The story of the Walker Air Force Base (AFB) closure in 1967 doesn’t begin in 1967. To understand what happened, you have to go back 26 years further to 1941 when the City of Roswell bought ten sections of land south of town and gifted the land to the U.S. Army. Before 1941, the Army used the land out at the old municipal airport that is now Cielo Grande Park on College Avenue. They flew B-17s out of the old airfield, and the noise as each bomber landed and took off was horrendous. Residents complained. The City’s solution was genius: move the Army south of town. When the land south of Roswell transferred to the Army, the city placed a reversionary clause in their contract with the Army that transferred all land back to the City of Roswell if the U.S. Army were to ever abandon the land.
Thus, when the U.S. Air Force (USAF) announced the closure of Walker AFB in December of 1965, the City of Roswell faced two challenges: a sudden outflow of both jobs and capital, and the acquisition of 10 sections of land now fully developed for use as an air force base. This ruined Christmas for a lot of people in Roswell, but the city wasn’t about to roll over and let unfortunate circumstances sink it. The mayor of Roswell asked USAF General Curtis LeMay if anything could be done to allay the closure of Walker AFB. Roswell was the general’s favorite base. Yet the general had no good news. The order had come straight from Washington. Apparently, Walker AFB wasn’t the only base closure at the time. Three other bases closed at the same time: Amarillo in Texas, Clinton-Sherman in Oklahoma and Schilling in Kansas. Official sources say these base closures were due to a need for war funds during the Vietnam War. But according to former Mayor Bill Brainerd, each base was located in an area that heavily voted against Democratic President Lyndon Johnson and for his Republican challenger, Barry Goldwater. And the official reason for the base closure was suspicious in its own right. The B-52 bombers—the 509th Enola Gay and the 6th Bockscar—were moved to North Dakota and Maine. What were the reasons given for each move and for the base closure? The weather wasn’t right.
Whatever the real reasons were, the closure of Walker AFB was inevitable. In the face of such dire circumstances, the mayor put together a small, tight committee of a few prominent community members to oversee the transition of land from the U.S. government to the City of Roswell. The four men met once a week for breakfast, tasked with monitoring the base closure and helping the city transition the land into its possession. These four men were Dr. R.J. Marshall, ENMU-R Dean John Gillis, abstractor Liman Sanders and lawyer Bill Brainerd. According to Brainerd, Washington sent their own man as a liaison between the city and the federal government in order to have “as few hitches as possible.”
Marshall was in charge of the hospital transition between the USAF and the city. One morning as the committee was having breakfast, Marshall mentioned that he had attended medical school at Baylor University with the surgeon general. The committee decided to send Marshall on a plane to meet with the him. “It must have been a pretty good meeting,” noted Brainerd, “because when the Air Force left, they just turned off the lights and left the hospital intact.” The USAF left the hospital fully supplied with surgical tools, clothing, beds and monitors and was in such good shape that the State of New Mexico bought the facility from the City of Roswell.
John Gillis, dean of Eastern New Mexico University at the time, was tasked with overseeing the dorms, offices and other buildings useful for education. Eastern New Mexico University–Roswell occupied the Old Post Office downtown and had spilled over into the classrooms of Roswell High School. The university needed more space and bought the dorms, office buildings and Officers’ Club. The dorms were so numerous on the old base that the city had to winterize and preserve many of the unused buildings until the university grew large enough to need them. Brainerd praised Gillis’s efforts, saying that he did an excellent job of “pickling” the dorms. So well, in fact, that very little had to be done once the university finally needed those buildings. The main Air Force office became the main offices for the university, and the Officers’ Club became the Student Union.
Brainerd was in charge of the flight line and the transition of the hundreds of bungalows on the base. One of the reasons Roswell was so successful in reclaiming the land at the base and utilizing it was partly due to the city hiring every master sergeant to work on the flight line. The Air Force had installed fuel lines and fueling stations along each runway, and the master sergeants knew where each line went and how to maintenance each line. The city brought in Pan Am and later Boeing to test their airplanes on Roswell’s runways. “We didn’t charge a landing fee, but we did charge a refueling fee. We were basically coining money out there,” Brainerd laughed.
The city decided to preserve the 801 houses on the base as the housing market in Roswell received a significant blow when the base closed. Brainerd said he wishes the Housing Authority had handled the housing on the base better than they had. The city sat on that property for 10 years hoping to see the housing market rise. The market did rise, but by the time the houses went up for sale, the properties were in such poor condition that they went for a pittance. Some in Roswell are still disappointed with the city’s actions in this area, saying the property could have been used more productively, building such things as light manufacturing and warehouses.
Roswell went through an extreme downturn during the years following the base closure. Before the closure, Roswell’s population sat at about 48,000. Afterward, Roswell’s population dropped to 33,000, about a third cut in economic wealth. Near the end of my interview with Brainerd, he chuckled as he revealed that after the Air Force vacated the land south of the city, Roswell did see growth in groceries and liquor. Apparently, military personal could purchase groceries and liquor tax free on the base, and the liquor was cheaper than in the city. Sergeants would set up small side markets in their homes and take orders from Roswell citizens, running goods up from the base and making a side profit. When this activity ceased, grocery and liquor stores in Roswell found their profits rising.
Roswell survived the closure of Walker AFB, and the brave little committee Bill Brainerd served on can be credited with a very large part of why Roswell survived.