COURTLAND, Ala. - Preserving our past for the future. That's what some folks in Lawrence County are trying to do. They want to give Courtland a new breath of life. Stories passed from one generation to the next are a link to our past.
“I grew up in Lawrence County and did not know there was an air base here for WWII,” Erin Coggins said. “It’s been interesting finding out that history of Lawrence County.” Erin teaches history at Sparkman but was learning a lesson herself while sitting at a restaurant table.
Lisa Pace, who owns Courtland’s Warbird Diner with her husband Greg, was telling Erin about the cadets who trained at the Courtland Army Airbase before flying off to fight in WWII. “Toward the end of their classes which would last 38 days, they would actually start throwing out candy and goggles to the children,” Lisa said. Children who lived and played near the runways loved watching the planes.
“We had at least four wasps here during the course of the four years that the air base was open,” Lisa added. “That is a badge of honor for Courtland.” Civilian Women Air Service Pilots flew supplies and packages between the airbase and auxiliary training fields in Danville, Muscle Shoals, Leighton, Red Bay and Hillsboro.
Lisa and her husband opened the Warbird Diner last September. “That’s an original piece,” Greg said pointing to a drawing on the wall. “That’s an explosion of a B-24 nose wheel and it came out of the shop of one of the maintenance buildings on the airbase when they were dismantling those.”
The couple wanted to honor the men and women who served at the airbase from 1942 to 1946. So they started looking for old photos. Pointing to one that had been enlarged, “And that’s actually the band with a BT-13 in the back,” Greg said. “So I’m assuming they’re probably getting ready for a swing dance because there are civilian ladies there as well.”
They’ve collected other memorabilia like a sweetheart pillow that now hangs on a wall. “This was actually mailed in this box from Courtland Army Airfield to Cedar Rapids, Iowa,” Greg said. A man found it in his mother’s possessions after she passed away and felt it needed to come home to Courtland. It is just one piece that is helping preserve the story of the airbase.
When the facility closed after the war, much of it was torn down. “There’s a hangar in Birmingham,” Lisa said. “Some of the barracks were taken to UNA as married student housing, we’ve been told.” Pieces were scattered like dust in the wind. “It’s kinda like they just wiped that existence off the map and it was gone,” Lisa added. About the only thing left are the runways. “That’s right,” Lisa said. “Those are some of the strongest concrete in all the south.”
But some reminders of the airbase may still be close by. There are stories that some of the planes may have actually crashed in the Tennessee River. “There are stories that they crashed there and there are stories that they crashed on the air base and were transported out there and dumped in the river,” Greg said. In fact, divers have told him they found pieces of planes and Jeeps there.
The Warbird Diner is giving us all a way to remember by having veterans like James Parker sign the wall of honor. He served in the Army and in Vietnam. Four of those signatures are in silver ink. ”And those silver names are the World War II veterans that we’ve been blessed to have come in,” Greg said.
Lisa, Greg and Erin are gearing up for the first "Wings over Courtland: Remembering our WWII History" event. They’re pulling it all together. It’s coming up April 28th. The day will include a 1940s fashion show, vintage cars, a USO Show performance by Sparkman drama students, a dance and dinner along with a program to honor all veterans. For more information on what’s down the road, or in this case, the runway, click here and we’ll take you to the Warbird Diner Facebook page.