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75th Anniversary Of Nellis Air Force Base, Part 2

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William H. Nellis
Courtesy onlinenevada.org

On May 20, 1950, the base was named for a local war hero, William H. Nellis, a Searchlight native and Las Vegas High School graduate who was killed while flying a mission over Europe.

Last time, we talked about the origins of what is now Nellis Air Force Base. In 1941, the city of Las Vegas and the Army Air Corps signed an agreement for a gunnery school to operate at the city’s old airfield.

Flight training began in December 1941, about two weeks after Pearl Harbor. At first, Las Vegans themselves had to contribute some of the weapons, but soon there would be ten AT-6 Texas trainers and 17 B-10 Martin bombers. The Gunnery School opened just a few weeks later, and B-17 planes began arriving for use in training. The first forty-seven cadets graduated in January 1942.

The gunnery school played an important role during the war. The school trained about forty-five thousand B-17 gunners during the war. The training programs lasted five weeks. They would use mounted shotguns on the grounds, then, to learn about firing while in motion, on the backs of trucks. About 600 gunners and 215 co-pilots graduated every five weeks at the peak of training. By 1944, the training area had grown to more than three million acres. In March 1945, training began to focus on B-29s, and about eleven thousand officers and enlisted were present, including nearly five thousand trainees.

The gunnery school left some targets behind. The land for about five miles east of Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument includes eight triangles, each about a third of a mile wide. These served as targets for the gunners. They also did aerial training at Indian Springs, at the site of what is now Creech Air Force Base.

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The gunnery school had other effects. The influx of people associated with the base meant that not everybody could live there. The North Las Vegas population grew—indeed, enough for it to become an official city in 1946. The payroll that the gunnery school provided helped all kinds of local industries. So did the need for construction equipment and a variety of other supplies.

Meanwhile, southern Nevada needed another airport. The county bought Alamo Field from George Crockett and it was rededicated in 1948 as McCarran Field. That was in honor of U.S. Senator Pat McCarran, who had been crucial to the deals involving the gunnery school and the land deals that followed. The old airfield had been named for him in 1941, and the stone pillars from that field were moved to the new one. You can still see them on Las Vegas Boulevard South. At the time, it seemed logical to put the airport so far out of town. It certainly isn’t outside of town today!

The gunnery school shut down as World War II wound down, but it would come back, and it would continue to have an impact. The United States Air Force was created as part of the new Department of Defense in 1947. Two years later, the air force reopened the facility. In 1950, it was named for a local war hero, William H. Nellis, a Searchlight native and Las Vegas High School graduate who was killed while flying a mission over Europe. Seventy-five years after the Las Vegas Army Air Corps Gunnery School, the facility is still serving our national defense and our local population.

Nevada Yesterdays is written by Associate Professor Michael Green of UNLV, and narrated by former Senator Richard Bryan. Supported by Nevada Humanities

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