Hunting The Plains To Daredevils
Soaring in Planes To Plain Old Growth
Nature seems to have graced Long Island with many Guinness-coated oddities. We have a
maritime forest on Fire Island growing in the middle of the sand dunes; a rocky north shore
coastline of glacial outwash pebbled enough to disgrace even a Barbazon graduate on her way to dip
feet in the Sound; and a number of ice age kettle ponds flavored with legends about whirlpools,
spirits and drowning Indian maidens. We also have, on the Island, an unusual piece of land known
as the Hempstead Plains. Once a treeless expanse abundant with deer and native violets, the
Hempstead Plains is now considered a choice piece of real estate, covered with anything but violets.
Why was there a prairie in the middle of Nassau County? Who knows, but Long Islanders should be
pleased about its existence. In its natural state, the area stretched from Hempstead, Garden City
and Mineola to Farmingdale and Hicksville. The Hempstead Plains, twenty miles long and five miles
wide, was the only natural prairie east of the Alleghany Mountains. For this reason, it seems that
the area became heavily involved with the nation’s military history.
Early before the spirit of independence even touched upon the continent, the local Indians
must have taken a break during the hunt to watch with curiosity as colonial Long Island militia
men trained, drilled, and tested musket skills before marching off to fight for the British during the
French and Indian War.
In 1657, the Indians sold their portion of the plains and it was used for the development of
colonial settlements. Crops grew and livestock grazed on the plains. All was calm until the
Revolutionary War. Once again, as General Washington called for volunteers, the Hempstead
Plains was chosen for encampments and as an enlistment zone.
The trend continued throughout the decades. Communities pressed toward the plains from the
adjacent forest and military needs for this treeless expanse were created with every war. The War of
1812 and the Mexican War each provided causes for use of the area as a training ground for the
infantry. During the Civil War, Camp Winfield Scott was a gathering place for Union soldiers. The
camp was used as a training area and encampment ground for Lincoln’s Army when troops arrived
from New York City and New Jersey. During the Spanish American War, Camp Black was
established in the area for the same purpose.
At the onset of World War 1, Camp Black was renamed Camp Mills and it became the largest
training center for the American expedition forces with 80,000 men passing through this site before
serving in France during the war. The 42nd ‘Rainbow’ division trained at Camp Mills. The division
was named ‘Rainbow’ because it was comprised of troops from every section of the nation.
The National Guard troops that gathered here included the Fighting 69th. Figures such as Joyce
Kilmer and Father Duffy immortalized the exploits of this outfit later made famous in a movie with
James Cagney as a rough and tough pre-Rambo soldier.
By this time, due to its natural expanse, the Hempstead Plains was also becoming the seat of
aviation. Along with the massive World War I effort, the seeds of flight, and the Air Force were
beginning to take root at Camp Mills. In fact, Camp Mills became the home of the original
Birdlings, the first aero-squadron. This famous glider group served with General Pershing in Mexico
in 1916 and sailed to England in August of 1917 for service during World War 1.
In 1917, land adjacent to the Camp Mills site was leased from the Hempstead Plains Company
to be put to use as an airfield. The airfield was buzzing with vital missions including service as
supply depot for the large number of gathered troops.
On July 16, 1918, the field was named for Major John Purroy Mitchel, a former mayor of New
York City who had been killed during a training flight in Louisiana.
After World War I, the troops left Camp Mills; however, the essential Mitchel Field remained and
continued to contribute to aviation history. Although this Army Airbase was only one of three in
existence in the northeast, poor appropriations caused it to be a sorry site. There were loose dirt
runways with few guidelines for take-off and landing procedures. Pilots left the field and skirted the
treetops for thrills. There were no sentries at the gates, no sidewalks and not even the comfort of
grass. A persistent mud surface covered the base. Barracks leaked and general repairs were not
made until the early 1920’s.
In 1926, the General Headquarters Air Force assigned the field to a Bombing Unit. More than
800 enlisted men, 83 officers and 50 planes safeguarded the air defense of New York City.
Speed records were set at Mitchel and air mail had its inception here. The army Air Corps initiated
the first air route between McCook Field, Ohio and Mitchel Field. The first trans-continental non-
stop flight departed from Mitchel to San Diego, California. Air shows dazzled spectators and records
continued to be set.
On September 24, 1929, Lieutenant James H. Doolittle completed an experimental flight at
Mitchel, the first ‘blind’ take-off and landing. This experiment would enable pilots to travel during
darkness and inclement weather. Later, Doolittle achieved immortality for his famous Tokyo raid.
During World War II, many thousands of men and women touched down at and were touched by
Mitchel Field. It became a major base used in the defense of the Eastern United States and had
certainly matured from a ramshackle outpost. By 1943, there were two swimming poo1s, a gym, 58
barracks, 17 administration buildings, two chapels, a sawmill, a bakery, greenhouses, 19 garages,
five wells, a hospital and 243 permanent buildings. As the war raged between 1943 and 1944, there
were German POW’s housed in the Mitchel area. Even more poignant and important were stories of
the wounded transported home from the front.
In 1945, it is estimated that between 1,000.to 1,200 wounded a month landed at Mitchel Field.
The touch down of the Douglas C-54s was a familiar sight. Each crew of six transported men from
the front. This crew included an Army flight nurse who would suggest varying altitudes and other
considerations for patient comfort. Some soldiers arrived with mud from foxholes, seriously
wounded, dazed and dealing with the fact that within hours they had come home from the horrors of
war. Others, in a familiar gesture, kissed the ground at Mitchel, their first stop in a long journey
By September of 1947, the Air Force was made an independent branch of the armed forces and
Mitchel moved into the role of one of the leading bases. It provided a complete community setting.
In the 1950’s, 1,163 acres contained a base composed of stately Georgian architecture, housing, an
enormous parade ground, recreational facilities and other features.
Mitchel kept contributing to Air Force history with over 3,951 operations a month including new jet
operations. In the fifties, 10,000 people operated within its jurisdiction and Mitchel became the
headquarters of the new First Air Force, supervising the training of the Air Reserve in 15 states.
There were guided tours conducted daily and, during any given year, 150,000 civilian neighbors
visited and participated in base activities.
Times were changing. The field of aviation was evolving as well as the nature of Nassau
County. The once sparsely inhabited Hempstead Plains became filled with housing developments as
post war suburban communities emerged from farmland villages. The aircraft changed from small
engine crates to heavy metal bombers and finally, to jets. There were fatal crashes and residents
expressed a mixture of sadness and relief at the closing of Mitchel Field. In 1961, the final aircraft
departed and taps were sounded for this historic base. Only the Cradle of Aviation Museum remains
as a testimony to this historic ‘seat of aviation’ locale.
Today, the same land that was used for more than two centuries of troop training and defense
is devoted to education, recreation, business enterprises, community growth and other aspects of a
democracy. It is almost as if this land had become a living monument to all of the soldiers who
fought for these things in the first place.
On the Hempstead Plains, today’s Long Islanders work in shining new buildings. We drive
along Meadowbrook parkway to the races or the beaches or the malls. We live in one of hundreds of
thousands of cozy homes. But what a sight the Hempstead Plains must have been to an early Native
racing after a herd of deer at sunrise or to Charles Lindbergh taking off and watching the ground
melt away as the Atlantic rushed toward him or to Joyce Kilmer penning a few lines as his comrades
settled in for the night. Buildings, real estate or not.., the Hempstead Plains is really a rare piece of
|First Published in the Long Island Chronicle