By Roger McCormick, 45th Space Wing Museum Volunteer
/ Published December 19, 2013
PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- Maj. Gen. Mason Mathews Patrick was born Dec. 13, 1863 in Lewisburg, West Virginia, son Dr. Alfred Spicer Patrick, a Confederate Army surgeon, and Virginia Patrick (Mathews). After attending private schools in Lewisburg, Patrick was admitted to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. In 1886 he graduated number two in his class, which also included such future military leaders as John J. Pershing and Charles T. Menoher.
Upon graduation he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Engineering School of Application at Willets Point (later Fort Totten), New York, graduating there in 1889 and receiving a promotion to First Lieutenant in July. During 1889 he joined relief efforts to assist survivors of the massive flood at Johnstown, Pennsylvania.
For several years he was in charge of river and harbor work in North and South Carolina.
After many different tours n Washington, D.C., West Point, Cuba and on the Great Lakes, among others, he was promoted to the rank of Colonel on March 24, 1916.
That same year, he took command of the First Regiment of Engineers (Army Corps of Engineers), at San Antonio, Texas, and led them as part of the Punitive Expedition against Pancho Villa in Mexico. When America entered World War I in 1917, he was Commandant of the Engineer School, Washington, D.C. Barracks.
He was promoted to Brigadier General on Aug. 5, 1917, and arrived in France in September as Chief Engineer of the Lines of Communication and Director of Construction of Forestry Operation of the American Expeditionary Forces, overseeing the construction of ports, depots, railroads, and airfields.
Gen. Patrick's wartime career as an engineer came to an end on 10 May 1918 when he was appointed by General John J. Pershing to assume command of the combined Air Service of the American Expeditionary Forces.
At the time, the Air Service was an uncoordinated collection of often competing units attached to the Army and Corps staffs. In June of 1918 he was advanced in rank to temporary Major General, and up to that time had no connection with the air corps or with flying. He had never even been in a plane. As an en excellent organizer and administrator, he took the assignment, and although the United States, as he later said, had entered the war "without a single plane fit for battle," was able to do a good job under the circumstances.
On Oct. 5, 1921, Patrick was promoted to Major General and appointed Chief of the Air Service. On arrival, Patrick studied the Air Service's operations and quickly came to understand the degree to which budget cuts were destroying the service's ability to fulfill its mission. Patrick also knew he had to learn to fly in order to gain the respect of his men and better execute his responsibilities, so at the age of 58, he began flight instructions under Major Herbert A. Dargue, who would later became a Major General. In June 1922, after performing a series of nose dives, spirals, spins and loops over Bolling Field, Washington, D.C., he passed his examinations and qualified as a pilot.
As an experienced military man, he knew that while the principles of war never change, the weapons do. He learned about the theories of aerial warfare and studied the results of World War I. He realized that airplanes were most effective when used for offense.
He began to embrace the theory that military aviation could be divided into two areas: air service (attached to ground units, performing tasks such as reconnaissance and artillery targeting) and air force (pursuit, bombardment, and other units devoted to offensive purposes). Because air force activity did not depend on coordination with ground units, Patrick felt there was no reason it had to be part of the army. This theory became the backbone of his campaign for an independent air service.
The U.S. Air Force finally became a separate branch of the military on 18 September 1947 under the National Security Act of 1947. His vision and dedication helped lay the groundwork for the creation of an independent aviation branch of the military.
Banana River Naval Air Station, Florida, was transferred to the United States Air Force on Sept. 1, 1948 and renamed Joint Long Range Proving Ground on 10 June 1949. On May 17, 1950, the base was again renamed the Long Range Proving Ground Base, and on Aug. 26, 1950, it was changed to Patrick Air Force Base to honor the service of a dedicated and experienced military man who helped keep the Air Service alive and flying during a time of massive budget cuts and much uncertainty.