The site of Wurtsmith Air Force Base is located 2 miles Northwest of Oscoda, Michigan, about 150 miles North of Detroit.
The popular legend, supported by interviews and other historical
documents, is that Wurtsmith was established as the direct result
of a fishing trip by Lt. Ennis Whitehead (later Lt. Gen.
Whitehead, commander of the Fifth and Far Eastern Air Forces
during and after World War II). The brother of a local banker
invited the lieutenant to come to Oscoda to fish Van Ettan Lake
after fishing with Whitehead in Lake St. Clair near Mt. Clemens,
about 10 miles from Detroit.
Curtiss Jennys of the
First Pursuit Group, equipped with skies, land on Van
Etten Lake (1925)
When Lieutenant Whitehead saw the lake and the surrounding
area, he was impressed. He figured that if a strip of land were
cleared along the lake, it would make an ideal gunnery range,
just what his unit at Selfridge Army Air Field needed. They had
been forced out of their established range on Lake St. Clair by
increasing boat traffic and were looking for another suitable
site to establish no only a gunnery range but a place where the
young Army Air corps could come and test aircraft, maintenance
procedures and equipment during cold weather.
Members of the 332nd
Fighter Group, early June 1943, left to right: Mac Ross,
James R. Polinghorne, John Leahr, Harold E. Sawer
Whitehead took his idea back to his squadron commander,
then-Major Carl Spaatz, who came up to look the area over for
himself. He an Major Thomas Lamphier, his second in command, rode
up in a side-car motorcycle to survey the area. They liked it so
much that they took the proposal to build a gunnery range to the
townspeople of Oscoda.
In July 1911 a terrible fire destroyed over 600 buildings in
Oscoda and both of the industries that contributed the build of
the economy to the area: two lumber mills and a cannery. With the
loss of these industries, the area's population dwindled from
nearly 20,000 to 1,000.
Representatives of those remaining citizens heard
"Tooey" Spaatz's proposal to clear an area. They raised
$600 to clear the land immediately so Army operations could
The base was first named in 1924 after Capt. Bert E. Skeel, a
World War I pilot who was killed in an air race at Wilber Wright
Field, Ohio, (now Wright-Patterson AFB) on Oct. 24, 1924. The
base retained the name of Camp Skeel until August of 1942 when,
upon completion of three runways, connecting taxiways, and apron,
it was renamed Oscoda Army Air Field.
Oscoda was the home of the 100th Pursuit Squadron, the famous
black fighter unit, the "Black Panthers," of World War
II fame, from April to July 1943.
On Jan. 13, 1948 all Army Air Fields became Air Force bases
after the establishment of the Air Force. Oscoda's base remained
with that name until it was redesignated in ceremonies on July 4,
1953, in honor of Maj. Gen. Paul Bernard Wurtsmith. General
Wurtsmith was a hero of action, commanding the Thirteenth Air
Force in the South Pacific during World War II.
General Paul Wurtsmith (left), then
commander of the 5th Air Force Fighter Command, talking
with Colonel Richard Legg of the 35th Figher Group.
The Detroit native was killed Sept. 13, 1946 when his B-25
crashed on Cold Mountain near Asheville, North Carolina during a
Wurtsmith became home to the 412th Fighter Group (formerly the
527th Air Defense Group), parent organization of the 63rd Fighter
Interceptor Squadron. The unit was redesignated the 445nd Fighter
Interceptor Squadron on Aug. 18, 1955, until those units were
moved or redesignated. The base was turned over to the Strategic
Air Command on April 1, 1960. On July 15, 1960, the 920th Air
Refueling Squadron was transferred from the 7th Bomb Wing and 11
KC-135A tankers and 16 mission-ready crews arrived at Wurtsmith,
the first SAC flying unit to be stationed at the base.
The base population was around 1,000 in April 1960, but had
rapidly outgrown the 107 family housing units then available.
Wurtsmith's base population peaked at about 3,500 military and
civilian employees and more than 3,000 family members.
Wurtsmith AFB was deactivated on June 15th 1993. The end of an