When the United States famously awoke as a sleeping giant during World War II, nearly every sector of public life was adapted to help guide the war effort.
Clear skies and warm climate in the Land of Enchantment provided the ideal setting for cadets to practice flying airplanes or dropping bombs from airplanes in places across New Mexico. Additionally, remote communities became likely locations for housing America’s Prisoners of War.
The nation’s rebuilding of its military included a development of the Army Air Corps, which would eventually become the Air Force. Carlsbad had built its civilian airport at the southern end of town in 1941; however, the single runway became a massive air base once the project was activated in 1942. Cadets trained under the flight school for the first year while most of the war the base served as a training school for bombardiers. According to a Carlsbad Museum & Art Center exhibit, near the end of the war cadets also began cross-training at the base as navigators and gunners . “New Mexico also had bases in Roswell, Albuquerque, Clovis, Deming, Alamogordo, Ft. Sumner and Hobbs,” observed historical researcher Bobby Lee Silliman. “Carlsbad had flat terrain and vast areas where you could place bombing targets and not endanger the public.”
Carlsbad’s base rapidly became the focal point of town, drawing some 2,000 cadets along with another 2,000 employed civilians at any given time. The air base itself was a small city, which hundreds of residents reported to every day to answer phones or pack parachutes. At that time, 600 different structures, including hangers, barracks, mess halls, a hospital and a K-9 unit sat on the base. In addition to the cadets that made their home on the base, the Woman’s Army Auxiliary Corps, known as the Woman’s Army Corps by 1943, had a barracks at the Carlsbad Army Air Field, which they shared with the base’s nurses. More than 150,000 women served in the WAC during World War 2 working as radio operators, parachute riggers and bombsite maintenance specialists.
“Really everything was a surprise for me,” declared historian David Mandel, who developed an exhibit on the airfield. “While the women didn’t go into battle, they flew airplanes from one place to another.” There was also a separate barracks on the base for Black soldiers serving the war effort. They worked as mechanics, cooks and electricians. For a brief time, Carlsbad’s base was also briefly used as a training center for Chinese pilots.
Carlsbad and surrounding bases were credited with nearly 40 percent of the war effort’s bombardier class. Training lasted 12 to 18 weeks, with each student dropping 160 bombs. Those who passed the course were transferred to a unit to join a crew preparing for overseas duty. The cadets were trained on some of the 193 specially-designed Beech AT-11’s held at the Carlsbad Army Air Field. That was about 1/8 of the nation’s total aircrafts produced for training bombardiers. A crew consisted of a pilot, a bombardier instructor and usually two student bombardiers, according to the museum documents.
Bombardiers spent much of their time learning how to use the top secret Norden Bombsight, which used a bomber’s altitude, air-speed and director to calculate more accurate bombing runs. Operation was taught in a classroom setting as well as on ground-based simulators. The Norden
Bombsights were state-of-the-art instruments at the time. “They had a cement bunker to protect them,” Mandel shared. “It was top security whenever they took them out. They’d be concealed in bags, so nobody knew what was going on.” Cadets would then make bombing runs in a Beech AT-11 airplane carrying sand or cement-filled practice bombs to drop on one of five target ranges in the area, as well as a demonstration target. In a conversation with Bobby Lee Silliman about bombing runs made by the cadets, he shared that he’s been to all five locations of the targets and has found some of the concrete bombs. Targets consisted of five concentric circles, located from as far back as 1,000 feet from the center. “The circles were painted white, so you could see them from any altitude,” Silliman explained. “The cadet would drop a 100 pound bomb, and when it hit the ground, it would create smoke on the impact. Each cadet would drop five bombs.” Work crews would rebuild the targets to prepare for the next practice run. In addition to their flight training, cadets were also trained in radio use, Morse Code, navigation, parachuting, gunnery and, on occasion, they were required to go out into remote areas in order to learn how to survive with minimal resources.
Bobby Lee Sillman lost his brother, Jack, in the Vietnam War. Subsequently and perhaps as a way of grieving, he became very interested in researching family military history, which included Jack’s father-in-law’s service as a bombardier graduate. By 1980, Sillman had acquired dozens of copies of a bombardier magazine published from the Carlsbad base. Many years later, he entered and won an online bidding war for a 1943 chapel newsletter from the Carlsbad Army Airfield. The victory cost him $38. He later developed a friendship with his bidding-competitor, who turned out to be Carlsbad resident Michael Barnhart. Barnhart had created a Facebook page devoted to the Carlsbad Army Airfield and Silliman quickly joined the project. “We launched it in June of 2011 and, as it stands, we are just short of 800 views a day,” Silliman states, noting that old photos and maps are shared daily with the many men and women interested in the airfield.
A display case honoring the airport’s military history stood for many years at the airport; however, a more complete display containing many artifacts and photographs from the Carlsbad Army Airfield is now available. Completed in 2017, David Mandel, a veteran exhibit developer, created the satellite exhibit of the Carlsbad Museum & Art Center in the north end of the Cavern City Air Terminal located at 1505 Terminal Drive. “I didn’t originally have a great historical overview of World War II,” admitted Mandel, a resident of mountainous Nogal, New Mexico. “So I went down to Carlsbad to look at what materials I had, and I began reading and researching. I learned a lot from this project.” There are a number of books dedicated to Carlsbad and nearby communities jumping into the war effort. He also went through old copies of Life Magazine and found a great deal of information while researching the backlogs at the Carlsbad Museum. While developing the exhibit, Mandel said what really stood out was the combination of training and recreation. “They were learning new information and working all the time,” he declared. “But it also seemed like they had a lot of relaxation. There were lots of photographs of people having fun. They went to dances. They went on field trips. Many of them married Carlsbad women and came back here. That had never occurred to me.” “These men were working hard, but they were also meeting new people and making new friends,” Mandel added.
The Rattlesnake Springs area, located southwest of Carlsbad Caverns National park, was also a popular swimming destination for cadets, who would travel there by bus for a field trip. Bob Stockwell, who developed the museum’s Bataan exhibit, recalls that one tragic drowning occurred at the site. He remembers heading out to the Springs with his father, Ira, the town’s fire chief when it happened.
And then there’s the bat bombs
While Carlsbad’s World War II experience was likely very similar to the experience of numerous other communities who adapted in order to serve the nation, the Cavern City did have one very unique sidebar.
Enter a dentist named Lylie Adams, who correctly observed that most structures in Japanese cities were made of wood. Adams had a crazy idea of placing tiny bombs on thousands of bats and dropping them over Japan, where they would presumably wreak a great deal of inflammatory havoc, albeit to their own demise. That idea would normally not have taken him very far, but Adams happened to be close friends with Eleanor Roosevelt, who passed the idea on to her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Top secret plans were developed at the Carlsbad Auxiliary Airfield. A professor selected the Mexican free-tailed bat as the unwilling participant in the experiment. An organic chemist named Louis Fieser, eventually famous for inventing napalm, developed the chemical formula for the bat bombs, according to the museum exhibit. The plan was to assault Japan by way of Alaska, with ten carriers releasing more than one million bats from an altitude of 5,000 feet. up. The bats would disengage from special trays at about 1,000 feet and proceed with their selfdestructive coup de grace on Japan.
Back in Carlsbad, however, several bats escaped prior to a demonstration of the bat experiment on May 15, 1943. Their devices went off and they burned down a nearby wooden structure. At that point, the plans for the great bat bomb experiment was transferred to the Navy, then the Marine Corps and then was ultimately cancelled. “It all sounds crazy, but there were some very important people involved in the project,” observed Mandel.
The Carlsbad Army Airfield, at the south end of town, was not Carlsbad’s only World War II footprint. The National Guard still kept offices here, while most of its members were in the Philippines while Army and Navy recruitment (and draft enforcement) took place at the courthouse. Finally in addition, there was a POW camp at the north end of town, roughly where Carlsbad Medical Center and the Flume are currently located.
“There was an old CCC camp there,” explained Stockwell. “When Carlsbad was selected as a base, they hired local people for certain projects and stationed them at the base.” For example, Carlsbad’s fire department had two total employees at the time and those two men had a variety of other city duties. The rest of the firefighter were volunteers, all who worked on the base.
Once construction of the base was completed, everybody moved to the south end of town. Around that time the military began using the CCC camp for Prisoners of War, mostly for pilots and submarine crew members. “The History of Carlsbad: Compiled by the Carlsbad Public Library” reports that at least 30 German prisoners were transferred from a Roswell camp to Carlsbad in 1944. The prison included barbed wire and guards, of course, but it generally held German and Italian soldiers who were considered to be a minimum-security risk. The prisoners were used to help local farmers harvest their cotton crops along with the digging and repair of irrigation ditches and canals. Stockwell recalls seeing some of the prisoners swimming during visits with his father. The library history reports; however, that four men escaped on March 10, 1944 and 3 more on March 31st. Most escapees were quickly recaptured but, according to one source, ‘One of the later men is rumored to have remained free, married, and later become an American citizen.’ “You can’t get too far in the desert,” observed Silliman.
Swords to Plowshares
There’s little doubt that the nation’s air corps helped win the war. David Mandel recalled German accounts of being terrified as American bombers approached from two different directions at the same time. Many of the Carlsbad boys who had left town to fight in the war through other venues returned home. Many did not. The country began moving into its post war economy – itself no mean feat.
The Carlsbad Army Airbase closed “nearly overnight” Bobby Lee Silliman explained. Taking place in just over two weeks, the closing details were handled by a general with a particular gift for logistics. Most of the property was sold at a series of local auctions with many of the buildings put to good use. Local residents used barracks buildings for homes and office space.
A few remnants of the old air base remain at Carlsbad’s air base and other nearby locations. The base gymnasium, originally named in memory of the cadet who drowned at Rattlesnake Springs, was moved to what is currently Carlsbad’s 6th grade academy. After a two day move, the base chapel became Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church in nearby Loving. The auxiliary airfield, home of the infamous bat bomb experiment, became a strip for drag racing. That strip was later destroyed when law enforcement feared it was being used for landing drug planes.
In the end, it’s the people who stayed at the Carlsbad Army Airfield who made by far the biggest impact. The community was blessed with visitors such as cadet Reid McCloskey, who fell in love with and married a local girl named Marie Sears. Reid flew 35 missions over Europe during the war. He and Marie eventually returned to Carlsbad, where they raised their family. He went on to coach football and serve as assistant superintendent and mayor pro tem. In addition, Reid and Marie received every honor imaginable for their volunteer service. Marie passed away in 2013, while Reid died in 2015. They, and every single member of the Greatest Generation, will always have a special place in our hearts.