Aerials to Zephyrs: A Brief History of the Casper Army Air Base
Last week, we introduced readers to a brief history of an air force base in Wyoming. Here’s more of the story, according to the Wyoming Historic Preservation Office’s web page.
Casper Army Air Base is one of only four World War II military installations constructed in Wyoming. The other three installations were the Prisoner of War Camp at Douglas, the Heart Mountain Relocation Center between Cody and Powell and the quartermaster facility at Fort F.E. Warren in Cheyenne.
The base was activated on Sept. 1, 1942. Over 400 buildings were built during a three and one-half month construction period.
The base was occupied by the 211th Army Air Force Base Unit, consisting of 21 officers and 165 enlisted men, whose mission was to operate the base and train bomb groups for overseas assignment and individual replacement bombardment combat crews.
During its 30 months of active life, the base trained an estimated 16,000 combat crew members. The base was officially deactivated on March 7, 1945 and personnel were transferred to other bases.
In 1949, the former military airfield became the Natrona County Municipal Airport and the land and all buildings became county property. Approximately 100 of the original buildings constituting the Casper Army Air Base, along with the original street layout, parade grounds and concrete pads for many of the former buildings, remain.
Adding to the story was an article entitled “Aerials to Zephyrs: A Brief History of the Casper Army Air Base” by John Goss on WyoHistory.Org, which stated in part:
By early 1942, the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) had committed to building scores of air bases across the United States. A Chamber of Commerce delegation from Casper traveled to Washington D.C. to lobby for one of these proposed air bases.
According to Joye Kading, longtime secretary at the Casper Air Base, they marketed the “zephyr wind” that whips around the western end of Casper Mountain.
In March 1942, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers leased the old Casper City Hall at Center and Eighth streets in preparation for the construction of the new Army Air Base at Casper. The site they selected was a high, flat, sagebrush-covered terrace located nine miles west of town on U.S. Highway 20-26 and adjacent to the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy railroad.
Ground was broken in April, and a scant six months later, on Sept. 1, 1942, the base received official permission to open for business. B-17 bomber crews began their Combat Crew Training School at the sprawling facility consisting of four mile-long runways and around 400 buildings.
Six months later, in the spring of 1943, the base transitioned from B-17 to B-24 crew training.
Kading recalled, “The base was built to accommodate 20,000 men to be trained. They would come out there, and they were trained to do the last of their training in the B-17s and the B-24s because they could go around the east end of the mountain and hit the zephyrs – west winds – to take them right up to the sky.”
She noted by the end of the war almost 18,000 men had trained at the base.
Along with enjoying the excitement of learning to fly, the pilots faced risks as they gained experience. Kading remembered there were several plane accidents at the base.
She said, “The fellows hit something in the wind they didn’t know how to handle. They would have a plane wreck, and they were lost.”
The base grew to almost one-third the size of its host city of Casper. Manning the base on an average day would be approximately 2,250 Army Air Force personnel and 800 civilians. They served a constantly fluctuating class body of bomber crewmen. During peak training times, the crewmen increased the base population to more than 6,000.
Arriving at Casper typically via train, the newly assembled crews, each consisting of two pilots, a navigator, a bombardier, a radioman, flight engineer and four gunners began a strict regimen of training.
According to several personal accounts, some of the crews could not get off the base at all, other than when they received a furlough to return home. Others visited Casper regularly and spent time on Casper Mountain or enjoyed hunting or fishing in the area. Comedian Bob Hope also visited the base.
Following a break next week to give thanks, we will present more of the Casper Army Air Base saga.