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Nevada Yesterdays - Tonopah Army Airfield

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Central Nevada Museum - Tonopah

An army air field in Nevada was fully opened for business when World War II came along. Here’s Senator Richard Bryan with Nevada Yesterdays.

Nevada Yesterdays is written by UNLV history professor, Michael Green, and is funded by the Nevada Humanities.

In 1942, the U.S. had just entered World War II, the Bryan family was relocating to Las Vegas from Washington, D.C., and Tonopah Army Air Field moved into full operation. Seventy-five years later, we think it’s worth taking a look back at one of Nevada’s most important military installations.

The Tonopah airfield’s origins predate American involvement in the war. But when England and France went to war against Germany in 1939, the U.S. began getting ready. The Tonopah Daily Times and Bonanza duly reported on December 18, 1940: “Heavy Equipment Arrives For Tonopah Airport Work.” The builders were the Army Air Corps  and engineers from the WPA or Works Project Administration, a New Deal program. Early in January, the federal government announced plans for lodging, a commissary, and a mess hall for 200 personnel to be based there and 2,000 more to be rotating through for training. Since it would be an army air base, there also would be runways and hangars, as well as an administrative building.

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Finally, in July 1942, the base was ready to open … sort of. The Bombing and Gunnery Range Detachment arrived from California’s Muroc Base, now Edwards Air Force Base. The opening ceremonies featured remarks by Senator Pat McCarran, who had been instrumental in getting the base built. The first commander, Colonel F.D. Gore, asked local residents to donate such recreational equipment as radios and magazines; Tonopah came through with card tables, decks of cards, and poker chips. Close enough!

Soon the base was out of space, and soldiers there had to live in tents. Housing was at a premium for the 6,000 personnel assigned to the Tonopah Army Air Field, with several hundred having to find lodgings elsewhere—in fact, at one point, the army even took over the Goldfield Hotel for them.

But the base’s successes far outweighed its problems. It played a crucial role in the war effort. Its officers trained numerous bombardment and fighter squadrons. It was the site of testing for various secret and experimental bombs. It also created a boom in the area economy. Tonopah, Goldfield, and nearby towns benefited from the construction boom, the need for housing, and the payrolls being spent in the vicinity. Area residents got into the spirit of things with war bond drives and social events for the soldiers.

The base also housed a diverse group of people. The Women’s Army Corps had a unit there, as did African American soldiers, who were victims of segregation in the army and in the community. Those stationed at Tonopah also created their own community with USO groups and various sports teams. They even had a couple of celebrities in their midst: flight officer Chuck Yeager, who later broke the sound barrier, and gunnery instructor Jackie Gaughan, who later moved to Las Vegas and owned a lot of downtown casinos.

When World War II ended in 1945, the Tonopah base was deactivated, its buildings moved to various towns around Nevada. The Tonopah Bombing and Gunnery Range became part of the footprint for Nellis Air Force Base. And the runways became part of the Nye County Airport. Seventy-five years after it opened, the Tonopah Army Air Field still serves Nevada and the nation in a variety of ways.

 

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