Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Lewistown Satellite Airfield Historic District

In the dark days following the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, Congress appropriated massive defense funds. The U.S. Army selected Great Falls, Montana, as the site of a major air base with satellite airfields at Cut Bank, Glasgow, and Lewistown. On October 28, 1942, the first Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses roared over Lewistown’s Main Street with their bomb bays open, buzzed the treetops, and landed at the Lewistown Airfield. Crews trained day and night combining navigation, bombing, and gunnery practice. The men familiarized themselves with all aspects of the B-17 and trained with the top secret Norden bombsight, a computerized aiming device that reportedly could “put bombs in a pickle barrel.”

The Norden bombsight storage building at the Lewistown Airfield is a rare WWII survivor.
Barbed wire encircled the double-compartment building that housed the Norden bombsight. A twenty-four-hour sentry kept armed guard. The top secret bombsight, a mechanical analog computer, was accessed through bank vault doors, removed for training missions, and returned under armed guard. The fifty-pound instrument was used to determine the exact moment a bomb should be released. Its accuracy depended upon the bombardier’s ability to correctly calculate speed, altitude, temperature, barometric pressure, and the “bomb curve.” Setting the instrument required such precision that one reporter likened it to playing a violin. Wearing silk gloves so that his fingers wouldn’t stick to the metal and breathing pure oxygen in temperatures reaching forty degrees below zero, the bombardier crouched in the Plexiglas nose of the aircraft, the worst seat in the house.

The community adopted the GIs and many married local girls. Nearly one thousand men trained at the Lewistown Airfield before they flew directly to Europe to join air combat. Many never came home. B-17s carried four thousand pounds of bombs and served in every World War II combat zone, but casualties among bomber squadrons were horrific. A single mission over Germany in October 1942 claimed sixty B-17s and six hundred lives. The Lewistown Satellite Airfield was deactivated after eleven months of service. The U.S. Department of Defense systematically removes “temporary” World War II buildings, so this airfield is a rarity and its intact Norden bombsight storage shelter is the only known identifiable example remaining in the United States.

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