As diamond jubilees go, this one may not seem to have a lot of jewels. But January marks the 75th anniversary for Nellis Air Force Base … or, more accurately, what is NOW Nellis Air Force Base. First it was the Las Vegas Army Air Corps Gunnery School.
In the late 1930s, Germany, Italy, and Japan were on the march. There was strong sentiment in the United States against another war involving Europe. But many within Franklin Roosevelt’s administration saw the need to be prepared. Remember that the Department of Defense and the air force didn’t exist yet—the army and navy had their own air corps, while the War Department ran the army. And the army and its leaders wanted a place to train gunners. Ideally, it should be close enough to a city to be able to move people and equipment in and out. But it also should have space for the training to go on. It wouldn’t hurt if there were already some facilities in place. They could train year-round if the weather was good—not much snow, as few hurricanes and tornadoes as possible. And if the area was far enough inland, the chances of an enemy attacking it was less likely. Las Vegas filled the bill. It became what one historian has called a “martial metropolis,” one of many western cities that would grow with help from the presence of the military.
Already, the Army Air Corps had conducted some training flights in the Las Vegas area. They had used the Western Air Express field, then located northeast of Las Vegas. Originally, Peter Albert “Pop” Simon had planned the airfield for an airline that never took flight. Simon then leased the field to Western Air Express. The city government and the federal government had tried to buy or take over the field several times. Each time, Western Air Express had said no. Finally, in 1940, the Civil Aeronautics Authority said it would contribute about a third of a million dollars to buy the field and upgrade it. Western Air Express sold the airfield to the city. In return, the airline got a 30-year lease to keep landing.
The City of Las Vegas acted. In October 1940, it offered to rent the field to the Army Air Corps for a dollar a year. The following January, the Army made a lease agreement with the City of Las Vegas to use the airfield. They would share the space for six months. Then Las Vegas would have to find a new spot for a municipal airport. Las Vegas Mayor John Russell signed over the space to the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps to begin preparations. Five staff officers from the 79th Air Base Group began working out of the Las Vegas federal building—now The Mob Museum. Construction began on barracks to house about three thousand trainees and staff at the airfield. This would be the nation’s first flexible gunnery school, meaning it would train people for a variety of gunnery slots within different kinds of aircraft—not just, for example, a tail gunner for one kind of plane. The army ended up building new and expanded runways, hangars, fuel tanks, storage facilities, and barracks. As we’ll discuss next time, it was only the beginning.
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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