Volume 11, No. 5             Buffalo County Historical Society   May, 1988

The Civilians
(This is the second of two articles about the Army Air Base 1942-1949.)
by Alice Shaneyfelt Howell

        World War II affected all of the nation's citizens from the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, until VJ Day, August 14, 1945. Sad as the state of war was, it did bring about a patriotic fervor which resulted in everyone everywhere pulling together in the war effort. Scrap drives, blackout procedures, war stamp and bond auctions, and victory gardens were enthusiastically promoted. Every church and club had a war service committee. Rubber for tires, leather for shoes, and cotton for clothing were among the first material shortages to cause variations in the American way of life. Although rationing of food and gas did not get into full swing until early 1943, supplies of coffee and sugar had been sharply cut earlier. Purchases of new cars, trucks, tractors, bicycles, and the tires and tubes for them, had first to be approved by the County War Price & Rationing Board.

        The selection of Kearney as the site for an Army Air Base would affect the community in many ways, adding substantially to the war effort of its citizens. Both men and women would be needed for the labor force at the base and for jobs opening up in the city as a result of the people moving into the community who would be connected with the base; also, young men going off to war left vacancies of jobs in the towns and on the farms. Women who had never before worked outside the home took jobs. Retired persons went back to work. Married women teachers were welcomed back into the classroom, and all teachers, for the first time in many years, had an opportunity to be stubborn about the salary question.

        The initial problem felt in Kearney was housing - for workers coming into the community for employment and for families of both military and civilian personnel stationed at the base. Kearney was literally bursting at the seams as every extra room or hastily converted apartment in attics, basements and garages were made available for living quarters for the incoming population. The Kearney Military Academy was opened for housing of both military and civilian personnel. Every household within a 16-mile radius of Kearney was contacted in an effort to alleviate the crowded conditions.

        The first meeting of the City Council after Kearney's designation for an Army Air Base was reported in the Kearney Daily Hub of September 15, 1942: "Council begins to feel some of the headaches of a temporary boom town." First considered was the need for a trailer ordinance. It was determined that 150 trailers could be accommodated at the county fair grounds. Police Judge S. S. Sidner cited the need for additional policemen because of the population influx. He also recommended enforcement of the curfew law "since several professional gamblers had returned to Kearney." 2-way radios for police and fire departments were also suggested.

Gray Ladies Corps 1944. Left to right: Front row - Irene Atwater, Helen Blackledge, Ettia Bell Rogers, Ruth Holmes, Vesta Rickard.  Second row - Lillian Edwards, Kathleen Mueller, Nelle Schnoor, Bethine Barney, Lenore Knutzen.  Back row - Turner DuBois, Lillian Shofstall, Irene Morledge, Ethel Cruickshank, Carol Cope

        A trailer town was established at the fair grounds. The Hub reported on October 13 that Kiewit-Condon, the company contracted to grade and pave the base runways, were feeding and lodging approximately 80 at the fairgrounds. Trailers could be seen all over town in yards and driveways as homeowners offered space to accommodate these mobile homes.

        The next project tackled was to provide recreational facilities for the incoming soldiers. Mayor Ivan Mattson appointed Harold Oldfather as chairman of the Kearney Recreation Committee which would assume the responsibility of finding recreation for the troops stationed at the base. S. S. Sidner was made vice-chairman and was also appointed to head the financial campaign to raise $10,000 for a local recreational program for the soldiers. A report in the Kearney Daily Hub of November 11, 1942 states:

        While every effort has and will be made to obtain funds and assistance from the USO and other organizations working on the recreation program in army camp towns, $10,000 is felt to be the minimum amount necessary if Kearney is to do the kind of a job it should in taking care of the recreation program for the air base soldiers.
        It is the plan of the local organization to set up a hospitality center by the time the first soldiers arrive .... As a matter of fact, it will be necessary that two centers be established as it has been learned that there will be a sizable group of Negro soldiers stationed at the base, and a separate set-up will have to be maintained for them. If at a later date these centers can be operated by USO they will be turned over, but it will be impossible to get the USO into the picture for some time.
The financial drive was successful and more than $10,000 was collected for the project.

        The recently vacated Safeway Store at 2007-09 Central Avenue was selected for the local recreational facility for soldiers, and the center opened on January 15, 1943. Organization of a USO Council was completed in early February. The operation of the center was turned over to the Salvation Army, and the USO and the Kearney Recreation Committee paid rent and salaries. A USO hostess corps was organized with Mrs. Horace J. Cary as chairman of hospitality. Married women served as USO officers and young, single women were hostesses. Jean Schrack Lynch was a hostess and later served as a liaison between the officers and the hostesses. She remembers that the code of conduct was quite strict. "The hostesses were not supposed to leave the club with a soldier, not supposed to make dates in the club, were to dress simply but tastefully, were to avoid overdoing the makeup, and were to be friendly to all of the soldiers," she said. There were pool and ping pong tables, card tables, jukebox, small dance floor, and snack bar. When the popular bands played at the Armory, at the NCO Club or the hangars at the base, USO hostesses were taken by army trucks or buses from the center to the dances and were always returned to the center afterwards to be checked out by their officers. In spite of the stringent rules, romances budded and some blossomed into marriage.

        A facility for the expected Negro troops was the next responsibility of the Kearney Recreation Committee. A building was rented at 2220 Avenue A, redecorated, and converted into a recreation center. Oldfather and Sidner of the Kearney committee headed the project and pushed it to completion before the arrival of the Negro soldiers, even serving as bartenders until a staff was hired. Because the war years were in the period of time before desegregation, the Windsor Hotel at 21st Street and Avenue A (present location of Nebraska Public Power offices) was designated for living quarters for the Negro families. The 1733 Park swimming pool three miles west of the city became their place to swim in the summertime.

        The local problems created by the location of an Army Air Base in Kearney were handled well and responsibly by the citizens of the community. By the time the soldiers began to arrive, the city was at least prepared as to what to expect. People were specifically requested to refrain from asking questions of enlisted men as to the operations at the base.

        Offices for the base had been initially set up in the Armory in Kearney for the Engineers and the Base Command, and some civilian workers were then hired. The offices were moved to the base as soon as quarters were made ready for them. By early January, 1943, when construction of buildings and runways was completed and the base was ready to function, civilian workers, both men and women, were recruited for every kind of job to work under or along with an expected military population of over 2,000.

Civilian War Bond Drive at Air Base. (Official Photo-KAAB)

        Because practically all information was classified during the existence of the base and for many years afterwards, figures are not available of the number employed in each part of the base organization, but it appears that a total work force of 750 to 800 civilians was necessary for the operation of the Air Base during the war years. Many residents of Kearney today were members of that civilian work force, and it is from some of them, and from clippings out of base newspapers that information has been gathered as to the part civilians played in the Kearney Army Air Base story. It should be pointed out however, that this account covers only the tip of the iceberg in describing the operations of the base and the jobs of the civilians who worked there.

        From Base Headquarters the Commanding Officer directed and watched over the operation of the entire base. The personnel of Base Command was largely military except for some civilian accountants, secretaries and clerks. Mrs. Marian Brown was a secretary in the Quartermaster's office from January, 1943, until August, 1944. The Quartermaster was in charge of supplying food and other provisions to base personnel, planes, and to troop trains going through. Troop trains were often routed from the Union Pacific main line through the base for supplies, sometimes clothing but usually food supplies, including K-rations. Now and then a soldier was taken off the train and put in the hospital because of illness. These were short stops, the needed supplies were loaded and the train went on its way.

        Because Mrs. Brown played a tenor saxophone she was often a substitute in the Air Base Band. She especially enjoyed her experience as a part of the band when it participated in bond rallies, going to neighboring towns and playing on the courthouse steps or at some other gathering place in the town as a part of the promotion of the sale of war bonds. She also recalled taking testimony at a court martial trial of a non-commissioned soldier who had been caught rifling the officer’s barracks during a dance at the Officers Club.

        In summing up her experiences as a civilian worker at the base, Mrs. Brown says: "It was an exciting time and I felt very much a part of the war effort, and I felt very close to it. Although far from the battle lines I think all of us at Kearney Air Base thought of ourselves as a part of the action because we were really supporting the front lines from a distance."

        The largest number of civilian workers at the base were employed in the 403rd Sub-Depot, which was officially activated at the base on December 29, 1942. First under the control of Patterson Field, Fairfield, Ohio, on February 1, 1943 the Sub-Depot came under the direction of the Oklahoma City Air Service Command. Its purpose was the handling of processing equipment and supplies for both aircraft and crews going into combat. There were four major sections: Headquarters, Supply, Maintenance and Signal.

        The Commanding Officer of the Sub-Depot and his staff of both military and civilian personnel were in Headquarters Section. The efficient operation of the entire Sub-Depot was dependent on the supervision of the Commanding Officer and his Headquarters staff. In fact, the lives of the thousands of crew members who would be processed through the Kearney Army Air Base depended upon the accuracy and quality of work of every employee of Sub-Depot. It was very exacting work, and the immense job accomplished can hardly be imagined as one looks back at it today.

        Each of the other sections - Maintenance, Supply and Signal - was under the supervision and direction of a military officer whose responsibility was to oversee all phases of his Section's operation. He had assistants from military, but the foremen, supervisors and workers of each Section were civilian personnel. Supply and Maintenance employed large numbers of civilian workers, both skilled and unskilled.

        The Sub-Depot newspaper, the Avion (a French word meaning "airplane"), dedicated its November 2, 1943 issue to Sub-Depot Maintenance, whose workers were described as "the garage mechanics of the Army Air Forces." Their job was "to accomplish the repair, modification and maintenance of Army Air Forces airplanes, including the manufacture as well as repair of aircraft equipment which is performed by the various departments. Maintenance works in complete cooperation with Sub-Depot Supply, coordinating all activities with Supply, without which Maintenance could not carry on its work. Keeping them Flying is the goal we attain - our part in the war effort." The newspaper listed eighteen departments in Maintenance, and from this issue a description of the various jobs of the Section are taken.

        Aero-Repair was responsible for the actual repair of all wheel assemblies, de-icer equipment, fuel tank installation and many other areas of repair, including the cleaning of the aircraft. Wood Mill's carpenters kept their saws buzzing and hammers pounding in the repair of all wood parts or the construction of any wood part needed. They also turned out shipping boxes, bomb bay luggage racks, oars for life rafts, tabletops for radio operators, and other needed items of wooden construction.

        Machine Shop repaired or manufactured aircraft parts and accessories, provided adjustments and modifications for such parts, and cleaned and checked the oil coolers of each plane going through Sub-Depot. Drafting prepared original designs for machine parts or tools used in the repair and servicing of planes; also made charts, diagrams and signs for Sub-Depot and other organizations on the base. In the Paint Shop planes and plane parts were painted; stars, insignia, call letters and all types of camouflage were added, and fabric for airplane wings was "doped" and painted. Any painting, staining and varnishing needed went through this department.

        Propeller's main job was the overhaul, repair and balancing of propellers, also repairs to landing gear assemblies, and the task of the Instrument department was making all instruments on the planes tick, finding and dealing with snags or "gremlins"; also removing and checking all instruments from salvaged planes.

Repair Of Hall Damage to Bombers.  (Official Photo - KAAB)

        The departments of Work Order and Production & Control coordinated the detailed operation of routing work orders, checking parts and supplies available and keeping a record of the progress of the job as well as estimating when the plane would be returned to service. Inspection looked at all aircraft when first assigned, then inspected and approved the work when completed. They also inspected parts manufactured in the shops, kept a record of those sent to Supply Section and in general kept complete records of all work done on aircraft assigned to Sub-Depot Maintenance.

        Reclamation was literally the reclaiming of various assemblies and materials sent to this department. Many planes were kept flying by the parts saved by Reclamation.

        The Parachute department not only folded and repaired parachutes but performed such diversified tasks as cutting and shaping leather earphone covers, testing life or safety belts, sewing gun covers, ammunition bags and blind flying curtains, plus repair and maintenance of clothing. As new chutes arrived they were packed. Those belonging to the base were examined, hung up to air, and repacked every sixty days. "Jungle" kits arrived separately. In addition to folding and caring for them, they were packed with the essentials that crew members would need after having bailed out - leather gloves, a large knife, matches and fish hooks in plastic containers, a com pass, red fuse, field rations, mosquito lotion, and various medicines. Ruth Southworth describes her work in this department:

    We packed some seat packs, but mostly back and chest packs. Early canopies were made of silk but most of those we packed were nylon. The silk was folded and placed into the pack along with carefully stowed suspension (or shroud) lines, sometimes badly tangled. I learned a lot of patience in untangling them. The final step was sealing them to prevent tampering, and filling out the log book.
        Major Robert W. Motherwell, an executive officer of the Kearney base, felt that the excellent record of the parachute packers should be recognized, and conceived the idea of a Cocoon Club. To be eligible for membership the packer had to have definite proof that the chute had saved someone's life, a fact that could be verified by the initials of the packer in the log book of the chute. When the individual whose life was saved communicated with the department giving information of a safe landing, the name of the packer was traced and he or she became eligible for Cocoon Club membership. Marjorie Pflaum of Amherst and Ruth Southworth of Pleasanton were two of the fourteen charter members of this exclusive and unique club of civilian workers in the Parachute department.

        Other shops were Welding & Blacksmithing, Sheet Metal, Armament, Electrical and Cable.

        The Administrative Section of Sub-Depot Maintenance was under the supervision of Alvie E. Payne, Administrative Assistant to the Engineering Officer. General Foreman was James Lee, assisted by Dwight Doty; Shop Foreman was James Larson and Hangar Foreman was Loyal Hulit. After the war Alvie Payne and James Larson would form a business partnership and found the Payne-Larson Furniture Company of Kearney and Grand Island.

        "If They Fly, It's Up To Supply!" proclaimed a sign in the Sub-Depot's Supply Section. This huge section was responsible for supplying all Air Corps equipment. The four warehouses of Supply in 1943 grew to eight in the next two years, and the voluminous stocks of those warehouses stagger the mind when one considers the diverse and varied uses of the items ordered and dispensed by Supply.

        Every plane and every crew member processed through the Kearney base went through Air Corps Supply to receive all items needed in combat. This included a complete outfit of clothing (and this varied as to where the crew was being sent), survival kits, rations, parachutes, flight gear, heated boots, gloves, side arm weapons, ammunition, and whatever other articles the crew members might need for the mission assigned to them.

        All the parts, tools and material used in Maintenance, and the many and varied jobs performed there, were dependent on Supply so that work was not delayed and planes were not grounded for lack of parts.

        In an operation of this magnitude everything had to be accounted for and required extensive paper work, all of which passed through the Message Center. Mrs. Vena Cannon was the supervisor of the Center, which included the Teletype Unit as well as the department of Mail, Files and Publications. The Teletype Unit was handled by seven operators and functioned throughout the 24 hours of each day. A scrapbook clipping describes the work of Message Center:

    Paper work - teletypes, telegrams, message forms, work orders, shipping tickets, memorandum receipts, TOs, letters, purchase orders, requisitions, incoming and outgoing - all paper work to get the supplies necessary to "Keep 'em Flying"...these all pass through Message Center, Air Corps Supply... (which) gets these papers to their proper destination in a hurry.
From this description it can readily be seen that the heart of Air Corps Supply was the
Message Center.
Secretaries In Purchasing & Contracting.  (Official Photo - KAAB)

        Workers in the warehouses of Supply Section were also on duty 24 hours a day because they never knew when a plane and its crew would be processed, or whether a plane in Maintenance would need an emergency part.

        The fourth section of the 403rd Sub-Depot was Signal, which was responsible for the testing and repairing of all airborne radios and radio equipment for all combat planes, as well as the base planes and transient aircraft.

        Information is not available on the detailed operations of either Supply or Signal Sections.

        It is obvious that the work of the Sub-Depot employees was a major contribution to the aims and accomplishments of the Kearney Army Air Base in its efforts to "Keep ‘em Flying."

        Civilian workers at the base had their own organization, the Civilian Welfare Association. Its purpose was to promote the welfare of civilian personnel, to cultivate good fellowship and to provide entertainment and recreation for all civilians. Many fine bands were brought to the base for dances by this organization and watermelon feeds, picnics, carnivals and other social events were held for members and their friends. On March 1, 1944 the Association took over the management of the Civilian Service Club. One scrapbook clipping noted that "18,240 pies had been baked since January 1944! An average of 40 pies a day, 6 days each week, for 19 months." That was the production record of Mrs. Olive Miller of Gibbon, the pastry cook of the Service Club.

Women mechanics in aircraft maintenance.  (Official Photo - KAAB)

        A group of dedicated volunteer women of Kearney who helped at the base hospital were the Gray Ladies. This special service group of the Red Cross chapter in Kearney was organized early in 1944 under the chairmanship of Mrs. H. L. Blackledge. Fourteen ladies were recruited and trained in February of 1944, and twelve more were trained in 1945. The Gray Ladies went to the base in groups of four twice a week on a schedule which assured that each patient was visited daily. While their function was ostensibly morale building, they performed a multitude of small services for the patients, such as distribution of reading material, assisting hospital personnel in recreational activity, personal shopping and letter writing for patients, supervision of craftwork, and generally made themselves useful around the hospital. Mrs. Blackledge, Mrs. Eleanor Dale, Mrs. Carol Cope and Mrs. Nelle Schnoor, all of Kearney, were members of this corps of volunteers.

        Many interesting experiences of people of the community have been related about the days of the Kearney Air Base. Edith Koeppe Crockett, organist and pianist of Kearney, recalls that at age 8, she was often asked to play the piano at the Officers' Club on Sunday afternoons. She usually played popular music or accompanied sing-alongs. Viola Livingston of Gibbon tells a touching story in connection with the Air Base bomber crash just east of the base on the farm of her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Elmer Lindenstein, which killed all the crew aboard. After the crash site had been cleaned and cleared by the base workers, Mrs. Lindenstein found a man's ring, burned and blackened, but with initials discernible so that identification could be made as to which soldier had been wearing it. After having the ring cleaned and polished by a local jeweler, Mrs. Lindenstein sent it to the soldier's widow.

        Lois Bissell Lawhead remembers that a big drapery order for velvet drapes in the Officers' Club at the base launched the Bissell Decorating Studio into the drapery business. Until then, venetian blinds and upholstering had been the Bissells' major business.

        Many civilian workers in the Kearney area were also employed by the Kiewit-Condon-Cunningham Repair Depot located on the Air Base at the former Keens Airport. Although not a part of the Kearney Army Air Base operation, it was a war industry under a government contract and was coordinated and inspected by the Corps of Engineers at the base. After Kiewit-Condon had completed the base runways, they undertook the Repair Depot project at the request of the government. Hollis J. Limprecht in The Kiewit Story says:

.... The U.S. military forces were about to embark on their island hopping conquest of the South Pacific and needed to carve airbases out of the coral rock. That meant they needed equipment - bulldozers, loaders, cranes and trucks...
    The government rounded up its pieces of heavy equipment by the hundreds and shipped them to Kearney, where PKS (Peter Kiewit Sons Co.) people ... refurbished, repaired and repainted them for shipment overseas.
    The government not only shipped tractors and bulldozers and such to Kearney, but it also shipped spare parts in great profusion, sometimes all mixed up. They were able to find mechanics who would first sort out the parts into orderly piles and then identify whether a part went on a tractor, crane or whatever.
        Men and women who worked there recall the huge pieces of equipment, so large that most of the work on them required walking cranes. Welding, machine shop, sand-blasting, painting and whatever other repair work was necessary continued until the fall of 1945 when the Repair Depot was closed. There is no available record of the number of employees, all of whom were civilian, but former workers there estimate as many or more than the civilian work force at the Army Air Base.

        Indeed there can be no doubt about the many contributions made by the civilian work force and the civilian people of the Kearney community as they played their important role in the huge task set before this nation of the winning of World War II.

    Kearney Daily Hub, September 15, October 13, November 11, 1942; AVION, November 2, 1943; Limprecht, The Kiewit Story; correspondence from Ruth Southworth; personal and telephone Interviews with Marian Brown, Jean Lynch, Catharine Bahnsen, Alvie Payne, Helen Blackledge, Edie Crockett, Viola Livingston, Lois Lawhead, Joyce Brennan, Doris Keough, S. S. Sidner; scrapbooks and clippings of Harold Forsberg, Mildred Yanney Shada, Catharine Bahnsen, Kearney Red Cross Chapter.
Proofread 11-28-2001
Revised 3/12/2003

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