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Origins of Fort Rucker and Army Aviation

Although both Fort Rucker and Army Aviation trace their origins back to earlier eras, they came into being during the early months of World War II. The United States entered the war on December 8, 1941, following the surprise Japanese attack on Hawaii, the Philippines, Guam, and Midway. On December 15, Congress voted an appropriation of $10 billion for the defense of the United States and established a military service draft for men from 20 to 44 years of age During World War II, America conducted a manpower mobilization unprecedented in its history in terms of total numbers; the United States put into uniform more than 16 million men (one-sixth of the total male population) and also approximately 333,000 women. This mobilization called for the creation of new training camps and military bases, including Camp Rucker.

Camp Rucker

The original name of the post was Ozark Triangular Division Camp, but before the camp was officially opened on 1 May 1942, the War Department named it Camp Rucker. The post was named in honor of Colonel Edmund W. Rucker, a Civil War Confederate officer, who was given the honorary title of “General,” and who became an industrial leader in Birmingham after the war. In September 1942, 1,259 additional acres south of Daleville were acquired for the construction of an airfield to support the training camp. It was known as Ozark Army Airfield until January 1959, when the name was changed to Cairns Army Airfield. The first troops to train at Camp Rucker were those of the 81st (Wildcat) Infantry Division; the 81st Division left Rucker for action in the Pacific Theater in March 1943. Three other infantry divisions received training at Camp Rucker during World War II -- the 35th, the 98th, and the 66th. The 66th (Panther) Division left for the European Theater in October 1944.

Camp Rucker was also used to train dozens of units of less than division size; these included tank, infantry replacement, and Women’s Army Corps units. During the latter part of World War II, several hundred German and a few Italian prisoners-of-war were housed in stockades near the railroad east of the warehouse area, on the southern edge of the post. Camp Rucker was inactive from March 1946 until August 1950, between WWII and the Korean conflict. The principal Army unit operating at Rucker during the Korean conflict was the 47th Infantry Division, which trained replacement troops for combat in Korea. The post again became inactive in June 1954, after an armistice was signed. Camp Rucker reopened in August of that year, however, when the Army Aviation School began moving to Camp Rucker from Fort Sill, Oklahoma.

Origins of Army Aviation

Army Aviation traces its origins back to the American Civil War. Both Union and Confederate forces used helium-filled balloons to direct artillery fire, marking the beginning of U.S. military aeronautics and of aerial support of Army ground forces. The Army also used balloons during the Spanish American War and World War I, but airplanes replaced balloons for most military purposes during the latter conflict.

Army Aviation began in 1909 with the Army’s acquisition of its first heavier-than-air aircraft, an airplane built to Army specifications by the Wright brothers. During World War I, the Army’s aircraft strength grew from a few dozen to more than 11,000 planes, and the number of aviation personnel came to total more than 190,000. The Army Air Service was created in May of 1918.

After World War I, General William Mitchell and other Air Service leaders spoke out forcefully in favor of an independent air force. Since they envisioned aviation as a separate striking force, capable of independent operations, they opposed its remaining an arm of the ground forces.

Although Congress as well as most Army leaders rejected Mitchell’s argument, the Air Service did become a separate combat arm, equal in status to the infantry, cavalry, and artillery. In 1926, the name of the air arm was changed to Army Air Corps, and then, in June 1941, the Air Corps and other Army air elements were merged to form the Army Air Forces, co-equal with the Army Ground Forces and the Army Service Forces.

During the 1930s, many Army Air Corps leaders became preoccupied with strategic air operations. Like Billy Mitchell before them, they advocated using air power independently of the Army ground forces to destroy enemy targets behind the lines of combat. This Air Corps emphasis on strategic operations disturbed some ground forces leaders, who believed their aerial support needs were being neglected.

Aerial support was particularly vital for artillery fire adjustment. Partly because Air Corps fire support aircraft were not always available, the chief of field artillery and other artillery officers became interested in using light aircraft organic to the artillery units.

The Army experimented with using small organic aircraft for artillery fire adjustment and other functions in maneuvers at Camp Beauregard, La., in August 1940. The tests were repeated on a larger scale in the Army maneuvers in Louisiana, Tennessee, Texas, and the Carolinas in 1941. The Army’s “Grasshoppers,” as these light planes came to be called, proved to be much more effective than the larger Air Corps planes used for the same purposes.

Next: The Birth of Army Aviation

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