Week 45: November 8, 2014
Just When I thought I knew it all…
Just when I thought I had heard all the stories from my mother, she comes out with this story one night about how she flew in a small two-seater plane in the early 1940’s – and landed at the airfield in Siloam; she was probably twelve years old. And no sooner after she told me – I had a thousand and one questions – of which most she couldn’t answer.
As I’d never heard my mother mention this story before, I wanted to learn a little history of what actually happened, hoping she was really remembering this right! Even though this story is not directly on birth or death dates of an ancestor – it’s the history of the area where my grandparents lived. It’s another piece to my puzzle and memories of my mother’s life!
So where did I turn for answers – first to my Greene County, Georgia History Facebook page – what would we do without the social experience of Facebook?
The first thing I was told in the Greene County Facebook group by Brenda Tolbert was, “you need to call Mr. Comer Tolbert,” he wrote an article for the Greensboro Herald about that airfield years ago.” And that’s exactly what I did! Mr. Tolbert, in his 90’s, remembered it all, but unfortunately he didn’t keep a copy of the article he wrote with pictures. Yes he had photos of that airfield! I hope to post them, at some point when I obtain a copy, but I’ve decided not to hold my story any longer.
From Mr. Tolbert I learned…”The land used for the training airfield was owned by Mr. Buddy Corry and was situated behind his house. The airfield was used for training new pilots – they flew small fighter planes, no bomber planes. There were usually two people in the plane, one being the pilot and the other, the instructor. They’d fly in, almost touching the ground and then go back up – that’s how they learned to land – this was their practice field. One of my first plane rides was there on a Sunday afternoon – they flew me over Greensboro and the Mill Town area, where I grew up.”
This airfield my mother spoke of came about right after WWII began. It was not an airfield as you’d think of today, but instead – just a dirt landing strip in someone’s field; I’m assuming it was leased by the government. It was located just a couple of miles out of Siloam, down Fuller Road.
Another question I had was “how and why was this humble town of Siloam picked to play such a part in the flight training of new pilots?” Location, Location, Location – maybe that was the answer! Siloam in Greene County, Georgia had wide open farm land and well situated away from other airports – this area was definitely secluded.
I’m told the airstrip was only a dirt packed runway, and this 1963 aerial Google Map still shows the concrete directional landing circle in the cross-field. (Thanks to Jennings Kilgore) The field sat across from Mr. Maner Ellenberg’s farm in Siloam and he often told stories to his grandson, Keith, about how the British airmen buzzed his milking cows and how his wife even cooked for them. I’m sure that was a real treat for the boys being away from home. There really wasn’t enough room for them to actually land and take back off, but there was one time Mr. Ellenberg told about the jet fighter that had to make an emergency landing in the air field. He still remembers the sound it made coming in, he could tell something was wrong. That plane had to be somewhat disassembled later on and a truck was sent to transport it back to the airbase.
Keith Ellenberg remembers…”In talking to my father about the airfield, he says the tower down at Mr. Copelan’s had the big revolving beacon light that would swing around with a bright light; the one still standing there today would light up one of the two lights on it, depending on which runways they were supposed to use. He recalls two runways, one that started up by our house and went down toward Slip Rock Road, across from the Copelan place, and the other one went over behind what is now the Nathanael Greene Academy. All the runways were grass; the fields were so level that he used to ride his first bike around the fences. Later, folks would come and ride motorcycles around the fields since they were smoother than the road in front of our house. Mr. Copelan and my grandfather Maner Rice Ellenberg, Sr. were hired by the military to build that fence around the airfield. My father remember those two men could really work and they were paid several hundred dollars to build it. It was the most money my grandfather had had in his pocket at one time, in a long time. My grandmother Callie used to invite the boys up to the house for dinner and several wrote thank you letters to her for the great meals she served; sure wish we had kept those letters.
There were private airfields around that time which operated under a contract with the U. S. Government and it seems Siloam was one of them. Some that were larger, were later incorporated into the USAF when the war began, but this type of airfield was not.
Lanelle Underwood LaRue remembers: “Mr. Jimmy Copeland was my uncle and the field was located directly across from his house on the road from Siloam to Fuller Crossing. I do remember the time when a large plane landed and couldn’t take back off. It sat there for a long time as the runway was too short for it to taxi off. One day my Uncle Jim, who also drove the local school bus, took us out there and let us board that plane. Uncle Jim also took care of the field, mowing the grass and keeping check on the pole lights, replacing any if needed. There was a tower and a couple of red beacon lights there but only the metal light tower remains today. This site was a training field for the Air Force for South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama. The pilots came for practice landings and take offs; they only just touched down, with each touch being recorded. There was a small building in the corner of the airport area where someone sat when the training took place – they recorded each touch down. In the winter Uncle Jim’s wife always made a big pot of coffee for the boys to warm them up a bit. In the summer they called him the “watermelon man” as he’d bring watermelons out to the field. They even called ahead to tell the “watermelon man” that they would be coming and landing – for those watermelons! Uncle Jim always had to drop what he was doing if they were coming in, as he also often helped to log the flights with another person. When the training wasn’t taking place, people who owned private planes also used the field. The government had to buy/lease the land from each owner for these type of air-strips, but when the airport closed, the land was given back to them.”
Carroll Underwood remembers: “The trainees were English boys being trained under contract by a school I believe was over in Macon; there were several airstrips like this one in Georgia. These airstrips were installed and maintained by the U. S. military. Most of the guys flying were always accompanied by an instructor, except when a trainee progressed enough to be allowed, and required, to do cross-country practice. I believe, sometimes, there was someone parked in one corner of the strip, and he used the plane’s radio to make contact with the pilot – like they would have done from the control tower. Those rides for $5.00 were often offered by private pilots who could still get aviation gas and allowed to use the strip on Sundays, since there was no training on that day. One was Ben Apps from Athens who had a little two-seater. He’d buzz the neighborhood shortly after Sunday dinner to roust up a crowd to whom he would sell rides to, mostly just to carry them over their house and “downtown” Siloam. As I recall, there was no concrete, just grass on the runway. I always thought the U. S. Government built and graded it, along with the fence surrounding it and the short access road.”
The locals never knew when the boys were coming, some days they came and some days they didn’t. But when you heard the planes, you knew where they were headed.
Ennis Eaton, as a young boy, remembers the training airfield there in Siloam. “My uncle Fain Eaton lived a few miles down the road. There was a tower there, this was back in late ’49-50.”
Jack Jarrard remembers his grandfather also telling stories about the old aviation field. “You would have to know where it was, to even get a small glimpse of where it once was – and even though it’s pretty much impossible to determine from the road where it was once situated – believe me, there was once an airfield back through those trees and tall grasses. I’ve been by the field a million times and if I didn’t know what happened there years ago from stories, I would have no clue just by looking at it today. It’s looked the same now for as long as I can remember. I also heard the story about the jet plane breaking down and having to be carried out of the field.”
James Oliver Smith remembers the “air shows” there after the war. “My daddy paid $5.00 for me to ride in a Piper Cub propeller airplane one Sunday afternoon.”
Nick Wynne searched around for history on this airfield in Siloam and we finally found a slight mention of it in The Arnold Scheme: British Pilots, the American South, and the Allies … By Gilbert Sumter Guinn. I heard several different stories – some saying these boys were British soldiers and learning how to fly our planes, while others said they were only our GI’s – American boys, just enlisted and new in flight school; all this took place right after Pearl Harbor and during the war years. Whether they were one or the other or both – what happened there in Siloam needs to be remembered for future generations – it is Siloam’s history.
Ray Marchman remembers the air field in Siloam; “I was going to school in Siloam when this was built and the planes took off right over our school, it was about 1940 or 41. The airfield was behind the houses that face the road from Siloam to Fuller’s School.”
My mother tells me – “I remember many planes flying over daddy’s farm in the afternoons. They loved to buzz my father when he was plowing and make the horse buck. That made him so mad – and he often swore at them, raising his fist toward their plane! There was one time when they actually touched down in daddy’s wheat field and I still remember that just like it was yesterday. I was sitting outside on the front porch and as the pilot touched down – he looked over, saw me, and gave a wave as he took back off. That was so exciting, seeing that plane almost landing so close to me, but my daddy didn’t like it!”
“The first time I saw one of the planes fly over, I went running to the field where my father was plowing – yelling “the Germans are coming!” I thought for sure that they were German planes coming to drop bombs on us. This was a first for me as I’d never seen a plane before – at least never one in actual flight. I had only saw them the movies; and with the war going on and hearing about planes dropping bombs, I thought for sure they were the Germans! My father used to always say, “The government should take all the old men in the Army, as we aren’t worth nothing anyway, and leave the young boys at home.” My brother Leroy was drafted at age 18 and died in the war; he was shot by enemy fire not long after landing in Metz, Germany.”
After the war the locals often held “air shows” at the airfield; that is where my mother probably had her first ride in a piper cub propeller plane – cost was about $5.00. They usually flew you over where you lived and over the town of Siloam.
On a recent trip to Georgia I drove down Fuller Road again to exactly see this area I myself have driven by countless times – and never once did my mother mention it. What did I say that night on the phone to make her remember this?
It was erie thinking that this area once experienced all that – you’d have to know this area to truly understand. Siloam is one of those small “eye blink” country towns that doesn’t even have a traffic light – although they do have a blinking light now. The small town area itself has quite dwindled down to only one original building left still in use; the older brick general store, that once was Mr. Johnny Jackson’s store, is now the United States Post Office. My mother walked by Mr. Johnny Jackson’s store every morning to catch the bus; he lined up bruised apples on the window ledge. Mr. Johnny would stand in the doorway and say, “I bet some little girl would like one of those apples.” Those apples quickly disappeared with the children who walked by!
The line of brick buildings that once sat directly across from the now Post Office are slowly falling in, two are already gone from the line. The end building that originally was the Bank of Siloam in the early 1930’s, was a general store owned by my mother’s uncle and aunt – James Lawson and Ulma McKinley. I have many fond memories of this store whenever I visited my grandparents; the bank vault from the Bank of Siloam is still inside the store! I remember being fascinated by it when I was young and visited there – I loved to buy a Baby Ruth candy bar or an ice cream and have it put on my grandfather’s tab!
The town of Siloam also boasted a pharmacy next door, Johnson’s Pharmacy – I bought many a comic book in there. Next door was an older general store, you know the ones from many years ago that boasted those oak counters with glass in front and an old cast-iron pot belly stove to warm you in the winter. When I think about how it looked in the 60’s, still looking right out of the 1940’s. I see many of those same type of oak general-store counters in the antique stores now and I’m reminded of the one from Siloam. As no one ever inhabited the buildings again after closing, they all slowly began to fall in – the one still standing complete today is where the bank once was. Sad to see – as I once walked that short strip of sidewalk, from store to store and they were all open for business – now it’s a ghost strip full of memories.
Driving down Fuller Road today, you look over at the tall pines in passing by and think, just pine trees, never knowing the history that once took place there in the 1940’s! If my mother hadn’t told me about flying in a plane that landed at the airfield in Siloam, it would have just been another lost piece of history. Actually this piece of land is not far from where my mother was born – in a log cabin – on Fuller Road.
Original photos of the plane that landed on the airfield due to problems was a Bell Aircraft PS-640 X5 – the X designates it was an experimental plane (thanks to Gary Madden). These photos were taken by Comer Tolbert during the 1940’s and from his personal collection. Special thanks go to Leigh Wood Thompson for retrieving and scanning them to me. What great photos and I’m truly honored to be able to preserve them. Leigh tells me that her grandfather, Hughes Tolbert and cousins’ husband, Walter Scoggins, were headed out to hunt squirrels that day when it landed. He said it circled several times before landing. This was a huge deal in Siloam in the 1940’s to be able to get up-close and personal with a plane of this type.
From Carroll Underwood: This airfield was located about a mile south on the East side of the Siloam-Fuller School road, the south end of the strip just opposite the Jimmy Copelan house. Built for the use of a flight training school out of Macon; just a grass strip with something like cattle wire fence around it with two gates, the main one on the west fence near the north end. They trained English students.