Cornerstone of a Community
Many of us who live in Tampa, especially South Tampa, could not even imagine what Tampa would be like without MacDill AFB. A large percentage of our population would not be living here if it weren’t for MacDill. Many of those that came to MacDill had children who were born here and then raised their own families in the Tampa Bay area. It is amazing how many local people have business and family connections to the base.
Nothing in Tampa’s history comes anywhere close to equaling the impact MacDill AFB has had on the local economy. The world and specifically Tampa, was still suffering from the aftermath of the Great Depression in the late 1930’s. The construction of the base beginning in 1939, injected much needed capital into the local economy, property values began to climb and Tampa saw a massive housing boom.
In 1940, the Tampa Morning Tribune reported “Air base gives big boost to Home building most of the credit for a 40% increase in applications for FHA insured home mortgages was attributed to the building expansion caused by the establishment of the Army Air Base here.” The military, local community and local businesses worked together to partner with the base to integrate it into the community. New businesses were springing up, established businesses expanded and unemployment became unheard of in the area. In the 40’s, there were almost daily ads in the newspaper seeking local citizens of all different skills to come to the base for employment, military and civilians were to become part of the military presence. I would estimate that there were as many civilian employees at MacDill as there were permanently assigned military people during and after WW2.
Many civilians, including women were hired to work to support the rapid expansion of the Army Air Forces in Tampa Bay. For many of these women, it was the first opportunity to do jobs previously reserved only for men. Women did sheet metal work, engine maintenance and photo lab work, in addition to more typical jobs of the era. MacDill was a catalyst to promote racial equality at a time that it was not so common to have such technical jobs for African Americans. MacDill truly transformed not only the financial landscape of Tampa Bay, but the social landscape.
WW2 ended and the latter part of the 1940’s saw many military members and their family’s returning to civilian occupations. During the 1950’s Cold War Era, Tampa’s geographic location again was realized to be of strategic importance. MacDill’s facilities and location made it an ideal base for operations related to South America and the Caribbean. This fact seems to be reconfirmed over and over again through the decades since WW2, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Panama, Granada and Haiti, all supported by MacDill. The base now houses thousands of personnel fighting the War on Terror and we have many of our military’s elite here amongst us in Tampa. Through the years, MacDill has upgraded many if its facilities, reinventing itself to meet current needs. When I arrived here at MacDill AFB in 1974, my commander and my orderly room were in wood framed buildings, much of my training took place in a school in a converted wood WW2 era warehouse, all built in 1940. The last of the “temporary” wood structure buildings were removed and replaced with more modern and efficient structures. The base has done a great job of preserving the more important 1940’s era structures and they are still in use today. The five huge hangars, the warehouses, photo lab and fire department building are still in use and well maintained. These structures are iconic artifacts from the 1940-1941 building boom. Much of the modernization and new construction continues to inject cash into the local economy. Many thousands of those who came to Tampa because of military commitments had been introduced to the outstanding weather and beauty of the area. Many would call the Tampa Bay area home while setting up households in the local communities. Some went back to their hometowns vowing to come back to live and/or vacation. Many thousands later did come back to retire in the area. The financial and social impacts to the Tampa Bay area are vast, they cannot be over stated.
MacDill AFB day to day operations couldn’t take place without the resources and commitment of local businesses and the community. In so many ways, MacDill has served as a springboard, launching the area financially and socially forward from the end of the Depression to the modern Tampa Bay we enjoy today. If the past 75 years are any indication of the future, the partnership between MacDill and Tampa that has made the base and the city a huge success, will surely make MacDill AFB and Tampa viable as we go forward in this new century.