Gerstner Field was a large World War I aviation training camp that existed during the years 1917-1921 about 15 miles southeast of Lake Charles. Today the green and white Gerstner Memorial Drive signs in Lake Charles along La. Hwy. 14 point the way southward to the crossroads village of Holmwood near where the field was once located. Travelers will find a historical marker located one-half mile south of Holmwood on LA Hwy. 27 (the Creole Nature Trail) at the corner of Old Camp Road.
During its short time of existence, Gerstner Field took in several thousand acres of land westward from La. Hwy. 27 on both sides of Old Camp Road. The field's 24 hangars were lined up on the south side of the road. Most of the other buildings, including its barracks, shops, YMCAs, and headquarters, about 90 buildings of various sizes, were located on the north side of the road between Camp Road and a railroad spur extending along the field's northern boundary.
Today the site looks nothing like an air field. All of the old buildings were torn down or moved away shortly after World War I. The land on which the field existed is now private property and not available to public access, but a few of the old concrete foundations, the camp's two deep wells, and its sewer plant can still be seen from Old Camp Road. Many of the old foundations that are still there, such as those of its 24 hangars, are now covered with tall weeds and tallow trees.
Gerstner Field was Lake Charles' and Louisiana's first military air field. (Please note: Gerstner Field is not to be confused with the Lake Charles Air Base which was built in another location on the east side of town during World War II. After that base was closed, it was was later reopened and enlarged during the Cold War into a Strategic Air Command base for B-47s that was named for General Claire Chennault of Flying Tiger fame.)
During Gerstner Field's short history several thousand persons worked at the camp to graduate a total of 499 fighter pilots and aviation instructors from its training courses. These graduates were sent either overseas to participate in the war or to other air fields around the country to serve as instructors.
The federal government built Gerstner Field near Lake Charles largely because of the untiring lobbying efforts of the Lake Charles Chamber of Commerce under the leadership of C.D. Moss, president; and Herbert B. Bayliss, executive secretary. Bayliss spent the entire summer of 1917 lobbying in Washington, D.C., in cooperation with Congressman Ladislas Lazaro to win the field in competition with Baton Rouge, Monroe and about 100 other towns and cities around the country.
When the Chamber's efforts were finally successful, Lake Charles businessmen and members of the Chamber paid for leasing the land, running the utilities to the site, and organizing the housing and other forms of assistance needed to meet the needs of the 5,000 workers who leveled the land and built the camp in only four months of intense work during late summer and fall of 1917.
On November 16, 1917, when construction work was nearly completed, the Army began sending hundreds of young fliers, mechanics, and support personnel, some of the nation's best educated and most talented young men, to this facility. Soon over 2,000 military persons were working to meet training schedules, maintain airplanes and provide the daily necessities that kept the fliers and airplanes going.
During its one year of service during the war, nothing was easy at Gerstner Field. The Signal Corps Aviation Service put tremendous pressure upon the field's commanders to produce trained pilots in a hurry. But speed in training combined with fragile aircraft meant a high number of accidents and the loss of many lives. Other problems included wartime equipment shortages, localized flooding at the camp, the worldwide Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, and the strong, unannounced hurricane of Aug. 6, 1918, which killed two soldiers, battered barracks, destroyed hangars, and mangled 100 airplanes.
From the time the first aviation units arrived at Gerstner Field, area residents made a point of being friendly to all of them. On weekends and holidays residents invited the soldiers into their homes, and they even cleared homemade landing strips to encourage pilots to land nearby in Lake Charles and towns as far away as Vinton, Jennings and Oakdale. Gerstner Field fliers in their Curtis JN-4 Jenny trainers provided many Southwest Louisiana folk with their first glimpses of airplanes.
When the camp was finally closed and demolished, it left Lake Charles and Southwest Louisiana with a penchant for aviation that continues to this day.