The namesake of Fort Rucker’s airfield was celebrated and remembered during a rededication ceremony at Cairns Army Airfield on Monday, June 24.
Cairns AAF, originally Ozark Airfield, was renamed in 1959 after the death of Maj. Gen. Bogardus Snowden Cairns. Cairns died in a helicopter accident in 1958 while preparing to travel to Matteson Range to see a helicopter firepower demonstration.
The rededication ceremony and related display of military service was led by Chaplain (Capt.) Chris Cairns, the general’s grand nephew. He said he was inspired to have the ceremony after he found his grandfather’s pictures and began to recreate the images, including one of his father looking up at a plaque and a portrait of his great uncle.
“The idea occurred to me to recreate a picture of my father looking up at this plaque and portrait,” he said. “When I came to Cairns, the only thing I could find, and it was very hard to find, was the plaque.”
He said he was able to recreate the photo, but he was soon led to research his family member who the airfield was named after.
“I’m a hobby historian and love to dig up tidbits of history that have been lost,” he said. “A lot of the people in our military family don’t talk about themselves. They don’t talk about their careers; they don’t draw attention to themselves…. I kind of am the cheerleader for their storied careers.
“When I started pulling on the strings of our family history, I was astonished at who these people were and what they had done. I just happened to be related to them.”
During the ceremony, Chaplain Cairns spoke about the family’s legacy at West Point and Fort Riley, Kan.
“Both of them, my grandfather and then-Captain Bogardus Cairns, graduated from West Point in 1932, respectively,” Chaplain Cairns said, stating Maj. Gen. Cairns was a captain at Fort Riley “training on horseback.”
“When they went off to war as captains, they were soon made lieutenants colonel,” he said. “They were made lieutenants colonel 10 years out of West Point.”
He said Maj. Gen. Cairns served in North Africa during his military career, where he “basically planned and executed all armored operations through the defeat at Kasserine Pass.” He said the general received several awards for his service there, including the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire award from King George.
“Most people didn’t know about the backstory of (Cairns’) career, and a certain guy named Ham Howze, who had been a cadet at West Point two years ahead of then-Lt. Col. Cairns, was serving with him as a G-3 while he was serving as the S-3. They worked closely together in North Africa.”
Chaplain Cairns said Maj. Gen. Cairns, then a lieutenant colonel, also served with the 3rd Battalion, 13th Armored Regiment in Italy “from the breakout in Anzio into Rome.”
“One of the most interesting things is that Lt. Col. Cairns was the first into Rome, and they fought hard up Highway 6, working in conjunction with a special operations unit… and the first two tanks of the (regiment) were blown up,” Chaplain Cairns said. “One of them was (Cairns’), and he bailed out of the tank and moved further back.”
He said Maj. Gen. Cairns was summoned back “and served the remainder of the war in the War Department.”
“His World War II career was astonishing,” Chaplain Cairns said. “He was a cavalryman, so he started out on horseback in the ‘30s. He went to tanks in the ‘40s, and by the 1950s, he was a general officer serving in La Rochelle, France.
“This was a highly decorated person, a highly skilled leader, an amazing person, father and husband by the time that he arrived in Fort Rucker in 1957.”
Chaplain Cairns said his great uncle received his position as commanding general and commandant of the Aviation School, the second individual to ever hold the title, from a former battle buddy in North Africa, Gen. Ham Howze. Chaplain Cairns said Howze was the “first general officer to be associated with aviation.”
“As a cavalryman, while air mobility and the armed helicopter were trying to feel their way through to an understanding by the upper generals on how to use the armed helicopter, it’s in a scholarly document that one of the observers saw Cairns pull out a 1936 cavalry manual, and he was the first to formally apply cavalry doctrine to helicopters to organize the concept,” Chaplain Cairns said about his great uncle. “That organizing concept became the thing that sold the four star generals at the time because they recognized their own doctrine and tactics switched for helicopters.”
This “organizing concept” has kept its hold in aviation, marking just one part of Maj. Gen. Cairns’ military legacy.
“He was one of those men who could train in a garrison environment, fight wars, build relationships with the community, and when he died in a helicopter accident, the mayors of Ozark and Enterprise are on record saying what an extraordinary job he had done building relationships with the community,” Chaplain Cairns said. “He understood how to be a commanding general: the communications, the training, the innovation. He was on his way up when he died.”
Maj. Gen. Cairns’ son, Col. (ret.) Doug Cairns, followed his father’s footsteps and served in the Air Force. During the rededication ceremony, he shared a memory of his father that he later said affected him his entire military career.
“Dad and I were playing golf,” Col. Cairns said, stating that he asked his father what his job was. “His said, ‘I train my replacement. That’s my job.’”
He said that he shared the memory because it affected him so much throughout his life.
“I just remember that one of the last conversations that I had with him, I asked him this impertinent question, ‘What do you do?’” he said. “I had been around and seen a lot of the development of the concept of sky cavalry, air cavalry, about to be born, and I wasn’t expecting the answer that he gave me. It’s been an important thing, for me. All through my career, I always remembered that.
“That stuck with me, and I thought these soldiers out here ought to hear that.”
Col. Cairns said he appreciated the efforts of the chaplain to bring his father’s history to light, and that he learned new information about his father during the rededication event.
“He pulled out of history many, many things that I did not know, particularly about the war,” he said. “It means a lot to think about all that he had been through. There was a lot more history associated with him than just those few years.”
Col. Cairns said his father’s legacy can be seen as an example of how life changes, especially in the Army.
“I do think it’s an example of how things change for the Army, for everybody,” he said. “We have no idea what it’s going to be like 10 years from now. Decisions people make are based on, in most cases, what they’ve experienced, so it sort of shows how we got to the development of Army aviation.”
Chaplain Cairns, who created a display of photos, original documents and more to showcase Maj. Gen. Cairns’ military career, said he also hoped his great uncle’s story could be an inspiration to future military members.
“These stories are so inspiring on those days where you just feel like, ‘Maybe I’ll get out of the armed services. There’s lots of other things to do; I’m just so tired,’” Chaplain Cairns said. “You look at these other folks, and you’re like, ‘What am I complaining about?’ They were just so amazing and impressive, and it inspires you to aim at excellence every day because you know those stories.
“That’s what I’m trying to resurrect, reassert, so that the next generation of leaders knows what it takes to reach and exceed the standard. These guys are the standard.”