Nebraska’s Army Air Fields, Boom Times & Celebrities

Nebraska’s geography was responsible for one of the major economic and social developments of the war. From border to border, the Army built a dozen air bases — far from the coasts. Ainsworth, Alliance, Bruning, Fairmont, Fort Crook, Grand Island, Harvard, Kearney, Lincoln, McCook, Scottsbluff, and Scribner all got air bases or satellite airfields during World War II.

The housing conditions at the air base at Harvard, Nebraska were not the most luxurious

The housing conditions at the air base at Harvard, Nebraska were not the most luxurious
Even before the war, in September 1940, President Roosevelt’s Advisory Commission to the Council of National Defense (NDAC) was looking for possible army airfield sites in the Midwestern United States. The commission reported that the Atlantic and Pacific coasts could be attacked by air. The area between the Appalachian and Rocky Mountains was a safer area where new defense manufacturing plants and military bases should be built. Thus, Nebraska was one of the places chosen for construction of Army Air Force airfields.

Nebraska was favored because it has excellent, year-round flying conditions. The sparsely populated land made good locations for gunnery, bombing, and training ranges. The federal government created the following guidelines for selecting sites for airfields:

  • Level terrain (landscape) free of natural and manmade obstructions.
  • A mild climate with an abundance of clear weather flying days.
  • Rural sites to reduce the cost of real estate.
  • Reliable public utilities.
  • Access to surface transportation routes such as paved highways and major railroads.
  • A large labor pool for constructing and maintaining the airfields.

"It is truly an amazing sight to see these Army air bases suddenly rise into view from farms, cattle ranges, or hayflats. As one drives across the state, there first appears an orange and black checkerboard water tank rising above the horizon. Then the blue-green glass windows of a control tower come into sight. Hangars housing big war birds are seen, their arched domes across the sky."
— Lt. Howard J. Otis, Air Force Public Relations Officer, July 1943.

With all of the air activity in the state, there were bound to be accidents. Many planes crashed on training flights. Fort McPherson National Cemetery near North Platte has several common graves with single headstones paying homage to airmen killed in crashes on Nebraska soil.

"Another vivid memory I have is of watching a plane, a B-17, in the sky one August day in 1943 and seeing it nose dive to the earth and burst into flame. The plane crash was near Wood River, Nebraska. All eight men aboard were killed."
— Rosalie Frazell Lippincott, Shelton teacher.

Captain Clark Gable (on the right) and the Eight Ball MK II Crew; After training in Kearney, Nebraska, Clark Gable was stationed in Europe

Captain Clark Gable (on the right) and the Eight Ball MK II Crew; After training in Kearney, Nebraska, Clark Gable was stationed in Europe
In May, 1943, Gable acted as photographer/observer on this mission to Antwerp, Belgium.Courtesy U.S. Air Force, 41-24635 (359BS) BN-O

Boom Times ... and Celebrities

In addition to providing training for servicemen, the air bases provided jobs for many civilians. Civilians were employed in maintenance, repair, and secretarial work. Workers in Alliance packaged parachutes.

"I can remember the B-29s were a particular fascination to me because they were in Grand Island. . . . During school hours, if a plane went over, the whole school was dismissed for a few minutes to go out and watch the plane go over."     
— Geraldine George Sorensen, Grand Island grade school student.

The construction of Army airfields and other defense installations brought the reality of war to rural and small town Nebraska.

The roar of aircraft engines and the thousands of soldiers and civilian workers were constant reminders that the job of defeating the enemy on faraway battlefields began at home.