Punta Gorda Airfield #2

Hutment at airfield. punta gorda,

Good Day to all!  This is a column I wrote about the Punta Gorda Army Airfield before receiving Gussie Baker’s information.  I hope it complements her recollections.  Did you know the Punta Gorda Airport had its beginning as an army airfield?


Early in World War II, Florida Senator Claude Pepper announced plans to construct a training facility on just over 1,700 acres of land a few miles east of the county stockade at Carmelita and Florida Streets.  It would become one of 40 facilities operating in Florida during the war due to the state’s wide-open spaces and practically year-round flying climate.  The stockade building, with its barred windows, still stands today, adjacent to the horse arena.


After much planning, construction of the airfield began in early 1943 and included a three-mile asphalt access road.  When completed in January 1944 there were three asphalt runways, each 5,000 feet long and 150 feet wide in a triangular configuration, 61 service buildings (hangars, repair shops, mess halls, etc.), 268 hutments with wooden floors, sides, and canvas roofs, and a 20-foot-high control tower.


Interestingly, the first plane to land at the airfield, in February 1943, did so mistakenly.  It was a Bell P-39 Airacobra and the pilot, out of Page Field in Fort Myers, became disoriented during a night training mission, landing on what he thought was a concrete roadway, but was actually a barely graded runway!


Military personnel began arriving in mid-November 1943 and by the airfield’s formal dedication, March 19, 1944, over 1,100 officers and enlisted men had arrived to support an average of 200 pilots in each training group.  Pilots were assigned to one of two squadrons, the 502nd Fighter-bomber and 490th Fighter.  Major Forrest H. Munger was the first commanding officer.  Since the Punta Gorda and Sarasota airfields were considered “branches” of Venice’s, Munger reported directly to that base’s commander, Colonel V. B. Dixon.  The 27th Service Corp Detachment from Venice Airfield was in charge of base operations.


When you consider many of the servicemen were accompanied by families, one can easily imagine the change it brought to a county with a population of just under 3,700 folks only two years earlier.  In fact, Punta Gorda’s city council appointed a Fair Rents Committee to handle complaints of rent gouging.  Two of the five members were my granddad, Frank Rigell and county attorney, Earl Farr.  And I’ll bet the small town’s young ladies enjoyed all the newfound attention they likely received.


A United Service Organization (USO) center was established at the Punta Gorda Woman’s Club on Sullivan Street and world heavy-weight champion Max Baer was part of its first show in January 1944.  The non-commissioned officer’s club was on Marion Avenue in today’s Ace Hardware building, while the apartment building at Charlotte Street and Mark Avenue in Solana served as the BOQ (Bachelor Officers’ Quarters).


Early aircraft were various trainers and the Curtis P-40 Warhawk of Flying Tigers’ fame, later replaced by the North American P-51 Mustang, the Air Corp’s frontline fighter, in the fall of 1944.  Bombing and strafing exercises were conducted on a remote area of today’s Babcock-Webb Wildlife Management Area, with aerial gunnery over the Gulf of Mexico.  The basic structure of the EAA’s (Experimental Aircraft Association) building at the airport’s southeastern corner today, was the airfield’s three-sided, open concrete bunker used to sight aircraft guns.  The airfield also “hosted” about 500 transient aircraft each month.


World War II ended on August 15, 1945 with victory over Japan and the airfield was placed on inactive status September 1, 1945.  Its last commanding officer, Lt. Colonel R. A. Hanes, declared the field “surplus” in November 1945.  Recently arrived German prisoners-of-war then helped dismantle base facilities and equipment.  The airfield was turned over to the county in April 1947, although a reversion clause for reactivation remained in effect until late 1969, after which the county deeded the airport to the then Charlotte County Development Authority.


During approximately 22 months of operation, the Punta Gorda Army Airfield trained around 800 pilots crucial to the war effort.  Unfortunately, there were seven fatal crashes during those months involving pilots stationed at the airfield.


Flight Officer Edward B. Harrison lost his life on March 9, 1944 due to engine failure during a bombing exercise.  Captain Dorrance C. Zabriskie was killed during a dive-bombing exercise March 31 and 2nd Lieutenant Harris L. Kimble died in a crash during a routine flight May 26, only 19 years old.  The wreckage was found on sand flats six miles west of the field.


A fourth pilot, Lieutenant Donald R. Smith, was presumed dead after a 7-day search, when the mail plane he was piloting went missing on its return trip from Drew Field in Tampa, August 7.  Lieutenant Robert M. Day was killed August 14 in a mid-air collision during a high-altitude gunnery mission.  The other pilot, Lieutenant Harold E. Hanson, though injured, survived.  Captain Robert R. Sherbondy, a decorated combat veteran, died March 7, 1945, on a routine training flight west of Egmont Key while on temporary duty at Pinellas Army Airfield and Theodore F. Vander-Heuval died after bailing out of his plane over Fort Ogden Field in July when the engine failed.


Visit Charlotte County’s website to view Punta Gorda Army Airfield related photographs.  Select “Community Services”, then “Libraries and History”.  Click on “Physical Items”, then “Archive Search”.  Enter the subject of your search on the “Search” line.  Photographs can also be viewed on the Punta Gorda History Center’s website.  Select “Online Collection”, then “Keyword Search” and enter the search criteria.

“Did You Know” appears, typically, every other Wednesday, courtesy of this newspaper and the Charlotte County Historical Society.  The Society’s mission is to help promote and preserve Charlotte County’s rich history.  We are also always looking for volunteers and interested individuals to serve as board members.  If you believe our area’s history is as important as we do, please visit Charlotte County Historical Society on-line at https://cchistoricalsociety.com/, or call 941- 769-1270 for more information

Check out History Services’ yearlong project, “Telling Your Stories: History in the Parks”.  It began in January 2021 with placement of the first interpretive sign “Charlotte Harbor Spa” at South County Regional Park.  The last was dedicated December 15, 2021 at Centennial Park featuring Florida postcards.  All dedicated signs can be viewed at online library resources.  Select “Programs and Services”, then “History Services” and “Virtual Programs”.

Visit the same site to access recently released oral histories featuring 40 local folks.  Select “History Services” and scroll down, or phone 941-629-7278, to find out what history related programs and videos are available.




March 13 column