Leader Blues

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

TOP STORY >> Airstrip had a key role in WWI

Leader staff writer

Across from the Lonoke Cemetery is the Lonoke Golf Course, but before it was a golf course, it was Eberts Field, which served as an aviation-training field during World War I.

Lonoke County managed to outbid Pulaski County, offering rent-free 960 acres with a railroad spur connecting the field to Rock Island Railroad track. The U.S. government in November 1917 accepted the offer and the first cadets and soldiers arrived in spring 1918.

According to an article in “Southern Historical News” by Sherill Miller, executive director of the Lonoke County Museum, plans for the land called for 50 buildings. This would include 12 hangars with six planes each and barracks for 1,082 officers and students.

Instructors used the Lonoke Cemetery as a reminder of where cadets would end up if they made mistakes while flying. The training school had a no-fatality record.

It ranked second among aviation training fields maintained by the U.S. government. It was not uncommon to see hundreds of planes in formation over the field between March 1918 and March 1919.

Cadets trained in Curtis JN-4D planes, called the Flying Jenny. A second landing strip was located at DeValls Bluff for landing practice.

Despite the no-fatality record, there were some crashes mentioned in the local news. In May 1918, a flier landed on a mule attached to a scraper, killing the mule. In the same month, a plane landed on a steam roller.

In March 1919, Lt. F.G. Watson, with a cadet passenger, overturned near England High School while attempting a landing.

Also in March, a pilot ran out of gas near Cabot and got lost. A Cabot soldier visiting home offered to lead the way back to Eberts Field. The engine died and the plane landed in Jack’s Bayou near Lonoke.

All involved in the crashes, except for the mule, survived with little or no injury.
Some notable moments at Eberts included pilots entertaining around 4,000 people on Washington’s Birthday in 1919 with stunts.

The Arkansas Gazette was the first newspaper delivered by plane in Arkansas. Lt. C.E. Johnson of Eberts Field delivered 300 papers to Lonoke on June 18, 1919, to display the possibilities of aviation, according to the article, “Eberts Training Field’ on www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net.

In December of 1919, 72 buildings at the field were sold for $30,000 to Lynch Creekmore of Fort Smith with the Lesser-Goldman Cotton Co. of St. Louis. The buildings were moved to various locations and used for cotton warehouses.

The total cost of the field was $1,815,940.

The war ended on Nov. 11, 1918, before the first class graduated from the school.

In January 1919, discharge orders were given and by March, only 65 men remained at Eberts.

The field was named for Capt. Melchior McEwen Eberts, a West Point graduate. Ebert was an early Arkansas aviator.

He was killed during an exhibition flight at Columbus, N.M., on May 15, 1917 at the age of 28.

Since its closure, the field has served as a glider school, landing strip and is now the Lonoke Golf Course.

A marker with a brief history of Eberts Field was placed where the field had been during the Arkansas Sesquicentennial celebration.

The Lonoke County Museum is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays.

For more information, call 676-6750.

Visit the Web site at www.lonokecomuseum.com.