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How airport got its wings during World War II

POSTED: August 29, 2010 1:00 a.m.

Hall County has a tradition of getting behind a project and marshaling all its resources to see it to fruition.

Lake Lanier Islands, Interstate 985/Ga. 365, Gainesville State College and Lanier Tech, Chicopee Manufacturing Corp. and luring the Atlanta Falcons to Flowery Branch, to mention a few.

In 1940, America's involvement was increasing in the war in Europe and soon the Pacific. Congress appropriated millions to improve local airports and other facilities that would be essential to an all-out war effort.

Gainesville at the time had only an unpaved landing field. But Hall County and city leaders recognized an opportunity to get funds to build a real airport and become a part of the nation's defense system and military training base.

The effort to secure the funds and land what would be an auxiliary naval air training facility is an example of persistence, political pull and how things are accomplished when city and county work together. While some think bureaucratic government red tape is somewhat of a modern-day mess, Hall County's experience in 1940-41 illustrates that even then it took skill and perseverance to maneuver through a maze of roadblocks.

Key in coordinating the city-county effort was Ed Dunlap Sr., a lawyer/mover/shaker who was in on most everything he thought would benefit Gainesville and Hall County.

"He loved Gainesville," his son, Ed Dunlap Jr., said. The city and county appointed him to represent them in pushing for a piece of the federal pie.

A file provided the Northeast Georgia History Center at Brenau University by Dunlap's daughter-in-law, Eleanor Dunlap, shows how diligently he worked on the project. Ed Dunlap primarily worked with Gainesville Mayor Ezra Pilgrim and city manager Fred Roark, County Commissioner R.G. McConnell and Henry Estes, president of the chamber of commerce.

Knowing that the Navy would train pilots at the new Camp Gordon in Atlanta, the Hall County team suggested Gainesville could provide an auxiliary airport for training flights between the two facilities. The Navy in October 1940 said no, Gainesville was 40 miles away, too far for trainees to test their landing skills. If such a facility were needed, it would need to be 10 to 15 miles from Camp Gordon.

That didn't deter Dunlap, who fired off letters to the Works Progress Administration, other Navy officials, the War Department, Civil Aeronautics Administration, Secretary of Commerce and other agencies. One agency would tell Dunlap such a facility wasn't under its jurisdiction and bounce the letter around to somebody else. This went on for months, all of them discouraging any chance the Gainesville airport would be approved.

Dunlap made several trips to Washington, even sent roses to a key woman in the War Department and peaches to another official. He enlisted the help of state Commissioner of Aviation Marvin Griffin, later to become governor.

At year's end, the Army Air Corps, CAA and WPA rejected Gainesville's application.

Things began to budge when Sen. Walter George, a friend of Dunlap's, Sen. Richard Russell and 9th District Rep. B. Frank Whelchel got involved.

Johnson & Johnson, parent of Chicopee Manufacturing, donated some of its property adjacent to the airport to assemble the minimum 250 acres needed to have a chance at expanding it. Estes wrote everybody involved that the acreage required was in hand.

About that time, Dunlap wrote Estes, "All that could be done has been done." The work turned to waiting.

Finally, in June 1941, Sen. George telegraphed Dunlap that Gainesville had been selected one of 191 sites to be surveyed. Of those, 149 would be selected as military training sites, and their airports would receive funds for improvements.

A month later, Dunlap informed George Ashford, who had succeeded Pilgrim as Gainesville mayor, that the airport at Gainesville would receive $344,000 for grading, engineering, paving and lighting. That led to the location of a naval air auxiliary facility and numerous military personnel to be stationed there during the war.

After World War II ended, the federal government turned the airport back over to Gainesville. The city has upgraded it over the years to a first-class facility. Perhaps it would have been longer in coming had it not been for Ed Dunlap Sr. and city, county and chamber leaders of that time.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. His column appears Sundays and on gainesvilletimes.com. First published Aug. 29, 2010.



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