Aviation at this facility, the largest inland naval base in the world, dates back to World War I, when the U.S. Army created Park Field as a training ground for air and ground crews. The navy’s presence began in 1942 when the Park Field site and adjacent areas became first a Naval Reserve Air Base, then a Naval Air Station and finally, in 1949, Naval Air State Memphis. The primary task of the base has remained the same–to train air and ground crews in the operation and maintenance of the Navy’s sea- and land-based aircraft. From 1945 to 1955, however, no flight training took place at Millington.
Although Memphis firms supplied the architects and engineers involved in the initial construction, by mid-1942 Memphis-area builders were engaged in other construction projects, and firms from Chattanooga and Birmingham, Alabama, built the eight-thousand-foot runway, a project that eventually employed four thousand workers.
As a primary flight training center in World War II, six hundred to eight hundred aviation cadets trained at a time. The ground crew training facility was designed for ten thousand students. The entire complex, which included unpaved satellite fields in a fifteen-mile radius, covered an area of more than 3,500 acres.
In early 1943 the ground crew facility was named the Naval Air Technical Training Center (NATT); the headquarters of that command was transferred there in 1946, and all the operations of the NATT command were consolidated in 1947. The Korean War turned the temporary installation into a permanent one when $64 million were allocated for a six-year building program. By the late 1950s almost thirteen thousand uniformed and civilian employees were on the payroll, and the base became one of the largest employers in Shelby County, with an annual payroll of $39 million. By 1971 a reported twenty-three thousand students rotated through the base annually. As recently as 1993, the five thousand full-time uniformed and civilian employees and an equal number of students assigned to the base contributed to the estimated $250 million annual value of the base to the local economy.
The Memphis Naval Air Station and associated installations such as the Naval Hospital are important factors in the local economy and provide a steady influx of non-southern-born U.S. Navy and Marine retirees (many with foreign-born wives) to the area’s population.