Keeping It Straight: A Route 66 Story - Kingman's post-WWII aircraft boneyard

KINGMAN 1949

"Wow, Dad, look at all those airplanes!"

It was 1949 and after staying in Kingman we were heading east on Route 66 for the annual family vacation. For more than six miles we had passed row upon row of bombers and fighters resting in the sun of the Arizona high desert.

"That's what they call The Boneyard," Dad said. "Those are airplanes that came back from the war and now they're in storage or waiting to be broken up for scrap."

"Can we stop there?" I asked fascinated by the huge numbers of aircraft.

"Maybe on the way home," was his answer.

Little did I know, my father was also fascinated by those rows of aircraft, and when we headed west 10 days later, he made a point of leaving Gallup early in the morning so we could stop overnight in Kingman. After checking-in at the motel, we left Mom soaking the sun and Dad and I headed back to see the airplanes.

Security was more relaxed in those days. At the gate Dad asked the guards if we could look at some of the planes.

"Sure, just don't take anything."

And with Dad's promise we wouldn't, he parked the car and we began walking among the many fallen giants and fighters of the air.

"There must be a million planes here," I said, never being one for hyperbole.

"Maybe a million and one," Dad said with a smile.

At the peak of activity in 1946 and '47, there were over 7,000 planes either stored at or awaiting destruction at the Kingman Army Air Field, making it one of the largest of the five aircraft graveyards in the nation.

Julian Q. Myers, the contract manager for the War Assets Administration, noted in late 1945 that planes arrived on the average of one every 10 minutes, many being flown by the very crews that had flown them in combat during the war.

Some of the planes were in such terrible shape they literally came in "on a wing and a prayer," with engines feathered, or they bellied-in when tired landing gear refused to crank down. The amazing thing was, with over 21,000 airmen and over 7,000 aircraft landing at Kingman, there was never a serious accident.

What became of all of these war-birds? Most of them were scrapped on the spot, too tired to ever again take to the air. But some of them were brand new - having been flown directly from the factory to Kingman - and were "pickled" and then lined up under the desert sun to await another call to duty. A call that was never to come.

The majority of the still flyable aircraft were sold off in huge lots, the largest number going to Martin Wunderlich, a contractor from Jefferson City, Missouri. Wunderlich paid $2,780,000 for 5,437 aircraft at the bargain rate of $511 and some change each. The main provision of his contract was that the aircraft could never be used for flight purposes. I still wonder what he did with all those planes?

Joe Average could also buy planes from KAAF. A B-17 went for just under $14,000 and a B-25 would set you back $8,250. How about a P-47 for $3,500 cash, out the door? Wanna kick the tires on a P-40? Go ahead, take her for spin, she'll only set you back $1,200 and you will be the envy of the neighborhood.

The planes at Kingman were a wildly varied lot, with bombers leading the pack. Over 2,500 B-24 Liberators and 1,800-plus B-17s, along with B-25s, and a few B-29 Superfortresses (most B-29s wound up at Davis-Monthan outside of Tucson). There were hundreds of P-38s, P-40s, P-47s, P-60s and P-61s. Miles and miles of aircraft - what an amazing sight for a 6-year-old.

Most of the bombers carried a name and sometimes a picture on the nose of the plane, placed there at the request of the crew. Known as "nose-art," these were a feature of the World War II bombers. Indications of the number of missions flown was shown by small bombs painted beneath the cockpit, except for a bomber named the Milk Wagon that used 129 small milk bottles to represent her 129 missions.

The names ran the gamut of WWII popular American culture - HI-Ho Silver showed 130 missions and four Nazi aircraft shot down. Our Gal Sal downed three Nazi planes during 90 missions. I-Dood-It, Dragon Lady and Stormy Weather all had enviable records. One plane carried proudly the curious name Embarrassed, but with 109 missions, three planes shot down and three Nazi ships sunk she had nothing to be embarrassed about. And as we walked the rows of bombers the list of names grew - D-Day Doll, Leading Lady, Indiana Queen, Gambler's Luck, Hot to Go, Duke the Spook, Desperate Daughter, Pop's Angels and The Senator. The most famous of all B-29s, the Enola Gay, went to Tucson. The plane was named for Colonel Paul Tibbet's mother and was the bomber that helped bring the war to an end.

Dad and I walked among the planes and he looked at each of them, never saying much. Sometimes he would point to the number of missions flown by a particularly hard hit bomber, damage to this plane or that one and pointed out an entire new wing on another.

"Hope they all got out OK," he said.

As twilight began creeping across the desert we headed back to the car.

"There's not really a million planes here, is there, Dad?"

He stood and looked back at the rows of aircraft as they grew dim in the approaching night and said, "No, but I'll bet there's a million stories."