, Lydia was at his side.
ORD’s mission shifted again with the end of hostilities in 1945, focusing instead on reintegrating around 5,000 returning soldiers a month into civilian life. That’s when Mayor Vanstory embarked on a year-long campaign to have ORD decommissioned.
“With other Army bases available we felt that we could make some move locally that would give us immediate relief,” the mayor stated, adding that he’d like to see the barracks repurposed for temporary housing to address overcrowding.
“Those who are charged with the responsibilities of the city’s affairs want the camp personnel to regard this as your second home and to come back to see us either as a visitor or a permanent resident in later years.”
For the most part, the 1,500+ hastily constructed buildings on this USAF base were simple wood frames perched on temporary supports, never intended to stand the test of time. Regardless, architectural echoes of ORD still reverberate off East Bessemer Avenue, awaiting eagle-eyed urban explorers.
For instance, directly behind Bojangles on Bessemer, a former PX operated out of the brick building at 1017 Westside Dr. Two doors down, a Quonset Hut served as a chapel in 1944. (Other Quonsets be found around town, one on Lydon Street and another fully intact example in a backyard off South Elm, both likely moved from the base camp.)
Further down Bessemer, a triangular strip of grass across from KFC was where the main headquarters sat, hence the street’s designation as Headquarters Drive. That sprawling structure stood (barely) for over six decades until it was demolished just a few years ago.
An unmodified rusty metal office building can be found along Winston Street, currently unoccupied, where other ORD relics converted for modern use are scattered about.
Covered in vinyl siding, rows of former barracks and processing centers remain hives of activity between Warehouse and English Streets, behind the troop train depot on the corner of Bessemer and English that today serves as Berico’s base of operations.
A block to the north on English Street is a prime example of one of those barracks, even retaining the original wooden doors and front porch. On the other side of English, at Cain Street, a recovered ORD barracks is now a lodge hall.
That just scratches the surface. The entire region remains a goldmine for those looking for a connection to a time when America was united in purpose against a common enemy, a period of guarded optimism with absolute faith that our leaders would emerge triumphant in the greatest conflagration mankind had ever known.
Billy Ingram would like to write the definitive book on ORD if someone would fund it. Thanks to Elise Allison at the Greensboro History Museum.