From bombing range to urban university

Today, our fair city hosts the military nerve center of the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Tampa has served as a vital strategic point since Florida because a U.S. territory. The Army erected Fort Brooke in present-day downtown Tampa as a bulwark against Native American warriors, and a small community cropped up around it. The Civil War drained men from the relatively new city of Tampa during the early 1860s. Tampa’s port and railroad station ensured its importance during the Spanish-American War and World War I. Shipyards and air bases made the city even more vital for U.S. efforts during World War II.

Twenty years before USF opened for classes, the site of its Tampa campus served as a test bombing range. Long before Busch Gardens and Interstate 275, Henderson Air Field operated on a desolate stretch of land bordered by Fowler Ave. on the north, Temple Terrace Highway (present-day Busch Boulevard) on the south, and 30th and 46th streets respectively on the west and east.

Originally built as a civilian airport in 1941, Henderson Air Field may once have been destined as Hillsborough County’s international airport. Late that year, the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor sent the U.S. military into a frenzy of activity. Pressed for facilities, the U.S. Army used the field as an auxiliary air base beginning in 1942, and it became known as Henderson Field after a county commissioner.

Designed to accommodate 2,300 soldiers and 185 officers, the Army flew P-51 “Mustang” fighters, B-25 bombers, and B-17 “Flying Fortresses” from Henderson’s expanded air strips. Hillsborough County’s other two air bases–MacDill and Drew–dwarfed the desolate Henderson Field. Drew Field alone could house 26,000 troops and sprawled over 15 square miles.

It is said that Henderson’s pilots used the land just north of the airfield, today the USF campus, as a practice bombing range. When training, bomber pilots and bombardiers dropped metal, sand-filled bomb casings on targets. A small charge on the tail left a visible puff of smoke for pilots to determine where the bomb fell.

The Army downsized the air base in 1944, though it continued to host bombers until its deactivation in 1946. One stretch of runway is still visible just north of Busch Gardens. Yet, only one building from the air base still stands, occupied by Mel’s Hot Dogs on Busch Boulevard.

The parcel sat dormant for some time, serving as cattle grazing land and hunting grounds. In the mid-1950s, Hillsborough County appropriated the land, hoping to sell it to businesses. Schlitz bought 20 acres and built a brewery in 1959, just one part of the 2,000-acre Tampa Industrial Park. Anheuser-Busch followed with a brewery that would evolve into Busch Gardens. When the State Board of Control selected USF’s present-day site, Baptist ministers objected to its location near a brewery, dubbing the planned school “Bottlecap U.”

The days of bombs from Henderson Field might have been entirely forgotten, but in April 2000, construction workers found a practice bomb while constructing a parking lot. Filled with sand and flaking rust, the three-foot bomb was intact except for its tail, which broke off on impact. The rusty practice bomb, which can be seen in the Library’s Special Collections Department, is another confirmation of a forgotten past, all here at USF.

Thanks to Paul Camp of Special Collections and Gary Mormino of the history department for information used in this report.

Want to share a memory or suggest an idea for a column? Send an e-mail to Andrew Huse at or call 974-7622.

Want to know more? Check out the Florida Studies Center’s Web site at or call Director Mark I. Greenberg at 974-4141.

Check out USF History 101 again on April 16.