Early Aviation History of Atkinson Field

by Karen Custer
Photo provided by Karen Custer Photo provided by Karen Custer

CALLAWAY, FL - Mike Smith, a veteran and a pilot, who flew for Gulf Power for 28 years, made a fascinating presentation to the Callaway Historical Society on April 21, 2024.

One surprising detail was that Airport Road did not go to the Panama City – Bay County International Airport (PFN), as many people think. It originally ran to the old Atkinson Field in Panama City, which was right next door.

Tankers came from New Orleans and down the Mississippi into the Gulf of Mexico to take fuel over to England. U-boats used to line up and wait for them. There was an incident close to Bay County when the British supertanker, the Empire Mica, tried to get into St. Andrew’s Bay, but was not allowed to enter because there were too many ships in the bay at the time. The ship was on its way to join a convoy out of New York and was skirting the coast. Since it couldn’t get into St. Andrew’s Bay, it was making a 6-fathom curve that was thought would put a submarine at a disadvantage. It was in less than 100 feet of water at night. The U-67 rose to the surface, attacked the Empire Mica, and fired two torpedoes into the ship, off the coast of Apalachicola. It burned in sand for about 24 hours and sank off Indian Pass near Cape San Blas. Of the 50 or so people on the ship, about a dozen perished during the sinking. That is a big reason that the Coastal Air Patrol (CAP), an Air Force Auxiliary, was located during the Second World War at Atkinson Field. The Military did not possess the equipment nor the personnel to take care of the U-boat problems not only off the Gulf Coast of Florida, but also on the Atlantic Coast of Florida, up through North Carolina, as well as later over into Mississippi and Louisiana.

During World War II, a submarine was spotted out in the Gulf using a PBY Patrol Bomber, manufactured by Consolidated Aircraft Company. The submarine got stuck on a sandbar at Panama City Beach (PCB) and the police went out with megaphones to communicate with the submarine. The Germans got off and were sent to a POW camp, Camp Johnson, down in Port St. Joe near Carabelle. Tyndall Field did not have airplanes that could bomb the submarine, so they called Pensacola to have a crew come here. They blew up the submarine then came back at a later date to detonate again, because the debris was a navigation hazard.

Another little-known tidbit is that there used to be concrete rings visible in St. Andrews Park, where they had anti-submarine guns on a track that they could swing around to shoot at submarines in the Gulf of Mexico.

Today no evidence can be found of the old Atkinson Field or the concrete rings in St. Andrews Park, but a screw that came from the Empire Mica can be found on display at Captain Anderson’s Restaurant. What a great piece of history they have!