David & Marianne Book have been volunteers, supporters & contributors on many levels for Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. His children's books are a popular item at the Nature Store, and his history book on the Refuge was a particularly challenging puzzle to pull together. I look forward to his blog for bits and pieces to be brought to life among other topics regarding the habitat and conservation efforts of Laguna Atascosa.

A Mother of 80 Years Ago at LANWR

Sun, April 28, 2024 3:50 PM | David Book (Administrator)

Eighty years ago the area that is now Laguna Atascosa NWR was much busier and more congested than it is today. The United States was involved in a military conflict known as World War II. Every facet of our economy and society was geared toward stopping Germany and Japan from world dominance. Southern Texas was no exception. The nearby airfield, now called Cameron County Airport, was geared for training pilots and gunners to use of 30- and 50- caliber machine guns. More than 45,000 men were trained in the firing of the big artillery at this Harlingen Army Air Force Gunnery sub-base between 1942 and 1946. By 1944, this unit had developed to the point that several thousand men could be housed and fed within several miles of the current visitor center. It was a complete facility, eventually consisting of 20 buildings, able to support training, flying and recreation. It is hard to imagine today the hustle and bustle, the noise of aircraft and rapid gunfire, dust flying from military vehicles on the roads that still crisscross the Refuge.

Dorothy Gilbert, wife of the resident construction superintendent, became the best known personality on the sub-base. This very special lady simply adopted all the men who were learning the craft of warfare to the extent that she earned the nickname, "Mom." It is not difficult to understand how she earned this respect. Here are just a few of the tasks she personally took on: she mended their clothes, wrote letters to their mothers, brought a chaplain to the camp, played the piano for religious services and taught piano lessons, started monthly birthday parties, organized amateur shows, took boys to the seacoast for outings and melon feasts. She was instrumental in staging the first wedding on the base on July 25,1943. She arranged for the attendants, the refreshments, and reception and altar decorations. When the bride arrived without the traditional white satin dress, which the groom wished to see her wear, she worked until 3:30 AM to complete the wedding gown. She endeared herself to the soldiers by standing in mess line with them, delivering delicacies and gifts to those hospitalized in Harlingen, attending mail call and participating in KP duty. She was a one person USO.

There is no monument to celebrate her memory anywhere that I know of, and little trace of the bustling army base [with the exception of six underground bunkers just northeast of the airfield,  now used for storage by the Refuge, and 13 man-made circles that were used for target practice just off of STW Drive]. But, nevertheless, the warmth she brought to thousands of men, many of whom had never been away from home, is worthy of memory, tribute and a medal. Happy Mother's Day!



  • Wed, June 19, 2024 8:36 PM | Joyce Hamilton
    Reading this a bit late, but such a wonderful little piece of history. What a lovely woman to make those young soldiers and airmen feel cared for.
    Nice piece of writing as usual, David!
    Link  •  Reply

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