KINGMAN - Rob Chilcoat found his niche when he began researching the history of Kingman Army Air Field.
Chilcoat, 54, created a documentary in 1990 about the base, first called Army Air Force Flexible Gunnery School at Kingman, for a college class project. And what he learned about the facility whetted his appetite to dig up more information and eventually become curator of the Kingman Army Air Field Museum, which carries an array of base-related photographs and displays.
"I've always been interested in World War II history, but couldn't specialize in it because there was just too much information out there," said Chilcoat. "I have been visiting the museum since I was 12, and I've always been interested in the place. I wanted to know what was here, and now I'm a specialist about the gunnery base."
Chilcoat, who has been curator since 2011, has spent years compiling as much information about the base as he could find. He is now writing a book about Kingman Army Airfield that he plans to self-publish as an e-book. It will include an extensive history of the creation, operation, administration and activities at the base, established Aug. 4, 1942, as one of seven gunnery schools for the B-17 fighter airplane.
According to Chilcoat, the base, which was one of the largest in the country, offered six-week gunnery courses, beginning with classroom education and moving from ground-to-ground to air-to-air fighting. Classroom study included gun safety, equipment knowledge, ballistics, gun installation, sights, aircraft recognition, turret training and tactics.
Field training featured .30 and .50 caliber machine guns, turrets, gun malfunctions, sighting, aircraft recognition, and firing on the ground and in the air. Chilcoat said students weren't allowed to fire machine guns until they shot BB guns on the airfield and progressed to shotguns for trap and skeet shooting. Students were trained to shoot from moving vehicles to get the feel of aircraft movement.
'A unique story'
The first class took place Jan. 8, 1943, and was composed of 40 bombardiers. Over the next year, said Chilcoat, class sizes grew to 200 students, then 300, and more instructors were brought in to teach the expanding classes, eventually totaling 475 teachers. A total of 36,000 troops came through the base's school during its two-and-a-half years of operation.
"I like knowing the ins and outs of the base," said Chilcoat, opening a room at the museum whose walls are plastered with World War II posters and pictures of the base. "It's a unique story. The first guys who came here were from Las Vegas. I just like knowing certain things that sound like trivia about the base but are actually history."
Chilcoat said construction on the base, which began in June 1942, cost $3 million. The base included a hospital, U.S. Post Office, tailor shop, bakery, theater, photo lab, gas station, six exchanges, chapels, grocery store with fully equipped refrigerators and a library. With all its wells and reservoirs, the base had a supply of 500,000 gallons of water daily.
The base included an African-American unit, activated from Mather Field, Calif., and women were welcomed to the TB-26 Co-Pilot School. "Bugs Bunny" became the base's official mascot because of the large amount of rabbits running through the desert area.
A number of celebrities visited Kingman Army Air Field during its heyday, said Chilcoat. Bob Hope and his group of entertainers visited, including Frances Langford, Vera Leigh, Jerry Colonna, Martha Raye and Skinny Ennis and his band. The Three Stooges also made an appearance, as did Hollywood actress Marguerite Chapman.
Major Robert K. Morgan and his crew flew their famed "Memphis Belle" into Kingman for a two-day stop. They were touring the country after completing 25 missions into Germany. Famous students at the base included actor Charles Bronson, who drove trucks to Yucca every day, and Clayton Moore, who played The Lone Ranger. He stayed with his wife at a trailer park on Route 66.
Chilcoat said the base had an impact on the community, with local groups assisting with a variety of needs on the base. The Girl and Boy Scouts searched for useable furniture for the day rooms, and the Mohave County Livestock Growers Association donated $50 to the cause. The women of Kingman, Chloride and Oatman sewed 500 curtains for the same rooms. The Kingman Community Service Center entertained troops with bingo games.
But the base had its mishaps, too. The first aircraft accident on the airfield took the life of the copilot when the plane made a crash landing caused by pilot error. An officer died after being shot in the abdomen on the firing range, and an instructor was killed by an exploding .50 caliber machine gun on a B-17. Another officer died when he fell into a plane propeller when a fire broke out on an engine he was working on at the base.
In early 1944, a bus crossing the railroad tracks at the main gate was struck by an oncoming train, killing 28 gunnery cadets returning from ground training exercises. And a mid-air collision between a B-17 and a P-39 killed 15 men during a morning training flight.
Chilcoat said that as the war was winding down, the need for B-17 aircraft was rapidly decreasing. In May 1945, Germany unconditionally surrendered, and the airfield was placed on inactive status June 8. The base commanders received word in September that the field would be taken over by the Surplus War Aircraft Division to be used as a storage depot.
By the end of December, said Chilcoat, airplanes were finding their way in droves to the base. In July 1946, bids were accepted to salvage 5,543 aircraft stored there, with the successful bidder having 14 months to clear all aircraft from the field. In August, the bid was awarded to the Martin Wunderlich Co. of Jefferson City, Mo., for $2.78 million to destroy 85 reconnaissance aircraft, 615 fighters, 54 light bombers, 226 medium bombers and 4,463 heavy bombers.
"Most of the airplanes were from the Theater of Operations, so they were pretty chewed up already," said Chilcoat. "Only a few planes were sold out of here. Most were chopped up at the base. They worked six days a week from sun up to sun down."
Robert Loose, president of the museum for three years, said the history of the base and its role in World War II is important. Loose said the museum, which is open from 9 a.m. to noon. Wednesday through Sunday, provides a unique glimpse into Kingman Army Air Field, as well as the city and county. Admission is $5 for adults and free for children 12 years and under.
"What we're trying to do here is honor the World War II men and women," said Loose, noting the museum is located in the last remaining base building. "People have forgotten World War II because it was so long ago. We're trying to show them the part Kingman played at that time."
Loose said he received a letter from Cleo Applegate, who managed the base's service club, talking about her time there. Applegate told him a chauvinist base commander came along, said he didn't want a woman running the service club and fired her. Applegate told Loose she drove her car to Seligman on her way out of town, where it broke down.
"Here came a staff car with a general coming to visit the base, and he stopped to ask if she needed help," said Loose. "She told him what happened and he told her to get in his car and go back to the base with him. He put her back in charge and instituted the first transfer of a base commander. Cleo stayed until the base closed."
David French, executive director of the Kingman Airport Authority, said the museum and its history is an asset to Arizona. The airport authority is a not-for-profit corporation that leases the airport and industrial park from the City of Kingman and manages it.
"The museum is definitely loaded with a lot of World War II and Kingman Army Air Field history," said French. "If it wasn't for Rob and the museum, most of that history would be lost. It's a good thing to have a place to keep it."
For more information about the museum, located at 4540 Flightline Drive, call (928) 757-1892.
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