Army Air Corps Lt. Col. Horace Meek Hickam of Spencer played a central role in establishing the U.S. Air Force as a separate branch of the armed forces, but his name didn’t come to world attention until Dec. 7, 1941.
Hickam Air Force Base in Honolulu, named posthumously after Colonel Hickam, adjoined Pearl Harbor and served as America’s primary air base in the South Pacific. A central part of the Japanese strategy on Dec. 7 was to bomb and strafe Hickam so harshly that the planes there could not get off the ground to defend Pearl Harbor.
The Japanese strategy succeeded that day, although the U.S. flag remained aloft at Hickam at all times. In the end, Hickam served as the hub for America’s Pacific aerial network forces, which destroyed Japanese air power.
Hickam was born in Spencer in 1885. His father, Willis Hickam, was a distinguished attorney, but Horace chose a military career. He graduated from West Point in 1908 and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the 11th Cavalry. When the United States entered World War I, he was promoted to major assigned to the aviation section of the U.S. Signal Corps where he received pilot training.
Following the war, he was appointed Chief of the Information Division Offices of the Director of Air Services. In 1932, Hickam was promoted to lieutenant colonel and given command of the 3rd Attack Group, based at Fort Crockett, Galveston, Texas. He testified in Washington and spoke eloquently in favor of establishing the Air Force as a separate branch of the armed services.
Hickam continued to fly extensively and performed the first U.S. military night landings. He made frequent flights to Spencer to visit his family, landing in rural fields to the delight of local citizens.
Hickam was tragically killed in a night landing at Fort Crockett, Texas on Nov. 5, 1934. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Hickam Air Force Base (now Hickam Field) was named in his honor on May 21, 1935, and was activated in 1938.
Jessie Higa, historian of U.S. military and Hawaiian history in Honolulu, believes that the Air Force would not have been established as a separate branch of the military were it not for the advocacy and heroics of Hickam; and that Hickam would likely have been the first Air Force Chief of Staff but for his untimely death. She notes that his younger brothers went on to lead lives of distinction: Willis Hickam, Jr. as an attorney in Spencer, and Hubert Hickam as one of the founding partners of the Indianapolis-based law firm Barnes & Thornburg.
As an active U.S. military installation, Hickam Field is not open to the public. The movie shown at the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor reports extensively on the role of Hickam Air Force Base on Dec. 7, and throughout the war.
The museum at the Owen County Heritage and Cultural Center houses a display in honor of Hickam.
“The Hickam family was very prominent in Spencer,” notes museum curator Vic Kinney. “Horace grew up on Main Street.” The display features photos of Hickam’s life in Spencer and highlights honors and promotions from his military career. The center is open to the public in the morning Tuesdays through Fridays.
Andrea Neal is an adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.