In nearing the airstrip I could feel the anticipation build.
It was an overcast day but still the old control tower cast a long shadow. The tower and the monuments to tragedy nestled underneath stood in mute testimony to when the now quiet airport and the humming industrial park were one of the largest military installations in the United States. And there sitting on the airstrip was a shimmering ghost from that long gone era – a B-17G built in 1945.
In retrospect the speed with which the country geared up for war was rather astounding. On December 7, 1941, the date the Japanese attacked the American fleet at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, east of Kingman the vast desert plains of the Hualapai Valley stretched to the distant mountains. Only a lonely ranch house or two, Route 66, and a few dirt roads marred the big empty. On May 27, 1942, construction for the Army Air Force Flexible Gunnery School commenced. Equipment and crews were brought in from the construction site for Davis Dam to expedite the project as the airfield had a priority status. Meanwhile the TAT airfield in Kingman established by Charles Lindbergh in 1929 was pressed into service.
With activation of the first class on August 10, 1942, and the expansion of training programs, the new facility officially became the Kingman Army Airfield. With inclusion of auxiliary fields in the area including Site 6, now the island at Lake Havasu City, and a field at Yucca, now the Chrysler test facility, the airfield was one of the largest military installations in the country. In addition to training gun crews of the B-17 for air to air combat, there were classes on ground to air and air to ground gunnery, as well as courses of study for bomb crews, copilots, navigators, and even Women Air Service Pilots (WASP).
At its peak the airfield had a population larger than Kingman itself. Before deactivation on February 25, 1946, more than thirty-six thousand men had been trained at the base. This, or course, had a trans formative affect on the community. Celebrities arrived in town as part of USO tours. Lonely GI’s missing their children taught little girls how to roller skate. Bombing missions using sacks of white powder gone array startled a few folks when the “bombs” rained down on the streets. Ranchers filed for compensation when cattle were killed after wandering onto the gunnery ranges. And as a Kingman was a sunset town, there were a few issues even though the military was still segregated. A few of these GI’s would fall in love with the desert community, and after the war, returned to open businesses and to raise families.
Accidents were expected at a base where there was a rush to transform raw recruits into proficient gunners, bombers, and navigators. Two of the worst US military training accidents to date occurred at the Kingman Army Airfield. There was a mid air collision between a two seat Texas trainer and a B-17, the crews on both plans were killed. On January 7, 1944, a bus transporting air cadets from the gunnery range on the north side of US 66 was struck by a speeding freight train when the drivers foot slipped from the clutch and the vehicle leaped into the path of the train. The final death toll was twenty-seven men.
Then, almost as quickly as it began, the base closed. The day after deactivation it received the designation Storage Depot 41. Buildings and equipment were sold. Planes fresh from the factories and scarred old war birds were flown to the field, first to be mothballed, and then latter to be salvaged and cut up for scrap. An Arizona Highways article noted that lining Route 66 east of Kingman was the largest concentration of military aircraft in the world. Within two years, more than 5,600 aircraft were liquidated in wholesale sales or processed as scrap.
This chapter ended on July 1, 1948 when the storage depot officially closed and the Department of Defense transferred the property to Mohave County. Remnants of the Kingman Airfield became an integral part of the community. Some barracks were dismantled and rebuilt as houses, another served as the chamber of commerce office, the headquarters building was moved into town and served as the offices for the Arizona Department of Transportation. And with the passing of time, as an industrial park grew on the site of the airfield, surviving vestiges vanished.
The control tower and a couple of hangers are, perhaps, the most notable surviving remnants. Likewise with the monuments. However, with a bit of exploration others are found. As an example, on the north side of Route 66, a row of concrete bunkers and bullet riddled berms mark the site of a gunnery range.
However, the rarest link to this chapter in history are the big bombers, and the veterans of that war. And so, seeing that ghostly image on the tarmac, and the once proud warriors bent by time standing around her, was a site that will not soon be forgotten. The landing of the B-17 at the Kingman Airport was an historic moment. It was also an opportunity to briefly part the curtain that separates the past from the present.