EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE — If its name were a “Jeopardy!” question, the answer might be “What is the most mispronounced military installation name in the country?”
Despite often being pronounced Elgin or England by people who aren’t in the know, the world’s largest air force base has a proud heritage. Like most military bases in Northwest Florida, it’s named for a service member who died in the line of duty.
Born in New York City in 1891, Frederick I. Eglin lost his parents at a young age. Through the help of a mentor, he became a successful student-athlete at Wabash College in Indiana, where he lettered in football, baseball and basketball.
While still a student, he enlisted in the Indiana National Guard in 1911. In 1917, after the United States entered World War I, he earned his wings and a commission in the U.S. Signal Corps.
Rather than shipping off to Europe, however, Eglin served as a flying instructor with the Signal Corps. He earned a commission in what was then known as the Army Air Service in 1920, and went on to hold command positions with several squadrons both stateside and in the Philippines.
A founding member of the Order of Daedalians, a military aviation organization, Eglin served as the commander of the Air Corps Tactical School at Kelly Field in Texas before being assigned to the Air Force General Headquarters in Langley, Virginia.
During a flight from Langley to what was then known as Maxwell Field in Alabama, the 45-year-old Lt. Col. Eglin died when his Northrop A-17 pursuit aircraft crashed near Cheaha Mountain, Alabama, on Jan. 1, 1937. On Aug. 4, 1937, Army officials named the Valparaiso Bombing and Gunnery Range in the dashing aviator’s honor.
Other heroes, other names
With its huge land mass, Eglin has many auxiliary fields that are named in honor of fallen airmen. Two of the largest are Hurlburt Field, named for 1st Lt. Donald Wilson Hurlburt, and Duke Field, named for 1st Lt. Robert L. Duke.
Just six months before the start of World War II, Duke, a native of Kokomo, Indiana, was 22 years old when he left his job as an insurance salesman and enlisted in the Army Air Corps. According to his military records, he was 5 feet, 6 inches tall and 136 pounds when he joined the Army.
Two years after enlisting, Duke completed flight schools in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, where he learned to fly the BT-13A Valiant. According to research performed by the 919th Special Operations Wing’s History Office, Duke earned his wings and was commissioned on June 26, 1943.
Duke’s first assignment as an officer was the Air Force Proving Ground at Eglin Field. There he flew a wide array of test missions. During one of those missions, on Dec. 29, 1943, Duke died when he crashed the plane he was testing near Tullahoma, Tennessee.
Duke, who was 24, was unmarried and had no children.
A researcher at Eglin took on the task of studying Duke’s life. He learned that the young lieutenant was a Protestant by faith, who earned $40 a month selling insurance before he joined the Army.
The Army didn’t get around to honoring Duke until the late 1940s, when they named Eglin’s Auxiliary Field 3 in his memory.
A field of its own
Although most people think of Hurlburt Field as an independent Air Force base, it began as one of Eglin’s auxiliary fields. It is named in honor of the late 1st Lt. Donald W. Hurlburt, a Chautauqua, New York, native who earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for his heroics in Europe during World War II.
Of the three men for whom local installations are named, we know the least about Hurlburt. According to his official Air Force biography, he enlisted in the Army in August 1941, and went on to became an aviation cadet at Maxwell Field. He graduated from Advanced Flying School in Georgia in June 1942 and was commissioned as a second lieutenant.
That October, he shipped out from Alamagordo Army Air Force Base in New Mexico to the European front, where he flew dozens of bombing missions in B-17s. On one mission, he was forced to bail out when the plane he was co-piloting was attacked by German fighters.
After his European tour, Hurlburt came back to the states and served at Mitchel Field in New York for a few months before joining the 1st Proving Ground Electronics Unit at Eglin. It was there that he died on Oct. 1, 1943, when the AT-18 he was flying crashed on take off.
What was then known as Eglin Auxiliary Field 9 began to be known as Hurlburt Field in 1944, but the name didn’t become official until January 13, 1948.