As the United States geared up for World War II, it became necessary to establish training bases scattered across the 48 states. The southwest was popular because of its moderate weather and New Mexico was particularly attractive because of its usually fair skies.
One of the locations chosen for the Army Air Corps flight training was Carlsbad, in Eddy County. Carlsbad Army Air Field (CAAF) was initially selected to serve as a twin engine training field. However, not long afterward, it was reconfigured as a bombardier school, as it was used for the duration of the war. In addition to classroom sessions, candidates were trained over a one year to eighteen month period during which they were evaluated as they dropped practice bombs on targets etched into the flat prairie. The main aircraft used was the AT-11 Kansan aircraft manufactured by Beechcraft, shown below. The AT-11 was used by 90% of the United States trainees in World War II. Its total production run amounted to 1,584 aircraft during the War. For training purposes it was configured to carry a payload of ten practice bombs.
(Image credit: nationalmuseum.af.mil)
The graduation rate in Carlsbad was about 88%. Once a candidate had successfully completed his course, he would be transferred from Carlsbad to a bomb crew, training at one of several advanced training bases elsewhere in the United States, after which the crews would be assigned for overseas duty in the War.
Carlsbad was one of the few training bases chosen to test the top secret Norden Bombsight. The device was revolutionary in that it allowed the bombardiers to take into consideration the aircraft’s ground speed and direction, which greatly improved bombing accuracy. Furthermore, its calculations could be made more quickly than previous designs and included certain automatic features that could factor in changes in conditions. The Norden Bombsight also allowed aircraft to operate at higher altitudes, safer for the crews than lower level bombing. Introduced in combat in the latter part of World War II, the device was so advanced that it was used in World War II, the Korean Conflict and on into the Vietnam era.
Carlsbad Army Air Field opened in July, 1942. The field itself consisted of 1,634 acres about five miles south of town on a location formerly acquired by the town for an air field. Its first commander was Colonel William C. Lewis. During its life of approximately thirty-six months, a number of Army Air Corps candidates passed through its courses as well as two classes from China.
As many as twenty-six targets were carved into the desert floor to resemble ships, aircraft, swastikas, factories and bulls-eyes. Some of them still remain visible today, decades later. The Google Maps image below is not far from Carlsbad and was just downloaded. Despite the effects of weather, after seventy years, is still easy to spot the bulls-eye rings.
Among the number of candidates passing through CAAF was a budding celebrity, Ernest Jennings Ford, better known as Tennesee Ernie Ford (1919-1991). Ford was born in Bristol, Tennessee. Before he embarked on his entertainment career, he served as a radio announcer in his home town. Later, he studied classical voice at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. After joining the U. S. Army Air Corps and having some of his training at Carlsbad Army Air Field, he achieved the rank of First Lieutenant and served briefly as a bombardier in the Pacific Theater. Following the war, he returned to relaunch his entertainment career. After another brief stint in radio, he found a home in country music. In the early days of television, he served as a variety show host and continued to develop what became a long recording career in the country and gospel genres. His signature tune, “Sixteen Tons” was widely played.
His interest in aviation led to his involvement in the Commemorative Air Force, then known as the Confederate Air Force. For many years, Ford served as an announcer and featured guest at the group’s air shows. As an acknowledgement of his training at CAAF, he donated an example of the once secret Norden Bombsight to the group’s B-29 bomber restoration project. Ford’s career honors include having three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (for radio, recording and television), being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Carlsbad Army Air Field was fully engaged in training bombardiers from 1942 until its deactivation in 1945. Two years later, various items of personal property were auctioned off. Not much remains now of the old air field which was located west of Hightway 62 and north of the current Cavern City Air Terminal, but Carlsbad can always be proud of its efforts to support the United States war effort in World War II.
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