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Pope Turns 91 and Here's the Proof!

  • Published
  • By Dan Knickrehm
  • 43rd Airlift Wing Historian
This week Pope celebrates its 91st birthday. The reason I say this week is because there seems to be some discrepancy as to actual dates. If you would have asked me a year ago when we became Pope Field, I would have told you April 1. If you consult the authoritative book on Air Force Base history, you would see March as the date when Pope came into existence. There are discrepancies about other dates as well and I think it is time to lay the issue to rest (at least as much as possible). So here we go, some hard core history proving the dates of Pope's most significant events.

Robert Mueller's book Air Force Bases, Vol.1: Active Air Force Bases Within the United States of America on 17 September 1982 has long been the "bible" for matters of Air Force base establishments, lists of assigned units and commanders. Published in 1989, this book sits on the shelf of every self-respecting Air Force historian's library. With this in mind it is disturbing to think that practically every Air Force historian has the wrong information. Of course this happens often in the realm of History as new information comes to light and Air Force History is more dynamic than most leaving more room for error.

Pope is listed in pages 479 to 485 of Mueller's book. The chapter on Pope offers some interesting aerial photos of the airfield among other items. The first page has three dates on it that are, as far as I can tell, incorrect. The first incorrect entry is "Date of Current Name." Mr. Mueller has January 13, 1948 listed as the date when Pope became Pope Air Force Base. However, on June 10, 1949 the Department of the Air Force published General Order #37 which named dozens of Air Force assets as Air Force bases, including three in the Territory of Hawaii and others all over the world. On page seven of this general order there is an entry for Pope. This document officially renames Pope Field, Ft. Bragg N. C. to Pope Air Force Base. The discrepancy between Mueller's date and the one published in General Order #37 might be explained by considering that Mueller probably referred to one of numerous General Orders (#s 10, 11, 14, 18, 26 and portions of 34) all published in 1948. General Order #37 from 1949 rescinds all these orders making the new official dates for establishment of these bases 10 June 1949. This is a broad sweeping General Order that includes, as far as I can tell, every Air Force installation active at that time! Of course I could be wrong. There might be succeeding orders that rescind General Order #37 thus reverting to previous orders. The point is not to jump to conclusions without proper documentation and investigation. I would be risking making the same mistake Mueller may have made if I concluded that this new date is definitive. I am continuing to investigate.

Mr. Mueller also lists "Previous Names" for Pope. While I need to do more research as to when Pope was named "Camp Bragg Flying Field" I can comment on the date it was named "Pope Field." Mueller has the date that Pope became Pope Field as April 5,1919. This date comes, I believe, from a memo dated April 5,1919, from Headquarters, Southeastern Department, Charleston S.C. This memo makes the original letter from the War Department more public and reproduces the original for wider distribution to Army units in the Southeastern Command. An original of this document hangs in the foyer of bldg. 309 just below the original War Department order naming Pope Field. Rather than making a distinction between "Previous Names" and "Date of Establishment" Mueller might have kept these two dates the same.

Mueller indicated that the "Date of Establishment" of Pope as Pope Field is March 22. I am not sure where this date comes from but hanging in the foyer of the 43rd Airlift Wing headquarters bldg is an original memo from the U.S. War Department Chief of Staff. This memorandum, dated March 27,1919, states "The Secretary of War directs that all concerned be notified that the flying field to be established at Camp Bragg, N.C., is named "Pope Field" in honor of 1st Lt. Harley Halbert Pope, who was killed in an airplane accident January 17, 1919." It might be that there is some more official document than this memorandum indicating the date March 22 as the official date but Mueller does not indicate the source document for his date. Additionally, the memo dated April 5 clearly includes the wording of the March 27document indicating its use as an official notification of the event.

There is also another avenue to take when attempting to establish a firm date for Pope's establishment. A memo from the Albert F. Simpson Historical research Center, Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., dated 29 August 1978 references a conversation with Mr. Mueller. This memo seems to put the issue of Pope's establishment to rest. Paragraph 3 shows that Pope was the 10th Airfield established in the United States. (Some of those units are no longer active and Pope is now the 6th oldest active Air Force Base.) Paragraph 4 states that "The date for the establishment of Pope AFB is an arbitrary one as we could not locate a document specifically establishing or activating this installation...the designation "Pope Field" appears to have been made on March 27, 1919. In the absence of other data, we at this time accept that date as that of the field's establishment as a separate installation." Without knowing Mueller's source, and with more research to do, I would have to go with the documents I have at hand stating that March 27is the direction given from the War Department.

Finally putting to rest an issue of dates is often tricky. When historically related statements are not properly documented determining the validity of such statements becomes difficult. Even so, mistakes are made. For instance, the March 27document mentioned above lists Lieutenant Pope's death as occurring on Jan. 17. This is a typographical error made on the memo. Lt Pope's accident actually occurred on Jan. 7, 1919. Errors like these tend to become "historical truths" over time if people don't properly research the topic before perpetuating the story.

Answering questions from a historian's perspective becomes more complicated than one might expect. Most people would like one date to use as a reference for various reasons and they don't typically want a long, drawn-out explanation of what are the possible dates. So, if you were to ask me this year when Pope was established I would have to say 27 March 1919. We will have to see what happens over the next year to find out if that date stands.

Happy 91st Birthday Pope!