LAKE CHARLES, La. (WVUE) - It was among the nation’s first training bases for fighter pilots. During World War One, hundreds of pilots were being trained above the marshes of southwest Louisiana at an airbase that was taken out of service 100 years ago this month
Army troops began arriving at Gerstner Field in late 1917, and the base was deactivated just two years later in 1919.
Airplanes had only been around a little more than a decade when the army decided that these biplanes could give them a new view of the battlefield, drop bombs on the enemy and fight other aircraft. But, this new type of warfare needed pilots.
Adley Cormier is a Lake Charles historian who marvels at the idea that planes were training to dog fight above the southwest Louisiana prairie and marshes.
“A nationwide call sent out to find places that would host army training basis or air signal corps training basis and the Association of Commerce in Lake Charles early on decided to make a pitch to host one of these air training facilities,” Cormier said.
“Our great, great grandfathers saw pilots flying in the sky in 1917. They put Gerstner Field, which was a double runway field in Lake Charles, and it was built in about three months,” he said.
Gerstner Field had 90 buildings for housing personnel, pilot training, airplane assembly, and repair.
During its short lifespan, the airfield provided a military band for local parades, its airplanes flew over Lake Charles, and it was hit by a hurricane in 1918. Today, you can see a few foundations and what looks like a paved runway in a pasture.
There is also a historical marker at the corner of Highway 27 and Old Camp Road southeast of Lake Charles. This old road cuts through the middle of what was once Gerstner Field. At its’ peak, there were 3,000 men stationed here, but as soon as World War One ended this fighter pilot training school was shut down.
500 pilots and navigators trained at Gerstner, including Clare Chennault, Maxwell Kirby, and Jimmie Doolittle, according to Cormier.
Gerstner Field helped pushed the Lake Charles area into the 20th century.
“Unfortunately, after the war, it was deemed surplus. the entire facility was knocked down to the ground. Buildings were taken away, auctioned off,” Cormier said, “We went from people riding mules to people flying. Curtis Jennys over the sweet lake and doing dogfighting over the prairies of southwest Louisiana.”