Fort Smith is a community deeply rooted in military culture, and protecting American freedom has always been a part of those soldiers stationed in the Greater Fort Smith Region. In fact, the town originally formed in 1817 around an actual Fort Smith – named after district commander General Thomas A. Smith – that was built to keep the peace between Osage and Cherokee tribes. In 1871, with the threat of conflict over, troops abandoned the fort and gave the buildings to the federal court system.
Seventy years later in 1941, the U.S. Army started construction on a second fort in Fort Smith in preparations to double the size of the army in the face of imminent war. The camp was named after Major General Adna Chaffee Jr. who advocated the use of tanks rather than cavalry during World War I. The first soldiers arrived at the fort on December 7, 1941 – the same day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
Fort Chaffee has since served as a training camp, a prisoner-of-war camp and a refugee camp. More than 3,000 German POWs were housed at the fort from 1942 to 1946 as well as Vietnam War refugees in 1975 and Cuban refugees in 1980. Fort Chaffee has served as the home of the Fifth Armored Division, the U.S. Army Training Center, Field Artillery and the Joint Readiness Training Center. Fort Chaffee was also home to Elvis Presley in 1958 where he received his first military haircut.
In September 1997, command of the post was transferred from the U.S. Army to the Arkansas Army National Guard, and Fort Chaffee became the Chaffee Maneuver Training Center for Light Combat Forces. Today, Fort Chaffee is primarily used as a training facility by regional National Guard and Army Reserve units as well as active military units from other installations.
Fort Smith is also home to the Air National Guard with the Flying Razorbacks of the 188th Fighter Wing. With 350 full-time employees and more than 1,000 guardsmen, the unit has had a strong presence in the region since its inception in 1953. The pilots’ recent conversion to the A-10 Thunderbolt II – commonly known as the Warthog – places the 188th at the leading edge of combat aviation.
The main mission of the 188th is to provide air support for ground forces. The A-10 Thunderbolt II was developed for the U.S. Air Force to do just that and provides for close air support of ground forces by attacking tanks, armored vehicles and other ground targets. The Warthog also provides airborne forward air control, guiding other aircraft against ground targets, and provides a limited air interdiction role.
Members of the 188th have been guardians of freedom throughout the years and have deployed across the United States and the world to fulfill their missions. Most recently, the 188th flew air defense alert sorties in support of Operation Noble Eagle after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. In 2005, the fighter wing deployed nearly 500 personnel to more than 16 different nations in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, flying nearly 3,500 combat hours. Currently, the 188th is preparing for another deployment overseas under its new mission with the A-10 Thunderbolt II.
Every other year the 188th entertains the Greater Fort Smith Region and more than 200,000 visitors at the Regional Air Show – the largest, completely free air show in the nation. In 2008, the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds attended the show along with the Army’s Golden Knights parachute team. The 188th has also hosted the U.S. Navy Blue Angels.
Together, the 188th Fighter Wing and Fort Chaffee bring a combined economic impact of nearly $250 million per year to the Greater Fort Smith Region.