Rural Bases

old army control towerThroughout the war, rural residents suddenly had new neighbors – military bases and factories. Farmers were sometimes forced to sell land to the government and private companies so that new training bases and military factories could be built. Recruits from the cities were sent to train in isolated rural areas. The new factories provided jobs to farm hands and wives building bombs and bombers. The military factory story is here.

For the most part, the relationship between the new installations and their rural neighbors was good. But there were occasional problems.

Airbases. In Nebraska, 12 new Army airbases were built to train new pilots. They were built near Ainsworth, Alliance, Bruning, Fairmont, Fort Crook, Grand Island, Harvard, Kearney, Lincoln, McCook, Scottsbluff and Scribner.

The buildup was part of a huge development program. In 1939, the Army Air Corps had only 17 air bases across the country. Pearl Harbor changed that. During the first quarter of 1942, the Army ordered construction of over 200 air fields, pilot and technical schools and bombing ranges. By the end of 1943, there were 345 main bases, 116 subbases and 322 auxiliary fields. Most were located in rural areas.

Hill GeeryMost of the pilots, mechanics and crew members were from urban areas, and sometimes their introduction to rural life was jarring. Sedgefield Hill (left) grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, and was sent to a new base outside the small town of Fairmont, Nebraska, where he learned to be a mechanic for B-29 bombers. He says that urban recruits quickly adapted to rural life because they were part of a cohesive group. He also says the people around Fairmont welcomed them.

Don Geery (right) notes that some farmers were not happy about selling their land to the government for the bases, but in general people supported the war effort wholeheartedly. However, there were some residents who didn’t like being “buzzed” by huge bombers fighting to gain altitude. “It was amazing,” Don says, “there was never any resentment to what was happening.”

DueholthusCarla Due (left) was one of the rural residents who felt like she was getting “buzzed” intentionally. “Those kids would dive down,” she says, “so you could see him sitting in there laughing that I was running for shelter somewhere. It was just young fellows, you know.” Yet, she still would pick up servicemen who were hitchhiking from town back to the base.

Kelly Holthus (left) was a young kid when he saw a crash of one of the bombers flying out of Kearney. “I think about six parachutes I remember came out,” he says. “And the pilot and co-pilot didn’t get out, they were killed in the crash… You just felt terrible.”

Kearney’s airfield became one of only seven bases in the U.S. that “processed” aircrews before they were shipped out to the front. Personnel at Kearney checked out B-17s and B-29s and the skills of their crews to make sure they were ready for war. Tens of thousands of soldiers spent their last three to seven days in the states in Kearney – including movie star Clark Gable. After processing through Kearney, Gable served as a gunnery instructor in England.

old airplane in cornfields airbaseThe base had a huge impact on the community. In 1940, Kearney had a population of just under 10,000 people which made it a regional hub for this rural area. Building the base brought 1,000 new jobs. During its operation, the base had over 3,000 permanent military personnel assigned to it and provided 800 civilian jobs. Most of those 3,000 people either lived on base or looked for houses or apartments in Kearney. They created a severe housing shortage in town.

Tens of thousands of men rolling through a small farming community on their last days before the war created inevitable social problems. They couldn’t stay on base the whole time. So, how does a town provide amusement to hordes of restive young men. The community quickly raised $10,000 to build a USO center – a safe place for the soldiers to meet hometown girls. A Hostess Corps was formed. Over 500 supervised hostesses would dance with the men at the USO, play cards or ping pong and serve refreshments.

Yet, some men sought other diversions. At least five brothels were tolerated in the city during the war. The Air Field’s medical team was in charge of treating venereal diseases, and saw its share of cases. Once in a while, the VD rate soared, and so the town and MPs enforced a midnight curfew. After a month, the VD rate came back down and the curfew was lifted.

Despite the social strains, the community in general supported the base. Soldiers were often invited to have holiday dinners in local homes. A canteen was set up at the base, and over the last year of the war it served over 91,000 soldiers. On Easter Sunday 1943, over 200 soldiers traveled 15 miles from the Kearney Airbase to Minden to attend church services, eat Sunday dinner in 150 homes, and finally watch a parade and variety show.

When the war ended, the Kearney Army Air Field was reduced to only 219 servicemen and 284 civilians. City officials fought to keep the base open. In 1946, it was announced that the 27th Fighter Wing would be stationed there. The unit was critical in providing planes to airlift food, fuel and hay during the 1949 Nebraska blizzard, but within months the base was closed and the fighter wing transferred to Texas.

Written by Claudia Reinhardt and Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. A partial bibliography of sources is here.

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