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World War II and Monroe's Aviation Heritage

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World War II and Monroe's Aviation Heritage
By Rochelle Caviness - December 9, 2002

World War II was to cast North Louisiana into an unforseen prominence. Monroe, Louisiana, in Northeastern Louisiana is the home of Selman Field. This airfield was to serve a vital role during the war as the training grounds for both American and Allied military, in the field of navigation . The Army-Air Forces Navigation School at Selman Field officially opened in June of 1942 and was to become, in very short order, the largest facility for training navigators and navigation personnel in the United States. Selman Field also offered the only complete navigation course in the U.S.

Men and women from many nations trained at Selman Field during World War II, including members of the Free French Air Force. According to data provided by the Selman Field Historical Association, by the end of the war 1,382 American servicemen who trained at Selman Field had died in the line of duty. Selman Field was officially deactivated in 1947, yet during its brief tenure as a navigation training school, it witnessed over 15,000 navigators graduate from its program.

A memorial, dedicated to the memory of the men and women who trained at Selman Field, and died during World War II can be found at the Monroe Regional Airport, situated on land that was once part of Selman Field. Detailed information about the Selman Field Memorial, and the history of Selman Field can be found online at: Selman Field Memorial Website

Northeast Louisiana has a rich aviation heritage. The men and women of the area have served in all branches of the military, and in many wars. To get a feel for the full extend of their contribution I recommend that you stop by the Aviation Historical Museum of Louisiana. Located on the grounds of the original Selman Field, this museum is located near the entrance to the Monroe Regional Airport.

The museum is currently housed in a building that was built during World War II, and it is the only surviving building from Selman Field. After the war it saw duty as a school house. From the outside it looks a bit unimpressive. But as the saying goes, you cannot judge a book by its cover, and this museum justifies the rule. Not only is this museum jam-packed with artifacts related to aviation - artifacts running the gamut from a World War I pilots uniform to astronautical paraphernalia, donated by astronaut Jim Halsell, a West Monroe native. Colonel Halsell has logged over 1,250 hours in space!

The museum also chronicles the rise of Delta Airlines, which began in Monroe as a crop dusting service. Another unique features of this jewel, is a "room" dedicated to Major General Claire L. Chennault, leader of the famed"Flying Tigers." This room features artifacts and memorabilia that was donated to the museum by General Chennault's family.

This museum is a real work of love. Most of the material in the museum has been donated, and it is almost entirely staffed by volunteers. Many of these volunteers are veterans of World War II, and their stories alone are worth a visit to the museum. By the time you look through the exhibits, and listen to the 'guides' you will have a much better understanding of the role aviation has played in modern warfare, and the extreme sacrifice that so many men and women have made while serving in the U.S. military.

Plans are underway to build a modern museum complex to house the vast, and growing collection, maintained by the museum. They also plan to build a hanger so that they can display vintage aircraft. Currently the museum is only opened Saturday's and Sunday's. However group tours can be arranged, on alternate days, with advance warning. You can reach the museum by phone at: (318) 361-9020.

While you are in the area, you may also want to head out towards Shreveport, to the Barksdale Air Force Base. The base is home to the 8th Air Force Museum, which is currently open to the public, and admission is free. Because this museum is located on the grounds of the Air Force Base, you will have to go through 'security' before being allowed to visit the museum. Your car will be subject to search, and you will need to show a government issued I.D. in order to enter the museum.

This museum covers the history of Barksdale Airbase, the Home of the B-52's. Exhibits include a WWII Briefing Room Theater and over 25 vintage aircrafts and vehicles. Of all the displays in this museum, I was most touched by the 'widows' book. This is a plain binder that contains the correspondence between the Air Force and a young woman whose husband was shot down and killed in Vietnam. These bureaucratic missives drive home the true impact of war more than any picture or war story could. This binder contains items such as the note she received notifying her that her husband was missing in action, and a second notice informing her that he was confirmed dead, to the notice she received telling her that she had to move out of base housing, and her correspondence with officals detailing why she felt that it was important that her children be allowed to continue in the school they were currently attending, although once she moved they would be in a new district. It is a haunting collection of documents that will follow you for the rest of your life...

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