A look at rising traffic and revenue at the Hot Springs airport (see At HOT, High Fliers Meet High Rollers) led Whispers to the juicy history of how the airfield got its name, and the shady mayor whose name was literally chiseled off the terminal.
Hot Springs Memorial Field was dedicated on Memorial Day in 1947 to honor Arkansans who fought and died in World War II. But originally, cronies on the City Council had named the airport for Mayor Leo P. McLaughlin.
McLaughlin had run a political machine in Garland County for 20 years, cavorting with underworld figures and giving official cover to illegal gambling. But as veterans returned to Arkansas itching for change, McLaughlin’s days of power — and of seeing his name on the airport — were numbered.
Liz Robbins, executive director of the Garland County Historical Society, picks up the narrative:
“McLaughlin had done everything he could to get out of military service in World War I; he even tried to claim he was crazy,” Robbins said. “So this was a time just after the people of Garland County had sent their sons to war, and many to their deaths, so McLaughlin’s name on the airport didn’t set well with a lot of people.”
Sidney McMath, a Pacific war hero and Marine who later became governor, challenged McLaughlin’s ma-chine as part of what came to be called the GI Revolt, when war veterans came home to challenge the political status quo.
McMath won a stunning upset to become prosecuting attorney in 1947, and promptly charged McLaughlin with election fraud. Even though he was eventually acquitted, McLaughlin was forced to resign.
“McMath kicked the machine out, and the new council quickly removed McLaughlin’s name from the airport,” Robbins said. “They chiseled his name off the marble floor in the terminal.”
In 1948, at age 36, McMath was elected as the 34th governor of Arkansas.