How can one military installation have two 75th anniversaries?
At MacDill Air Force Base, that’s because the first planes flew out of the new airfield on April 16, 1940, according to the organizer of one of the celebrations. But the base wasn’t formally designated MacDill Field — named after Col. Leslie MacDill, a World War I veteran — until April 16, 1941, according to MacDill’s website.
As a result, there will be twice the celebration of MacDill’s 75th.
Spearheaded by The Tampa Bay Defense Alliance, a community organization working to boost MacDill’s standing locally and nationally, a coalition of local groups and chambers of commerce are kicking off a celebration of the 75th anniversary this year with a campaign called “My MacDill.” It’s a social media and public relations blitz aimed at raising awareness of the base and its importance at a time when the military is cutting back.
Base officials, meanwhile, are lining up a celebration that will take place next year and include at least one aviator who landed at the base on April 16, 1941.
Terry Montrose, a spokesman for the 6th Air Mobility Wing, which is the base host unit, said officials at MacDill are aware of the community effort and are reviewing with its legal staff about how and if it can participate. There are strict rules about military interaction with civilian-run causes and events.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said he is excited about both celebrations.
“I wish I could have my 56th birthday twice,” he said. “MacDill has been a huge part of Tampa’s growth and prosperity for 75 years, and it is important even more so now than ever, given their role in the war on terrorism, and more importantly, the economic impact on the Bay area. We as Tampanians are proud to celebrate.”
The “My MacDill” campaign kicks off April 16, with the launching of a website, mymacdill.com, encouraging Tampa-area residents to post selfies, videos, pictures and “special messages” about their memories of the base and thoughts about MacDill and its contributions to the area and national security. Local businesses and organizations are also being asked to support the effort, according to a Power Point presentation produced by HCP Associates, a Tampa public relations firm, for the Tampa Bay Defense Alliance. The campaign will launch on the AM Tampa Bay radio show on 970 WFLA as well.
The campaign also includes a series of videotaped interviews with those who have served at MacDill, like retired Army Gen. Tommy Franks, who commanded MacDill-based U.S. Central Command from 2000 to 2004. The base also houses U.S. Special Operations Command, Special Operations Command Central, the Joint Communications Support Element, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and more than 30 other mission partners.
One of the goals of the My MacDill campaign is to go “viral” on the internet, at least locally, says John Schueler, president of the Tampa Bay Defense Alliance,
“This is like the ALS Challenge, without the water,” said Schueler, formerly president of the company that used to own The Tampa Tribune. “We were interested in an approach that can bring the community together. How can you be against ‘My MacDill?’”
MacDill, according to one study, pumps about $14 billion a year into the regional economy.
My MacDill organizers are also planning on a marketing presence at local sporting events, music festivals and concerts as well as business and social events. Schueler said that he hopes to see My MacDill bus wraps as well.
It’s all aimed, said Schueler, at raising awareness of MacDill among the local community with an eye toward pushing the message of a strong community-base partnership to members of Congress and the military at a time when the Pentagon is pushing for another round of base closings.
With that concern in mind, the campaign is being unleashed in concert with a report, called MacDill 2025, that maps out ways the community can work to keep the base open in advance of another round of the Congressionally mandated Base Closure and Realignment Commission. Known as BRAC, the commission would look at how to close military installations around the country. The last BRAC was held in 2005.
The odds against another BRAC being formed are high, because military bases pump so much money into local economies. Still, the MacDill 2025 report, produced by Deloitte Consulting, looks at ways the community can come together and deliver a unified message about the strategic importance of the base providing air refueling capabilities for the Southeast United States, as well as the Caribbean, South and Central America, Africa and the Middle East, where crews from both the 6th Air Mobility Wing and the 927th Air Refueling Wing are deployed.
The report points out two concerns.
One is that the Tampa area has only received one Abilene Award, given to the community that best supports an Air Mobility Command base like MacDill, in the past 16 years.
Another is that the Tampa area, according to the report, is not a member of the Association of Defense Communities, an organization that supports areas with bases.
The report also lays out what it calls “best practices” for promoting MacDill, including allocating sufficient funding and staff to the state’s military affairs organizations, funding independent studies of base strengths, weaknesses and economic impact, infrastructure investment, creating “commanders councils” for frequent community-base engagement and coordinating and funding community advocacy organizations that support the base.
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In 1939, with much of the globe engulfed in conflict, the War Department selected Tampa to receive one of several new military air fields and worked out arrangements for the transfer of the land that would eventually become MacDill Air Force Base.
According to the MacDill website:
MacDill Field was officially activated on April 16, 1941.
During World War II, the base trained airmen to fly and operate bombers like the B-17 Flying Fortress and the B-26 Marauder.
From 1942 to 1945, thousands of men went to MacDill to train and then be shipped off to fight in the deadly skies over Europe.
After the Nazis surrendered on May 8, 1945, MacDill trained crews to fly the B-29 Superfortress, a bomber that operated in the Pacific and eventually dropped the atomic bombs on Japan.
In January 1948, MacDill became an operational base for the Strategic Air Command, focused on training crews during the early Cold War era (the base is prominently featured in the 1955 movie of the same name starring Jimmy Stewart).
By 1960, the base faced an uncertain future, with the Pentagon looking to close most of it by 1962, deeming that MacDill was no longer needed thanks to the advent of ballistic missiles. But events 90 miles away from Florida forced the Pentagon to rethink that, because the Cuban Missile Crisis highlighted the strategic importance of MacDill’s location.
In 1961, MacDill became part of Strike Command. Two years later, the bombers gave way to fighters when MacDill became a Tactical Air Command training base. Throughout the Vietnam War and up until the first Gulf War in 1991, Tampa became a home for the F-4 Phantoms and later F-16 Fighting Falcons. Between 1979 and 1993, about half of all F-16 fighter pilots trained at MacDill.
It was also during this period that the base became the only installation in the continental United States to serve as home for two major commands that the Pentagon calls combatant commands.
In 1983, Centcom was created out of the old Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force, according to Centcom’s official history. The command now oversees U.S. military operations in a volatile 20-nation swath of Earth that includes Iran, Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan. In 1987, Socom was created in the wake of the disastrous Operation Eagle Claw mission to rescue U.S. hostages in Iran.
But by 1991, MacDill’s role as an airbase began to diminish as the era of the fighters there waned. Due to military downsizing, a BRAC required the base to cease all flying operations by 1993 and more than 100 F-16s were transferred to Luke Air Force Base in Arizona.
When the last F-16s took off, that left MacDill with no active duty aircraft for the first time. In 1994, the base became home to the 6th Air Base Wing. supporting Centcom, Socom and other mission partners and tenant units. Also that year, after MacDill played a prominent role in U.S. operations to restore Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his government after an attempted military coup. And thanks to a strong local effort led by Congressmen C.W. Bill Young and Sam Gibbons, and a much-younger Buckhorn as special assistant to then-Mayor Sandra Freedman, the 1995 BRAC recommended to retain the airfield under Air Force control. Eventually, this led to MacDill’s new mission in refueling and the establishment at MacDill of the 6th Air Mobility Wing. In 2008, additional Air Force restructuring brought he Air Force Reserve’s 927th Air Refueling Wing to Tampa from Michigan.
The two units share 16 KC-135 Stratotanker refueling jets, with another eight expected to begin arriving by 2017.
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, a big MacDill supporter, led a community effort to bring the new KC-46 Pegasus tankers to MacDill to replace the Eisenhower-era tankers. While that effort was unsuccessful, it appears that MacDill will receive U.S. Army Reserve 23 Black Hawk helicopters from St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport, an effort initially led by the late Bill Young and since championed by his replacement, U.S. Rep. David Jolly.
Nearly 14,000 men and women now work at the base, which has about 5 million square feet of facilities and $8 billion in capital assets, according to the base.