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A flyer and his legacy

A flyer and his legacy

Posted on June 3, 2014 by Beth Swift

Eglin FB pic

Eglin from his football days.

In this post I would like to highlight the life and career of a Wabash man who was a pioneer in combat flight.  You may have heard of Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. A large base, Eglin is named for Frederick Irving Eglin [W1914]. A gifted athlete and a good friend, Eglin left quite a mark on Wabash during his time here.

Eglin’s story is pieced together from the reminiscences of his former class and team mates here at Wabash. We owe a debt of gratitude to Wayne Guthrie who wrote a sports column for the Indianapolis News in the 1970s.  Two of his articles serve up a great deal of what we know about this Wabash man.

Eglin was from the Bowery area of New York City and came to Wabash in much the same way as so many others, through the persistence of an alumnus. The story goes that Eglin was pretty good at basketball and was spotted by the alum. Wabash was basketball mad in that era and a talented player was quite a find. The alum recruited him and bought his ticket to Crawfordsville. A poor boy whose parents had died, Eglin came to Wabash with almost nothing. One friend said that when the young Eglin arrived in town, he had no money and no clothes and fainted in class due to hunger. He was taken home by a local student and in just a few days some good home cooking had him back on his feet. It was a hard road for Eglin and initially he depended upon the generosity of others for necessities, but it was not long before he found a job and got squared away.

Initially Eglin started Wabash as a “Special Student” as he had not graduated from high school. He got the courses he needed and in short order he was on his way in the collegiate course. Eglin played football, basketball and baseball and made many good friends. He joined the Delta Tau Delta fraternity and in his junior year he was elected class president and was the captain of the basketball team. Among his very good friends were the Lambert brothers.

Eglin Senior Pic

This scan is from the senior issue of the Wabash Magazine of 1914.

From an article by Wayne Guthrie which ran in the the Indianapolis News of August 26, 1974:

M.E. “Doc” Elliott, Connersville…said the Wabash basketball team of that era was unbeatable on its home floor which was a box-like room, with only one side open to spectators, in the Crawfordsville Y.M.C.A. He added, “Those players became expert at caroming the ball off the walls and Ward, “Piggy” Lambert; his brother, Kent “Skeet” Lambert, and Eggie would run fill tilt toward the wall, make a couple of steps up the wall and hit the floor on the run beyond the rival guard. Sounds like a human fly stunt but they did it.”

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Eglin met and married a local girl, Mary Oda, and joined the Crawfordsville company of the Indiana National Guard. In 1916 the unit, along with many others, was deployed to the Mexican border in answer to Pancho Villa’s raids into New Mexico. Eglin served as a Sergeant Major at Headquarters in the Southwest. Soon after returning to Crawfordsville, the unit was again called and this time to service in WWI. It is clear that Eglin served with distinction as he was immediately raised to the rank of Second Lieutenant in 1917. He moved from the National Guard to the Army Signal Corps and a biography from Eglin AFB says Eglin then completed his flight training and began to train other WWI pilots.

Eglin Wikipedia

Eglin as an officer from the Air Force website: http://www.eglin.af.mil/news/story.asp?id=123169066

Following WWI Eglin stayed in the Army in aviation and again, from the Air Force biography:

In 1929, he was promoted to captain and commanded several organizations including the 9th Observation Squadron in Sacramento, Calif., the Provisional Administrative Company at Clark Field, Philippines and the 40th School Squadron at Kelly Field, Texas.  Eglin was also an instructor and executive officer for the Air Corps Tactical School at Maxwell Field, Ala. Later, he served as director of the Department of Command, Staff and Logistics before becoming a major in 1934.

As a major, he worked as Assistant to the Chief of Staff, Headquarters Air Force at Langley Field where he was promoted to lieutenant colonel. He also earned titles as Airplane Pilot, logging over 3,800 hours and Airplane Observer with over 100 hours.

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It was not long after his promotion to lieutenant colonel that Eglin lost his life in 1937 at the age of 45 on a mission. Wreckage of his Northrop A-17 pursuit aircraft was found on the Appalachian peaks of Ala. about 50 miles from Birmingham. At this same time, the Army Air Corps was going through a transformation and because of Lt. Col. Eglin’s accomplishments and sacrifice, the Valparaiso Bombing and Gunnery Base was renamed in 1937 “Eglin Field” which, after the establishment of the Air Force, later became Eglin AFB.

A story in the New York Times of January 3, 1937 provides a bit more detail on the crash that ended the life of this great flyer. The plane flown by Lt. Col. Eglin was flying from Langley Field in D.C. to Maxwell Field in Montgomery, Alabama with Lt. Howard E. Shelton, Jr. as a passenger. The plane was in Alabama when it crashed on the afternoon of January 1, 1937. There was heavy rain falling and thick fog was reported. The NYT article says, “The wreckage lay near the top of Cheaha Mountain, highest of the Appalachian peaks in Alabama, fifty miles from Birmingham. The plane, skimming across tree tops 800 feet before it nosed into the mountainside, lost its left wing before bursting into flames.”

In August of 1937 the air base at Valparaiso, Florida was named Eglin Field in honor of this army flier. Eglin AFB has a long and distinguished history. A base history tells us that Eglin became a site for training army pilots in WWII, including Colonel Jimmy Doolittle’s B-25 crews training for raids on Tokyo. Eglin was also the site where “personnel developed the tactics and techniques to destroy German missile installations being built to support V-1 buzz-bomb attacks on England.”

It is an amazing honor to have such a base named after Frederick “Eggie” Eglin. And he was young, only 45, when he crashed. I wonder what he might have achieved during WWII, only a few years away at the time of his death. It is hard to say what Eglin might have contributed, but it is possible to say that he loved Wabash. The friends he made here, his adopted hometown where he met and married, and the old school that was happy to welcome a kid from the Bowery, all of these he treasured.

The Eglin base history finishes with this tribute:

Although Lt. Col. Eglin accomplished much in his short life, it is the lasting words of his devoted friend, Russell Hesler of the Journal Review in Crawfordsville which may speak most to his character, “[he] was intensely loyal to his friends, possessed a sympathetic understanding of the problems of others and deeply patriotic.”

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I hope that you enjoyed reading this story as much as I have enjoyed researching it. For more information on this amazing Wabash man, here are a few links:

http://www.history.army.mil/html/reference/army_flag/mexex.html

http://www.eglin.af.mil/news/story.asp?id=123169066

http://www.eglin.af.mil/library/factsheets/factsheet.asp?id=6061

http://www.afarmamentmuseum.com/history_eglin.shtml

http://www.arlingtoncemetery.net/fieglin.htm

 

All best,

Beth Swift

Archivist

Wabash College

Crawfordsville, Indiana

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