A Memorial Day Remembrance of Harding Field
Jun 18, 2021As we celebrate Memorial Day in remembrance of the many who served and sacrificed their lives for freedom, the Baton Rouge Metro Airport (BTR) would like to recognize those among them who trained at Harding Field during WWII.
As construction began on the new commercial airport in 1939 that became the Baton Rouge Metro Airport, the U.S. Army approached the city about the need for an airfield in the South for pilot training that could handle new and larger aircraft. An agreement was reached with the city to lease the airport to the government for an air base Subsequently, the airport was named “Harding Field” by the Army Air Corps to honor Lt. William Harding, a distinguished pilot and Olympian from Shreveport who was killed in a plane crash during war games in 1936.
The late William Spedale wrote a book, Heroes of Harding Field, that detailed life at the base for those who trained and worked there. His book noted the important contributions women made, including working as mechanics and as pilots ferrying aircraft. The influx of people from across the country had a major impact on many aspects of life and culture in Baton Rouge. One such story was included in the Ken Burn’s award-winning documentary, The War, about pilot trainee Quentin Aanenson and the local girl, Jackie Greer, he met at a base dance two weeks after his arrival. As noted in the documentary, “They began to date and quickly fell in love. They promised to write to each other every day while he was overseas, and she agreed not to date any other man more than three times.” Their story was featured prominently in the documentary. Aanenson survived his flight missions during the war despite being hit by flak on 20 of them and crash landing after returning from one. After his discharge, he and Jackie moved to Baton Rouge, where he attended Louisiana State University.
A letter Quentin Aanenson wrote to Jackie during the war but never sent was included in The War documentary. The letter was a hauntingly candid portrayal of what those who served experienced during the war:
"Dear Jackie…For the past two hours, I've been sitting here alone in my tent, trying to figure out just what I should do and what I should say in this letter in response to your letters and some questions you have asked. I have purposely not told you much about my world over here, because I thought it might upset you. Perhaps that has been a mistake, so let me correct that right now. I still doubt if you will be able to comprehend it. I don’t think anyone can who has not been through it. I live in a world of death. I have watched my friends die in a variety of violent ways... Sometimes it's just an engine failure on takeoff resulting in a violent explosion. There's not enough left to bury. Other times, it's the deadly flak that tears into a plane. If the pilot is lucky, the flak kills him. But usually he isn't, and he burns to death as his plane spins in. Fire is the worst. In early September one of my good friends crashed on the edge of our field. As he was pulled from the burning plane, the skin came off his arms. His face was almost burned away. He was still conscious and trying to talk. You can't imagine the horror. So far, I have done my duty in this war. I have never aborted a mission or failed to dive on a target no matter how intense the flak. I have lived for my dreams for the future. But like everything else around me, my dreams are dying, too. In spite of everything, I may live through this war and return to Baton Rouge. But I am not the same person you said goodbye to on May 3. No one can go through this and not change. We are all casualties. In the meantime, we just go on. Some way, somehow, this will all have an ending. Whatever it is, I am ready for it. Quentin."
The memories of Harding Field and the sacrifices made by those who trained and worked there should never be forgotten, especially those who gave their lives for the freedom the victory in WWII preserved.
In recognition of Memorial Day, BTR has placed American flags along the airport access road and will be offering complimentary American flag lapel pins to passengers.
BTR’s award-winning film, “Heroes of Harding Field,” which is part of the airport’s “History of Harding Field” display, can be viewed on the airport’s website or at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v_5GttkrexM
The Baton Rouge Metro Airport is the second largest airport in Louisiana by passenger volume and is served by the major, network airlines – American, Delta and United – with frequent hub flights that provide access to destinations worldwide. The airport provides an annual economic impact of $1.1 billion and over 4500 direct and indirect jobs in the Baton Rouge area. The Airport is administered as an Enterprise Fund, generating its own revenues for operations as opposed to using local tax funds.