Carlsbad Army Airfield preserved in new museum
By ADRIAN HEDDEN | The Carlsbad Current-Argus (Tribune News Service) | Published: May 13, 2017
For the better part of World War II, hundreds of soldiers were trained to fight the Nazis in a remote airfield near the farms and oil wells of Carlsbad.
From southeastern New Mexico they were dispatched to conflicts throughout Europe and Pacific in bomber planes.
When the war was over, many soldiers returned to the states, landing at the Carlsbad Army Airfield before returning to their homes.
Today, city officials are looking to bring the story of the now closed airfield back to life in the very place it started.
An exhibit commemorating the men and women who contributed to the war effort at the airfield celebrated its grand opening Thursday in a ribbon cutting and reception at the Cavern City Air Terminal.
Patsy Jackson-Christopher, the city's director of Culture, Recreation and Community Services, said the story of Carlsbad’s war effort needed to be told.
“There was so much to tell,” she said. “Some of the most significant things that happened in World War II happened here in Carlsbad. We learn and teach people our history so we can better plan for the future and not make the same mistakes.”
Jackson-Christopher said Carlsbad’s role in the war is often overlooked by historians. She said the time period is important to understand in the modern era as it significantly informs day-to-day life.
“No one will deny the significance of World War II and how it affects our culture,” she said. “They refer to that generation as the 'Greatest Generation' for good reason. There’s a lot to be learned.”
Training the troops
Local historian and lifelong Carlsbad resident Tom Bemis said that at one point the Carlsbad Army Airfield was the largest precision-bombing training field in the world.
He said up to 197 HE-11 training aircraft were operated at the field, with 26 bombing targets scattered across the Carlsbad area.
It was active as a training center from 1942 until the end of the war in 1945.
Cadets were prepared for a variety of situations in the planes.
Base commander Col. John Ryan, Bemis said, once bragged that he could land a bomb into a pickle barrel.
“It’s what prepared our men for the war in Europe,” Bemis said of the air field. “It really prepared them for whatever happens. They were very versatile.”
Upon returning from the war and landing in Carlsbad, troops often spent months here. Families were reunited, some were started, and Carlsbad became one of the centers of the post-war American middle class.
David Mandel of Nogal, New Mexico, who led the design for the exhibit and contributed research, said after the war Carlsbad became a booming town.
“What intrigued me the most was the number of people who came through here,” Mandel said. “They had a very social life. On weekends, a lot was happening.
"Most of the people that came here had a good time. It was as if someone wanted them to enjoy themselves before going to war. I tried to give a broad view of all that happened here.”
Carlsbad Mayor Dale Janway spoke at the ribbon cutting, certain the exhibit would succeed in raising awareness of the city's military history.
“We could go on and on and talk about Carlsbad’s history,” he said. “But I think the exhibit speaks for itself.”
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