Quintessentially Lowcountry: Page Field on Parris Island mushroomed in WWII

Before the creation of Naval Air Station Beaufort in 1943, fighter planes, dive bombers,gliders and balloons lifted off from another Beaufort-area military base.

Thick patches of tall pine trees give way to criss-crossing, asphalt runways that are the only remnants of what was once Marine Corps Air Station Parris Island.

"They had all types of planes there ... ," said Steven Wise, director of the Parris Island Museum. "It was a fully operational airfield."

Built in the early 1930s as part of the Works Project Administration, the airfield -- officially dubbed Page Field in 1935 -- was named in honor of Marine Capt. Arthur Hallet Page, a pilot killed in a 1930 air race in Chicago when carbon monoxide leaked into the cockpit of his plane,according to Corps historians.

For much of its early history, Page Field was used by pilots for bombing and gunnery practice, and it wasn't until after World War II began that the Corps built barracks, a flight tower, a hangar and other buildings near the airfield and paved its dirt runways. The base was christened Marine Corps Air Station Parris Island in December 1941, according to the Corps.

In addition to housing dive bombers and fighter jets, MCAS Parris Island also played a prominent role in testing experimental aircraft, including gliders and barrage balloons. Tethered to the ground with thick metal cables, the balloons were designed to defend against low-flying aerial attacks by making an enemy pilot's approach to a potential target more difficult, if not lethal.

At least five barrage balloon squadrons and Marine Glider Group 71 were stationed at MCAS Parris Island during World War II, according to Charles Updegraph Jr., a Corps historian at Headquarters Marine Corps in Virginia.

The 20 officers and 218 enlisted men of Marine Glider Group 71 transferred to Parris Island in 1942 and began training pilots to fly one- and two-man gliders, according to Updegraph.

The squadron left Parris Island later that year, and the Corps terminated its glider program in July 1943 after determining that the engine-less planes were not well-suited for jungle warfare in the south Pacific.

Activity at the base slowed after World War II and the Corps shuttered MCAS Parris Island in March 1947.

"The runways were just too short to handle jets," Wise said of the base's 6,000-foot main runway. "It happened to a lot of airfields after World War II."

Page Field is now used to stage various parts of "The Crucible," the grueling 54-hour culmination of Parris Island recruit training, said Lt. Sharon Hyland, depot spokeswoman.

"(Page Field) is an area so steeped in history, it's only fitting that it is also the training ground where recruits are turned into Marines," Hyland said.