Almost a century ago Southwest Louisiana was home to one of the key training grounds for US pilots for the efforts in World War I. Twenty miles northwest of Cameron, near Holmwood, it was home to between 2,000 and 3,000 people, with 94 building, and 24 hangars that housed 140 airplanes.
Lake Charles and surrounding area residence were given their first glimpses of aircraft as the pilots' training maneuvers often flew over the towns and residences. In nearby Big Lake, a Gunnery Range was setup for target practice on hydrogen filled balloons; this training proved invaluable for the many pilots that would later be flying over France in missions during the war. Some of the nearby towns went as far as to clear out private air strips for the pilots to land and civilians made their homes open to the many trainees that lived on the base. While the base was in operation it saw its fair share of highs and lows. One of the most high profile accidents to occur at the field was the death of a former mayor of New York City, Maj. John Purroy Mitchel. Mitchel died on July 6, 1918 when recovering from a failed landing, his airplane suddenly dived, causing him to fall out of the cockpit and drop 500 feet to his death. The inquiry investigating the accident concluded he fell because he hadn't fastened his seat belt. Additional tragedy struck when a hurricane arrived on Aug. 6, 1918 that almost completely destroyed Gerstner. Three military men were killed and many of the hangers were damaged destroying about 100 planes.
Gerstner Field disappeared almost just as fast as it had come. Built in 1917, the structure on the site had either been torn down or relocated. Among the amenities was a hospital, two flight training schools, two fire stations, a YMCA, photography studio, shoe and clothing repair shops, tennis courts and a band pavilion where famous entertainers would perform.
Today, not much is left of the base except for a few scattered foundations, overgrown weeds, rice fields, and a historical marker commemorating a place where the sky was the limit for American heroes.