Wichita’s Flying Brothers: where McConnell got its name

  • Published
  • By Airman Gavin Hameed

Wichita was designated as an American World War II Heritage City by the World War II Heritage Cities Network Dec. 6, 2022

A few of the standout figures in Wichita's military history are the McConnell brothers, who McConnell AFB was named after.

The McConnell brothers, Fred, Thomas, and Edwin were all born in Wichita.

On March 22, 1942, all three brothers joined the United States Army Air Corps as aviation cadets. They were called to active service on April 23, 1942, where they earned their pilot wings on Jan. 4, 1943, at Luke Airfield, Arizona. The brothers all flew as co-pilots for the B-24 Liberator in the Pacific Theater, according to Justin Vergati, 22nd Air Refueling Wing historian.

On his third combat mission, 2nd Lt. Thomas McConnell and his crew completed a successful bombing run over Japan’s Kahili airdrome at Bougainville July 10, 1943. 

While returning to base on Guadalcanal, a dense fog covered the mountains where he and his crew were flying, said Vergati. Tragically, Thomas’ airplane crashed into the side of a mountain. All aboard had perished; Thomas was 20 years old.

Having survived the war and having flown 61 missions in the Pacific, 1st Lt. Fred McConnell Jr. returned stateside on March 7, 1944, landing the famous B-17 Flying Fortress, “Calamity Jane,” at Wichita Municipal Airport. 

For his actions, he earned the Distinguished Flying Cross with three Oak Leaf Clusters and the Air Medal with seven Oak Leaf Clusters. 

On Nov. 5, 1944, Fred received a promotion to captain and served three additional assignments, including one at the Midwestern Procurement District, Army Airfield Material Center, which occupied the entire second floor of the Wichita Municipal Airport, and worked with Boeing Aircraft Company on a series of warplanes during wartime.

On Oct. 25, 1945, Capt. Fred McConnell Jr. flew his own private plane to a new assignment at Garden City Air Base, near Garden Plain, Kansas. His aircraft accidentally collided with telephone wires and crashed, killing Capt. McConnell instantly, according to Vergati.

The surviving brother, Capt. Edwin McConnell, completed 56 missions in the Pacific and earned an Air Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross and Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal.

After the war, he joined the Air Force Reserve and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. He retired in 1981 and passed away on Sept. 1, 1997. 

Throughout WWII, the local media glorified the McConnell brothers, naming them as the “Flying McConnell Brothers” and “Three of a Kind.” According to Vergati, the press loved the stories because the brothers achieved multiple milestones on the same day, including entering military service, earning their pilot wings, serving in the same bombardment squadron in the Pacific, entering combat and being in the exact returning formation when Thomas McConnell and crew were lost.

On April 15, 1954, the U.S. Air Force approved the renaming of Wichita Air Force Base to McConnell AFB in honor of Fred and Thomas McConnell, as Air Force regulations prohibited the naming of an installation for a living person. 

On May 15, 1954, the 3520th Combat Crew Training Wing hosted an airshow and open house that included the renaming ceremony. Guests of honor included Edwin McConnell and his wife, Lorraine, and Fred McConnell’s former spouse, Mary Louise Stevens, and her three children, Kittie Lou, Tommy and Nancy. 

June 14, 1999, the 22nd Air Refueling Wing held a rededication ceremony to add Edwin McConnell’s name to the base namesake, which Lorraine McConnell attended as the guest of honor.

Today, McConnell AFB continues to serve as a significant hub for the U.S. Air Force. The McConnell brothers' contributions to Wichita and the nation during WWII have not been forgotten. Their legacy lives on at McConnell Air Force Base and it is just one of many WWII stories Wichita has, which is ultimately why it has become a WWII Heritage City.