On December 7, 1941, the Japanese Navy attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and almost simultaneously throughout the Pacific. The United States’ response was quick and decisive. The United States Army Air Force (USAAF) under command of General Henry Halsey “Hap” Arnold was authorized to equip, man and train itself into the world’s most powerful Air Force. By early 1942, the USAAF had committed to building scores of air bases across the United States. A little delegation from Casper, Wyoming traveled to Washington D.C. to lobby for one of these proposed air bases. According to local sources, they marketed the “zephyr wind” that whips around the western end of Casper Mountain.
Ground was broken in April and a scant six months later, on September 1, 1942, the sprawling base that consisted of four, mile long runways and around 400 buildings was opened for business as a Combat Crew Training School for B-17 Flying Fortress high altitude training. Sixth months later, the base transitioned from B-17 to B-24 crew training.
The base grew to over a third the size of its host city of Casper. Manning the base on an average day would be around 2,250 Air Force personnel and around 800 civilians. They served a constantly fluctuating class body of bomber crewmen that during peak training times increased the base population to over 6,000. This large population attracted World War II era entertainers such as Bob Hope, Frances Langford, Jerry Colonna, Gene Autry, Clark Gable, Walter Able, and pin-up girl Jinx Falkenburg.
The training was tough and realistic. The crews endured countless hours of advanced instruction in navigation, gunnery, bombing, armaments, flight engineering and flying. Aerial gunnery, air-to-ground gunnery, formation flying, night navigation, and of course bombing were standard flights. In one record month, crews flew over 7,500 hours at Casper Army Air Base. The remains of these activities are scattered across the high plains of Wyoming in the form of spent .50 caliber bullets, shells and links, 100 lb. practice bomb fragments, and the wreckage of over 70 aircraft.
By the end of World War II, at least 16,000 crewmen trained at Casper Army Air Base. A total of 90 plane crashes at and around the air base occurred between September 1942 and March 1945; 141 men lost their lives in those wrecks.
The advent of the deactivation of the air base was due to the pending capitulation of Germany in March 1945. No more B-24 crews were being trained in the United States. Briefly considered but not selected for a B-29 bomber base, Casper Army Air Base stood silent for about one year. In 1946, the United States Air Force established a Permanent Training Site for the Air National Guard at Casper. In 1949, the air base was given to Natrona County as the new airport and the civilian Wardwell Field Airport north of Casper was abandoned and sold to a private party. The old base would serve Air National Guard fighter squadrons from across the west and midwest. F-51s, F-86’s, T-33’s, F-84’s and a variety of other Cold War era aircraft were regular sights at the airport. In the early 1960s, when the Air Force equipped its fighters with more rockets than guns, the end was in site for Air Force presence at Casper. The large Split Rock Air-to-Air gunnery range, in use from 1942 to the early 1960s, was not suitable for rocketry, due to the growing mineral and agricultural industries. The airport was wholly abandoned by the military by 1969.
Today, the site is the Casper/Natrona County International Airport.
The site of the old bomber base is largely intact with about 90 of the original buildings still standing, including all six of the original hangars. A visitor to the museum can encounter a variety of stories, an example of which includes a gunnery instructor who gained his experience over the Japanese Fleet during the Battle of Midway, a base commander who was known as the best machine gunner in the world, the tragedy of the Casper Mountain bomber crash, a bomber navigator blown out of his B-17 and held prisoner by Germany, or renown test pilot Chuck Yeager’s recounted adventures at the base. In-depth history is kept at the museum archives. Personal stories of crewmen, staff, and civilians are constantly rotated through the air base exhibit and are available for research. Artifacts in the Air Base collection include documents, photographs, maps, personal items of people who served at the base, flying gear, aircraft parts and wreckage.