Home History Visit the Training Grounds Where B-17 Crews Learned Their Craft

Visit the Training Grounds Where B-17 Crews Learned Their Craft

by Enochadmin

The B-17’s 4 engines hummed in Sergeant Elmer Ruschman’s ears on the morning of June 6, 1944, as he puzzled whether or not the ominous clouds concealing the English Channel under would elevate in time for the 429th Bomb Squadron’s assault on German pillboxes lining the Normandy coast. The 23-year-old radio operator had grown accustomed to flying in unstable climate the earlier summer season because the Flying Fortress crew practiced bombing runs over the wheat and mustard fields of northern Montana.

My eyes are additionally mounted on the sky as U.S. Freeway 2 winds east down from the Rocky Mountains, fewer than 50 miles south of the Canadian border, and drops me within the rolling plains of the 1.5-million-acre Blackfeet Indian Reservation. On a transparent day, a driver approaching Lower Financial institution Worldwide Airport—the place Ruschman’s squadron skilled—can spot the 60-foot-tall octogenarian airplane hangar from a minimum of 5 miles out. In the present day, mid-April flurries obscure the view, and I miss my flip to the airport.

I flip round at Lower Financial institution Creek, named by Meriwether Lewis, who admired the 150-foot cliffs etched by the weather above the riverbanks when he handed by right here in 1806 to verify the northern boundary of the Louisiana Buy. Forty-nine years later, this Missouri River tributary turned the jap border of the Blackfeet Reservation. After the Nice Northern Railway laid tracks over the creek in 1890, a small city sprang up on the east facet as a business hub for regional farming and ranching. The neighborhood of Lower Financial institution thrived by the Nice Melancholy as a consequence of an oil and gasoline increase and, in June 1941, opened Montana’s first worldwide airport, three miles southwest of city, on non-public land throughout the reservation boundaries. 

I pull right into a gravel stall marked “long-term parking.” Roy Nollkamper, retired airport supervisor and cofounder of the Lower Financial institution Airmen’s Memorial Museum, welcomes me contained in the modest terminal. Inbuilt 1949 in the course of the airport’s passenger service heyday, right this moment it serves every day United Parcel Service runs and occasional non-public or medical flights. A younger pilot with time to kill browses the spectacular assortment of arti-facts that volunteers have amassed within the terminal’s tiny diner-turned-museum. A pair of Norden bombsights, follow bomb casings, and a B-17 cockpit window narrate the story of a far busier season.

When the US entered World Struggle II, the closely armed and notoriously sturdy Boeing B-17 was the long-range plane of option to bomb enemy provide traces and assist Allied floor forces. Whereas Boeing started churning out greater than 12,000 of the heavy bombers, the military seemed for sparsely populated locations to coach the 10-man crews who would fly them. Northern Montana match the invoice properly.

On July 6, 1942, the U.S. 2nd Air Pressure accredited plans to assemble an air base at Nice Falls, Montana, with satellite tv for pc airfields in Lower Financial institution and the man small cities of Lewistown and Glasgow, forming a tough triangle with a 300-mile hypotenuse. 4-squadron B-17 teams could be assigned to Nice Falls, with one squadron from every group based mostly there and the opposite three distributed among the many satellite tv for pc bases. Pilots, bombardiers, radio operators, engineers, and gunners would arrive at their assigned airfields totally skilled of their specialties and study to fly as crews, practising long-range navigation and bombing within the landmark-less prairie earlier than crossing the Atlantic for fight.

Development of all 4 bases started instantly. By late October, Lower Financial institution, like its sister airfields, had three paved runways and wood-frame barracks, mess halls, administration buildings, and different constructions meant to final simply 5 to seven years. With the 352nd Air Base Squadron in place to handle operations, Lower Financial institution Military Airfield formally opened on November 11, 1942. The 260-some males of the 2nd Bombardment Group’s 429th Bomb Squadron arrived for coaching later that month.

The bottom nears completion within the fall of 1942. (Courtesy of Airmen’s Memorial Museum)

Then, as now, essentially the most outstanding construction was the colossal 160-by-120-foot hangar—one in every of few remaining unique buildings, together with the enlisted males’s recreation corridor, the armament constructing, and a shed for storing flammable liquids. On the brief stroll from the terminal, I discover that the paint job on the hangar’s asbestos-sided western façade, accomplished eight years in the past, has taken a beating from the incessant gusts that plague this a part of Montana. “The wind vibrates the nails proper out of these things,” Nollkamper’s voice echoes as we step contained in the cavernous constructing. The scent of oil overwhelms me as I love how tiny the eight non-public Cessnas and Pipers parked alongside the perimeters appear in an area designed to barely maintain a pair of B-17s. When the unique mechanical doorways—changed by smaller sliders in 1962—folded open to welcome a Flying Fortress, the sound thundered all the best way into city.

Regardless of the noise, the neighborhood was proud to host the bottom. Lower Financial institution Pioneer Press articles of the day inform of troopers becoming a member of locals for vacation meals, ring-necked pheasant hunts, and 50-mile Sunday drives to Glacier Nationwide Park. The Blackfeet tribe adopted dozens of airmen in elaborate cultural celebrations. Even when temperatures dropped nicely under zero, off-duty airmen would load into canvas-backed military vans for the bumpy journey into city to catch a highschool basketball sport or patronize the USO within the basement of the yellow stucco Masonic temple that also stands on Important Road. 

Lower Bankers donated phonographs, furnishings, video games, and books to fill the enlisted males’s recreation corridor. A dozen years in the past, not lengthy after the airport had rehabilitated the 40-by-132-foot constructing from a postwar stint as a rabbit-breeding facility, a tornado-strength microburst blew the western two-thirds of it throughout the close by freeway. The airport used Military Corps of Engineers blueprints to reconstruct it to unique specs. Nollkamper credit the rabbit waste with preserving the blue traces of a wartime-era shuffleboard court docket on the slick cement ground. Grubby previous apart, it’s not a stretch to think about romances budding beneath streamer-adorned rafters there—a minimum of 20 visiting airmen married native girls.

Native hospitality prompted the 429th to pen a letter of superlative gratitude to the city in December 1942. “Maybe sometime, within the not-too-distant future,” the nameless creator wrote within the Pioneer Press, “you’ll learn your paper and say, ‘I do not forget that squadron—they had been a part of us for some time.’”

As soon as the restore store for wartime B-17s, the airfield’s unique 60-foot-tall hangar now offers storage for a handful of small non-public planes. (Jessica Wambach Brown)

Certainly, these airmen made an indelible mark on the conflict. The 429th, along with the opposite three squadrons that skilled right here—the 385th Bombardment Group’s 550th Bomb Squadron, the 390th’s 569th Bomb Squadron, and the 401st’s 613th Bomb Squadron—would fly greater than 1,200 missions in North Africa and Europe, together with Elmer Ruschman and crew’s D-Day run. Collectively, the squadrons dropped 71,000 tons of bombs, shot down greater than 1,000 enemy plane, and earned six presidential unit citations. Essentially the most broadly publicized veteran was most likely Skippy, the pit bull a Lower Financial institution excessive schooler gifted to a 429th pilot. Outfitted with a selfmade oxygen masks, the canine flew greater than 200 hours over Tunisia and Sicily.

The snow has retreated, so Nollkamper and I discover the crumbling concrete hardstands the place squadrons tethered their B-17s every evening. We cruise the first southwest-bound runway in his Honda, stopping the place the fashionable pavement ends at simply over a mile. I poke by the bunchgrass and take into account whether or not the reddish gravel beneath may very well be particles from the military’s unique runway, which was 50 ft wider and prolonged one other 2,800 ft. The heavy B-17s wanted loads of room once they took off to rendezvous with sister squadrons and pummel the prairie with sand-filled follow bombs. Nollkamper nonetheless will get calls from farmers who discover previous shells of their fields. He hopes so as to add some to the museum when funding permits for a transfer to the armament constructing the place the B-17s’ machine weapons had been saved every evening. The increasing assortment contains the blue-and-yellow Hyperlink Coach flight simulator wherein dozens of pilots who skilled on the airfield polished their flying expertise. For years after the bottom closed, Lower Financial institution Excessive College aeronautics college students, together with Nollkamper, used the coach to get a really feel for the fun of flight.

Like right this moment’s snow flurries, the military withdrew from Lower Financial institution and the opposite satellite tv for pc airfields moderately abruptly in October 1943, and with out clarification. In 1948, the land was turned over to the town and Glacier County, which repurposed just a few buildings and parceled out the remainder to locals for dwelling and business development initiatives. 

I finish my day on the town, strolling the cliffs above Lower Financial institution Creek because the rosy hues of sundown disappear behind the jagged define of the Rockies. On the drive out, I scan the rows of homes in useless for proof of the scrapped military buildings. The bodily relics, just like the reminiscence of the airfield’s wartime previous, have blended discretely into Lower Financial institution’s quiet streets.

this text first appeared in world conflict II journal

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