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Remembering Wurtsmith Air Force Base

Maj. Gen Wurtsmith Bio

(Article contributed by: Richard Clark, Kernersville, NC)

(Images provided by S/Sgt Gilbert Fisceri (Ret) (Assigned to WAFB 1961 to 1965) )

Major General Paul B. Wurtsmith

Morale and fighting spirit seem to have been Paul Wurtsmith's motto.  Wherever and whenever he led men --- whether in battle or in maneuver --- these words seem to have been implicit in his actions. As he went from one command to another, his reliance on those words seemed to increase.

As a young Captain in the Army Air corps, he led a group of even younger pilots from Selfridge Field, Michigan, up the peninsula to an outpost known as Camp Skeel, now Wurtsmith Air Force Base. It was December 1940 when 13 P-35's and one B-10 landed on the blacktop runways. Their mission was to find out how to fly under near-arctic, sub-zero conditions.

The 21 pilots and 100 enlisted men weren't exactly comfortable that winter, but they managed quite well. They had to light fires of jack pine to keep their oil from congealing and they had to pull their fuel on sleds over the ice-covered surface of Van Ettan Lake. Their routine was grueling, often tedious, and always rigorous.

Three years later and thousands of miles from Van Ettan Lake, the young captain had become Brig. Gen. Paul B. Wurtsmith. The record of the outfit he led explains, to a large extent, this rapid promotion. The 49th Fighter Group shot down 38 enemy bombers, 40 enemy fighters, with a loss of only 17 planes and 12 pilots. They defended Darwin, Australia in April 1942, against a merciless Japanese bombardment. For this effort, the General won the Distinguished Service Medal and the 49th earned a Presidential Unit citation

In 1945, General Wurtsmith assumed command of the 13th "Jungle" Air Force. The 13th had a good combat record, but it needed to develop long-range fighter and bombardment tactics. Wurtsmith helped the 13th to do this and within a short time the unit was striking in such distant lands as Batavia, Java, and French Indo-Chine with night-flying bombers. All the while, it maintained a tight aerial blockade of the South China Sea, cutting off Japan's vital flow of raw materials from the lands she had conquered to the South.

Constitution Park, Wurtsmith Air Force Base, Michigan

Once the war was over, the 39-year-old Major General assumed his last big command. He took over the advanced headquarters of the Far Eastern Air Forces, which included the Fifth Air Force in Japan and Korea and the Seventh Air Force in the Ryukyu's, along with his post as commanding general of the 13th, which settled in the Philippines.

After all the combat flying overseas, after the bombardment of Rabaul, the interception of the Japanese attack of Darwin -- no one could have anticipated tragedy for General Wurtsmith. It was just a routine flight to McDill Field, Tampa, Florida, after a visit with his mother to help her celebrate here 77th birthday

The news flash came: "After a brilliant war record in the air, Major General Paul B. Wurtsmith, 40, of Detroit, crashed to his death in a high North Carolina mountain top (Cold Mountain) while on a routine flight." He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery in September 1946.

He had lived a lot of lives in 40 short years. He had been a pioneer, and experimenter, a soldier and a leader, to mention just a few. He had seen enough war in his time to recognize the creeping horror of national complacency. Like the true modern soldier, he had led his men into battle -- and led them magnificently -- hoping all the while that none of them would have to do it again.