Offutt Air Force Base is populated by 8,207 military members, over 18,000 dependents, 2,100 DoD civilians, over 1,500 regular civilians, and 10,639 retirees. That is more people (40,000-plus) than live in Kearney (30,000-plus), the fifth-largest city in Nebraska.
The local Air Force Base started from humble beginnings. The first troops to arrive at the Army’s expansion of Fort Omaha, dubbed Fort Crook after Gen. George Crook, arrived to a new post south of Bellevue, then a village of less than 600 people. It was first used as a dispatch point for Indian conflicts on the Great Plains, bearing soldiers on horseback. Troops from Fort Crook fought during the Spanish–American War when the 22nd Regiment, under Charles A. Wikoff, was dispatched to Cuba.
Part of the original Fort Crook can be seen today in the parade grounds and surrounding red brick buildings, including Nebraska’s oldest operational jail, that were constructed between 1894 and 1896.
The 20th century brought with it new innovations and technologies, and for much of that century, Offutt Air Force Base was at the forefront of new military technology. During World War I, Fort Crook became a training site for Motor Transport Services. The automotive industry was so new that training for those in Motor Transport Services included: convoy driving, rules of the road, map reading, and repairs of tires.
The military base’s first encounter with aircraft came not from planes, but from balloons. In 1905, the Army’s Signal Corps moved into Fort Omaha to start a ballooning school. By 1908 the ballooning facilities were complete, and during World War I they served as home to the U.S. Army’s largest balloon school, training approximately 16,000 men.
The first airplanes arrived at the fort in spring 1921, when 260 acres were transformed into a crude landing strip. Later that year, a permanent steel hangar was built to provide a landing and refueling point for military and government planes on cross-country flights. In May 1924 that airfield was renamed Offutt Air Field. The field was named after Jarvis Offutt, who was shot down in 1918 while serving with the Royal Air Force in France and was the first casualty of World War I from Omaha. According to 55th Wing Historian John McQueney, from its founding until just before World War II, Fort Crook also served as the temporary home of the 4th, 6th, 7th, 10th, 11th, 16th, and 22nd U.S. infantries.
As the world became embroiled in the second international war, Fort Crook, and Offutt Air Field, became an ever-important part of the battle plan. In November 1940 an Army induction center opened at Fort Crook. One year later, Pearl Harbor took the United States into World War II. Between November 1940 and the center’s closure in June 1944, over 77,000 men were sworn into service at Fort Crook. Fort Crook also hosted a motor maintenance school from January 1941 to April 1945, where 21,000 enlisted men and 3,000 officers were trained.
One of the most famous parts of Offutt’s World War II service, however, is the Glenn L. Martin bomber plant. The plant originally produced B-26 bombers, producing them at a rate of 145 a week by August 1943. By April 1944, the plant had created a total of 1,585 B-26 bombers. The Martin bomber plant then shifted production to B-29 superfortress bombers with 531 manufactured by August 1945, the same month when two planes made in Bellevue, the Enola Gay and BocksCar, brought World War II to an end in the Pacific with atomic bombs. In November that year, Martin bomber plant at Bellevue ended production.
Through all those years, the base was under the command of the Army. In early 1948, the command of Fort Crook was transferred from the Army to the Air Force and renamed Offutt Air Force Base. The Air Force had an eye towards bigger things. The base’s isolated location, almost smack in the middle of the United States and out of reach of potential enemy threat, made it an attractive place for a different mission. In May 1948, the headquarters of the Strategic Air Command was transferred from Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, D.C., to Offutt Air Force Base, and the base expanded to more than 910 acres by October.
The fiery Gen. Curtis LeMay was dubbed the “father of SAC.” Along with being a general, LeMay was a civil engineer by training, and served as SAC’s commander from 1948 until 1957 as Offutt grew in size and strategic importance. Following his command at SAC, LeMay became vice chief of staff of the United States Air Force. In June 1949, an article in the Washington Evening Star reported that LeMay conducted SAC from “a desk in a closed-up plane plant, next to the old Army cavalry post.” LeMay’s office had no calendar as “I can’t map out a schedule because this job is one blitz of unexpected problems after another.”
LeMay was in command when the new runway was completed at the base in 1955. At that time the base was home to more than 1,000 officers and more than 4,000 airmen.
The Cold War brought about one of the most unique missions at Offutt, which began in February 1961. The mission was nicknamed “Looking Glass,” and involved a Boeing EC-135s being airborne 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to become an airborne command post in the event of nuclear war. The mission’s nickname came from the fact that, according to McQueney, “mirrored ground-based command, control, and communications.” Looking continued for more than 29 years.
In late 1962 an Offutt airman, 24-year-old Michael Davis, correctly identified the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba. On Oct. 24, SAC was placed at DEFCON 2. McQueney notes this was the “next step to nuclear war—armed forces ready to deploy and engage in less than six hours.” The majority of American military remained at DEFCON 3 (an increase in force readiness) through The Cuban Missile Crisis, but SAC stayed one step closer to all-out nuclear war until Nov. 15.
The Cold War was hot as American involvement grew in Vietnam during the 1960s. A new hospital opened at Offutt in 1965, but McQueney points out that SAC and Offutt continued its “world-wide roles and missions” as “the Soviet Union and People’s Republic of China remained as the chief threats to national security.” Meanwhile, the base continued to grow, and by 1970, covered 1,898 acres with almost 2,900 officers and 8,600 airmen along with a civilian workforce of 1,600.
The end of the Cold War and Soviet Union prompted several changes. Looking Glass was grounded in July 1990, even as Offutt briefly returned to DEFCON 2 in January 1991 at the beginning of Operation Desert Storm in Iraq. In June 1992, SAC also came to an end as Offutt became the headquarters for the new U.S. Strategic Command. One of the most memorable events in recent history was that President George Bush flew to Offutt in the hours after the attack on the Pentagon that occurred on Sept. 11, 2001. According to McQueney, the base has remained the “command and control of the nation’s nuclear forces” and was home to the 557th Weather Wing that gives “global weather data to the Department of Defense” while the 55th Wing also based at Offutt “provides the nation with airborne intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and electronic attack capabilities across the globe.”
In 2010, the base’s stables were shuttered as a final reminder of a very different role the place once played, even as Offutt continues its vital strategic role for the future.
This article was printed in the November/December 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.