For all its love of history, San Antonio has no place for the local or visitor to gain a full appreciation of the city’s rich military past. There is no destination museum like the National Museum of the Pacific War located on Main Street in Fredericksburg.
That museum honors native son and U.S. Navy Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, who gained fame for his singular leadership as commander of the Central Pacific Theater in World War II. It’s all but impossible to drive through the German Hill Country town without passing the museum. Once inside, the visitor is not disappointed.
San Antonio has more than enough military history to fill a museum. Our lack of a destination venue, however, makes it much harder for the city to preserve and share its long and eventful military history.
Most of San Antonio’s military history that is preserved is kept behind high fences and guarded gates, house on restricted military facilities shut off from the public. People can find their way to the history with real effort, but that means most people never see it.
This Friday officials at Brooks City Base will celebrate the $2.8 million restoration of Hangar 9, built in 1918 and now the only surviving intact wooden hangar from World War I. Hangar 9, a National Historic Landmark, will now be available to the public for weddings, quinceañeras, business meetings, and other community gatherings. Its preservation is an important milestone, but there is so much more history to Brooks Field, founded in 1917, and Brooks Air Force Base, and no single place to rediscover it.
“Hangar 9 was one of 16 wooden hangars built in a crescent shape around the airfield at Brooks Field starting in 1917 and completed in 1918,” said Rudy Purificato, the former historian at Brooks AFB before its closure in 2011. Purificato now is the curator and director of operations at the Heritage Air Museum located at Lackland AFB.
“Hangar 9 was an aircraft maintenance facility, it could fit eight Curtis JN-4 ‘Jenny’ biplanes in there, which was the primary trainer used at Kelly Field, at the time the Army Air Service’s primary training field,” Purificato said.
One JN-4 is on display at the Heritage Air Museum. A second restored aircraft, which is owned by the Witte Museum and currently disassembled and in storage, is tentatively planned to be displayed at the Heritage Air Museum when its slated expansion is completed. It seems like one of the aircraft belongs inside the restored hangar, especially because it is one of the few historical venues more easily accessed by the public
Fort Sam Houston, another National Historic Landmark, is one of the U.S. army’s oldest installations and home to the single largest collection of historic military buildings, including the Quadrangle, the oldest building on the post dating to 1876 and one of four open to the public. The Apache Chief Geronimo was held at the Quadrangle as a prisoner in the 1880s.
The 19th century Clock Tower is the most recognizable architectural landmark at the Quadrangle, where visitors can still commune with gentle white-tail deer and other animals that openly roam the courtyard green spaces.
The Fort Sam Houston Museum tells the post’s story that dates to its origins as a military camp for a few companies of soldiers in 1845, who arrived just months before Texas became a state in 1846. They went on to fight in the Mexican-American War that ended in 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that cost Mexico one-third of its national territory and established the Rio Grande as the border between the two countries.
The City deeded 93 acres of Government Hill to the federal government in the 1870s, which made construction of the post, its many buildings, and parade grounds possible. A long list of famous military leaders left their marks there: Robert E. Lee, John J. Pershing, Dwight Eisenhower, and more.
Fort Sam Houston is now home to the largest military medicine training facility in the world. Unfortunately, the fort has been largely disconnected from the city since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, with the closure of vehicle traffic on North New Braunfels Avenue, a measure by the base commander at the time that, in retrospect, seems like an unnecessary over-reaction.
Few people I know who arrived in San Antonio after 9/11 have been to Fort Sam Houston’s museum. Entry to both Lackland AFB and Fort Sam Houston is restricted for individuals without Department of Defense identification. (See below for gaining access to visit the museums.)
That’s about it in a city so proud of its deep military history.
As Texas and San Antonio proceed with the master plan to redevelop the Alamo Plaza and connect the Alamo to the four Spanish-colonial Missions for a true World Heritage site experience, serious thought should be given to finding a way to tell the city’s military history from the arrival of the first Spanish soldiers to the cybersecurity present, and all the history in between that has made San Antonio Military City, USA.
Members of the newly-formed Alamo Endowment face the task of raising hundreds of millions of dollars in private funds just to bring the Alamo Plaza Master Plan to fulfillment. A similar undertaking, the Nimitz Foundation, was founded in Fredericksburg in 1971 and became the driving force for the creation and support of the Pacific War Museum.
A new visitor center and museum at Alamo Plaza is anticipated in the master plan. It is expected to cover the period of time of indigenous occupation prior to the arrival of European colonists through the establishment of Mission San Antonio de Valero and the post-Mission period of the Alamo.
It would take a much more expansive space and budget to build a military museum from the city’s founding to present, including the history of all the other past and present military bases and installations, including Kelly AFB, Randolph AFB, Camp Stanley, Camp Bullis and other camps now long gone.
The kind of effort that led to the creation of the Pacific War Museum in Fredericksburg, now a major visitor attraction, would allow San Antonio to tell an important story that is currently told in bits and pieces in different places with highly limited access. It’s the kind of big project that might be undertaken in connection with next year’s Tricentennial celebrations, or afterwards.
Right now, a number of people involved in the planning of the city’s 300th anniversary believe the Tricentennial Commission is woefully underfunded. They don’t necessarily want to speak out, but privately they share the view that the official calendar lacks the kind of transcendental events that will make the 300th celebrations attract world visitors and live on afterward in memory.
Perhaps the Tricentennial mission should be expanded to more than a commemoration of the city’s 300 years. A permanent museum telling the military story, which is really the city’s story, would be an enduring landmark, one that would beckon visitors long after the year’s fleeting celebrations end.
Accessing Lackland Air Force Base and Fort Sam Houston
The Heritage Air Museum at Lackland AFB and the Fort Sam Houston Museum are open to the public on a limited basis. Both military facilities are restricted for individuals and groups lacking Department of Defense credentials.
Individuals and tour groups seeking access to Lackland AFB must go through the Public Affairs office (210-671-2128 ext. 3136) for advance permission to arrange tours. The Heritage Air Museum Curator at 210-671-3055 also can help. Do not expect same-day access.
Access to Fort Sam Houston is more restricted. There are at least two current gates at the post with visitor centers where individuals and groups can check in and show a valid photo ID to secure a pass to visit the museum. For gate questions and hours of operation, call 210-221-9205 or click here.