Friday, August 2, 2013

Will it Be Ruins or Restoration for McCook Army Air Base?


By STEW MAGNUSON
I drove amongst the giant, incongruous World War II hangars on the flatlands northwest of McCook, Nebraska, thinking, “how the hell did I miss this?”
It was September 2012, and I was taking the rare opportunity to travel down a part of Highway 83 again, from the Rosebud Reservation to Oakley, Kansas. I had driven along here before — several times — but for some reason had never spotted the sign pointing the way to the McCook Army Air Base.
Former Army air bases can be found all over the West, and in several spots along Highway 83, but many of them are only memories. They were mostly used for training and located in the nation’s vast interiors to keep them away from enemy bombers. Historical markers are about all that is left of those bases that weren’t converted to municipal airports.
And that was what I was expecting when I pulled off the road and followed the signs.
But instead I drove up to massive buildings capable of housing B-17, B-24 and B-29 bombers. There wasn’t another soul in sight. No farmers in nearby fields or other curious tourists. It was just myself and these ghostly vestiges.
As someone who has been studying the history found along Highway 83 for several years, I was feeling pretty stupid as I stopped my rental car, and took pictures of the decaying buildings. One thing that I love about the road is that it touches upon almost every major era in U.S. and pre-colonial history. From when humans first made their way here in the waning days of the Ice Age, to the present day, there are stories all along the route. There are stories from the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1805, the subsequent so-called Indian Wars, and even a bit of Civil War history near Brownsville, Texas. But it is easy to forget about contributions the Highway 83 communities made to the World War II effort.
As I explored the buildings that were seemingly on their way to reaching “ruins” status, I remembered passing through Childress, Texas, on Highway 83 during a previous trip. A local historian had given me directions to the World War II base there, but I had gotten lost, and gave up. Along with not knowing about these hangars — I was regretting not making more of an effort in Childress.
I pulled up to a Nebraska State Historical Sign that explained a bit about the base’s history, which began when it was established on April 1, 1943.
It provided the final training for heavy bomber crews flying the B-17 Flying Fortress, the B-24 Liberator and the B-29 Super Fortress. The base had three runways and accommodations for 5,000 men. It once had a theater, hospital, chapel and post office. It closed only two and half years later Dec. 31, 1945.
After stopping to take pictures of a building that looked like one of the barracks, I drove back down the row to see what was on the northern end.
Suddenly, standing on the side of the road next to one of the hangars was a man in work clothes waving me down. Who is this guy and where did he come from? I thought to myself?
It turns out his name was Dale Cotton, and he was a member of the McCook Army Air Base Historical Society.
Dale took me around, and gave me some history of the base. There is an active effort to preserve the five hangars, it turned out.
He showed me the octagonal concrete floor of a bombsight vault, where aviators would practice using the top-secret equipment that would help them find targets.
Can’t I take your picture next to it? I asked.
No, I prefer you didn’t, he replied. I’ll explain why later.
Cotton told me about his dream to preserve all the remaining buildings. He would like to see a museum built there. He even made a case for the U.S. government returning to the site to build a new base.
That, I thought to myself, was a little farfetched. I cover defense and homeland security in my day job in Washington, D.C. The trend for the last two decades has been to close down bases, not build new ones.
Even the preservation of the crumbling mega-buildings seemed like an almost impossibly daunting task. But I told him about my Highway 83 website and Facebook fanpage. If he had an email or website for those wishing to donate to the cause, I would pass it along.
No, he said. He doesn’t use the Internet, or have email. And that was why he didn’t want his picture taken. He preferred to live his life off the grid away from the allegedly prying eyes of Big Brother. He didn’t want his picture online.

He did give me an address if anyone wants to contribute money or construction materials:

McCook Air Base Historical Society
P.O. Box B-29
McCook, NE 69001

Since the society has no presence on the web, I don’t know if it has non-profit status, and whether or not contributions are tax deductible.
I drove off feeling a little discouraged. Here was one man waging an important battle to preserve our history, but he chooses not to use today’s preferred method of communicating, and a powerful tool for fundraising — the Internet. It is too bad he doesn’t hand the fundraising task over to someone more willing to do so, I thought.
How long before the Nebraska winds topple these grand old structures down for good, I wondered.
As I post this, it’s almost V-J Day, and 11 months later. I figured it was about time to pass on the contact information as I promised.
I also came across this article in the McCook Gazette published in December about Mr. Cotton and another local volunteer making some progress in repairing one of the hangar roofs. So progress is being made. (But you’ll notice that Mr. Cotton just happens to have a hand over his face in the picture. And with all the headlines lately about government surveillance programs, who can blame him?)

Stew Magnuson is the author of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, and  The Last American Highway: Nebraska Kansas Oklahoma edition. Both are available online or in museums, bookstores and gift shops on Hwy 83.
 
To join the Fans of U.S. Route 83 group on Facebook, CLICK HERE. And check out the U.S. Route 83 Travel page at www.usroute83.com.  Contact Stew Magnuson at stewmag (a) yahoo.com

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