About Kearney Army Air Field
The city of Kearney’s efforts to attract a defense project began before the United States entered World War II. In 1940, the Kearney Chamber of Commerce submitted a report to federal agencies and sent delegations to Washington DC in an effort to secure a military facility. In 1941, Kearney sought to be the location of a flight training school or a site for the storage of bombers assembled at Fort Crook near Omaha. In an effort to attract a base, Kearney voters authorized a $60,000 bond issue to support the construction of a new airport. The Works Progress Administration contributed an additional $300,000 toward the project. The new airport opened in August 1942.
Within weeks, however, army inspectors determined the new airport was inadequate for heavy bombers. Crews demolished the new airport and rapidly built another airfield to meet the army’s needs. By the end of November 1942, 3,000 workers, including local college and high school students, labored on the task. The paving portion of the project ended November 24, 1942. Crews eventually built housing for 542 officers, 3,230 enlisted men, and 132 members of the Women’s Army Corps.
Kearney Army Air Base’s first commanding officer, Major V. B. Trevellyan, arrived November 30, 1942, and construction officially ended February 1, 1943. The first planes, B-17 Flying Fortresses of the 100th Bombardment Group, arrived February 4, 1943. The group completed processing—maintenance checks on the planes and last-minute training and preparation for the crews—at Kearney before it deployed for service with the Eighth Air Force in Europe. After the departure of the 100th, the army assigned the base to serve as a training center for replacement crews. The base served this purpose from August to November 1943 when the base returned to its original function as a processing unit for B-17 crews and planes. The base remained a processing unit after the 1944 introduction of the B-29 Superfortress. Command of the base passed to Lt. Col. Charles C. Coppin Jr. in January 1944 and then to Col. Cornelius W. Cousland in July 1933. The base was designated Kearney Army Air Field in October 1944.
The number of soldiers and civilians working at the base declined following the end of the war in August 1945. Although it appeared the base might close, the army announced the construction of fifty-two additional housing units in December 1946, and, in July 1947, a crew arrived to prepare the field for the arrival of the 27th Fighter Wing. The wing flew P-51 Mustang and F-82 Twin Mustang fighters intended to serve as long-range escorts for Strategic Air Command B-29s. The newly created US Air Force designated the field as Kearney Air Force Base in January 1948. The base reached a postwar peak of 2,344 airmen in March 1948. It closed on March 15, 1949.
The community’s interest in the base continued long after it closed. Alice Shaneyfelt Howell prepared articles on the base for the April and May 1988 issues of the Buffalo County Historical Society’s Buffalo Tales. Kearney hosted a reunion for veterans in June 1988. In 1990, Todd L. Petersen completed a Kearney State College master’s thesis on the field. During the 2014-2015 academic year, University of Nebraska at Kearney history students digitized materials and prepared projects related to the base and Kearney during World War II. Many of those materials and projects are included in this online exhibit.