The F-86d Sabre was one of the most fearsome weapons in the American Air Force during the Korean War. With a maximum speed of over 700 MPH and a ceiling of nearly 50,000, it could easily target, engage, and destroy slower, lower flying enemy aircraft. This F-86d was likely stationed at Tucson's Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. It has been on display in Downtown Chandler since 1957 as a symbol of the close relationship between Williams Air Force Base (closed 1993) and the city.
The history of Chandler was forever changed in 1941 when the United States Army Air Corps opened a training base just eight miles east of town. Construction on the base started in July 1941, and it was ready to open by December of that year. Soon after the base was opened the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States entered World War II. The number of base personnel exploded as the demand for pilots grew exponentially. The base went through various names, including Mesa Military Airport and Higley Field before it was officially dedicated as Williams Field in February 1942. It was named for 1st Lt. Charles Linton Williams, an Arizona native who died in 1927 when his aircraft crashed near Fort DeRussy in Hawaii.
Willie, as the base was affectionately called, sat on land that is now part of Mesa. But when it opened, and all throughout its history, it was always tied closely to Chandler. This was most likely because Chandler was the closest town of a substantial size. Higley and Gilbert were little more than crossroads, and Mesa was several miles north and west of the base. Printed material produced at the base read “Williams Air Force Base, Chandler, Arizona.” Officers found housing for their wives in Chandler, and the base did all of its banking and payroll through the Valley National Bank branch in Downtown Chandler.
During World War II, Willie was under command of the 89th Army Air Force West Coast Training Center. Initially, its mission was to train Army Air Corps pilots. As the war raged on, however, bombardier training in B-17 Flying Fortresses was added to the mission as the open desert provided ample land for training missions. Over the course of the war, more than 10,000 pilots went through training at Willie, including Jimmy Stewart.
Whereas many of the training facilities that sprung up during the war closed after 1945, Willie remained open, and was converted to a jet training school. The mission shifted to teaching gunnery, bombing, and rocketry skills, as well as training jet fighter pilots. Pilots learned to fly F-80 Shooting Stars, the United States Air Force’s first fighter jet. An aerial acrobatics team known as the Acrojets was stationed at Willie to show off the capabilities of these new technological wonders and to recruit new pilots.
The base had an immense impact on Chandler. Enlisted men spent their free time and money in Chandler. The USO opened a facility in Downtown to cater to the needs of the personnel at the base. As the war progressed and Willie grew, however, it became clear that the tiny USO would not be enough. Local theater owners Joe and Alice Woods had a booming business at their Rowena Theater in Downtown. However, as demand for entertainment grew, they applied for, and were granted, a special permit to use scarce construction materials to open a second theater for the enlisted men, which was known as the Parkway Theater. Countless residents opened spare rooms and rented outbuildings to officers’ wives and families. Many veterans returned to Chandler to live after their discharge from the service. Over the years, thousands of civilians from Chandler were employed at Willie, doing everything from painting aircraft to operating the base phone system and everything in between.
The base remained an important training facility for the Air Force until 1993, when it was closed on August 30. Two boy scouts who had been on hand to raise the flag over the base for the first time in 1941 were there to lower the flag for the last time. Since then, the base has been converted to Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport, and is the home to ASU Polytechnic and CGCC-Williams Campus.