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Dedication preserves Tonopah Army Air Field’s history

Whenever I find myself driving on the solitary stretch of U.S. Highway 95 outside Tonopah, I often wonder what the boom years were like.

Not the original years after silver was discovered there just after the turn of the 20th century. Not decades later, when Tonopah increased its role with the Nevada Test Site.

I wonder what the area was like during World War II, when the Tonopah Army Air Field was home to thousands of military personnel and bustled with activity. We’re talking about the construction of a military city in what was then and now an isolated area.

The plan began in 1940 when Congress set aside 3 million acres of public land for use as a military pilot training area. In those days, Nevada had a powerhouse in the U.S. Senate named Pat McCarran, and he ramrodded funding for the creation of the Tonopah Army Air Field, which in a few short months would become a beehive of military activity that eventually would become a base with 6,000 residents. Their goal was to train P-39 and B-24 pilots.

Talk about the boom years.

The Glide Bomb, considered a predecessor of today’s so-called smart bombs, was tested at the air field and the Tonopah Bombing and Gunnery Range. By a twist of fate, the once super-secret F-117 Stealth aircraft was testing at a site located just 15 miles from the Glide Bomb hangar.

I offer this snippet not because I have spent years studying the Tonopah Army Air Field, but only because Nevada native Allen Metscher has done just that for us. For decades, he took it upon himself to collect and preserve documents and artifacts associated with the field and its place in the largely unknown history of the area.

When archaeologists Keith Myhrer and Tracy Henderson-Elder began researching what would become the book “The History of the World War II Tonopah Army Air Field,” they relied often on Metscher’s dedicated effort and professional research in his role as a founding member of the Central Nevada Museum.

The result is not just a statistical recitation of a bygone era, but a colorful portrait of the rise of the air field and gunnery range. Although some events associated with the military facility were reported in the Tonopah Daily Times and Goldfield News, others were captured in a small base publication called The Desert Bomber. The book isn’t widely circulated, but the fact it exists at all is reassuring. Too much of our state’s history has been lost to neglect, revisionism and the desert winds.

The field and surrounding installation featured sleeping quarters for 6,000, a hospital, gym, mess hall and two theaters. Overflow living arrangements were made in Tonopah and Goldfield, where news articles reflect hotels being used for military housing.

During the war years, 700 officers were trained in Tonopah. It was also the site of what was then considered a progressive military experiment: A squadron representing the Women’s Army Corps and a squadron of African-American soldiers also were trained there.

Most of the action at the air field ended with the war, and by 1946 it was just another Nevada ghost town. Drive through the Silver State, and you can still pass dwellings in Reno to the north and Goodsprings to the south that were once located at the Tonopah installation.

The curious can find out a lot more information about the heyday of the important but little-known field by visiting the Central Nevada Museum in Tonopah.

Thanks to dedicated Nevadan Metscher and archaeologists Henderson-Elder and Myhrer, the curious traveler through this vast expanse needn’t wonder about one of its most intriguing and least publicized periods of history.

Nevada native John L. Smith also writes a column for the Las Vegas Review-Journal; it appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Contact him at jsmith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295.

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