PYOTE ARMY AIR BASE

by Captain Jim Marks

 

 

When Suggs Construction Company of Big Spring, Texas began work carving out an air field in the barren West Texas desert on September 5, 1942, their bulldozers unearthed an alarming number of rattlesnakes. The company, under the direction of Captain E. P. Hunzilker of the Army Corps of Engineers, erected large signs which read "Beware of Rattlesnakes." The birth of an army airfield had begun, and these signs had given it an unofficial name by which it would hereafter be known, "Rattlesnake Bomber Base.

Located on 2,700 acres, the base would eventually have two 8,400 ft. runways, six giant hangars, and hundreds of buildings necessary to house the 5,000 soldiers who would call the base their home.

On October 10, 1942, Major (later Lt. Colonel) C. L. Hewitt signed General Order No. 1 establishing himself as the first commanding officer. Major Hewitt, a World War I flying officer and a graduate of Syracuse University, had just recently returned to duty in July of 1942. With the arrival of Major Hewitt, the ever increasing flow of army personnel to Pyote began.

One of the first to arrive was Captain (later Lt. Colonel) Charles Ten-Houten, the base surgeon. He was one of the few officers to remain at Pyote most of the war. After the arrival of TenHouten and his medics, in rapid succession come the 410th Headquarters and Airbase Squadron, the 996th Guard Squadron, the 852nd Signal Service Company, the 475th Service Squadron, the 428th Army Air Force Band, and Detachment B Women's Army Corps. The base became a beehive of activity in preparation for the big event, the arrival of the "Flying Fortresses" and the men who would train others to drop bombs on the target. This occasion took place on New Year's Day of 1943, with the arrival of the 19th Bombardment Group, the most decorated unit in the Armed Forces at the time.

The 19th was cited twice; once for its performance from January 1 to March 1, 1942, and again for its action from August 7 to August 19, 1942. During the first period, the 19th opposed the numerically superior Japanese during the enemy drive through the Philippines. Despite adverse weather and lack of supplies and personnel, the 19th inflicted great damage to the enemy. The second citation recognized the accomplishment of repeated long-range bombing attacks on heavily defended Japanese ground, air, and naval units at Rabaul, New Britain.

The 19th was also cited twice as a unit engaged in defense of the Philippines, and again as a unit of U. S. Papuan Forces.

These battle honors caught up with the 19th at their new home at Pyote and at a ceremony for the occasion on February 12, 1942. Major General Robert Olds, the commanding General of the Second Air Force, attached the battle honors and the Presidential Unit Citation to the colors of the 19th Bombardment Group. Majestically overlooking the ceremony were three proud battle scarred "Flying Forts" of the 19th, the Suzy-Q, Lady Lou, and Tojo's Physic

General Olds presented many decorations that day. His presentation of the Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal to Staff Sergeant Kenneth A. Cradle made the heroic Sergeant the most decorated enlisted man in the army. The 19th also boasted the most decorated officer, Lt. Colonel Felix M.Fiardison, the commanding officer of the group.

From the very beginning Pyote became the top B-17 training field in the U. S. Army Air Force, always setting new records for flying and consistently breaking their own records. Their records for flying hours were never broken.

The base was always a haven for transient aircraft and on April 19, 1943, Captain William Crumm and his famous B-17, "Jack the Ripper," landed at Pyote for a visit. By December 1943, the 19th had undergone administrative changes and was known as the 19th Combat Crew Training School, but the job was the same-turning out highly trained and skilled crews for the B-17 Flying Fortresses. Early in 1944, the base was redesignated as the 236th Army Air Force Base Unit (Combat Crew Training). The change again was administrative in nature, and the task of training crews continued.

In July, P-47's, fast pursuit airplanes from Abilene Army Air Force Base, made simulated attacks on the B-17's and the B-29's. The B-29's had arrived on July 3, 1944. By the end of July, all the B-17's had been transferred to Biggs Field at El Paso and Pyote went full swing with the B-29's, and by August was a part ,of the 16th Bomb Wing. In spite of the isolated location of the base, Pyote always had high morale due to outstanding work by the Special Services and civilian interest from surrounding towns. By October 1944, the population of the base was 6,566 including civilians.

The change from B-17's to B-29's was not without its problems. November 1944 saw two B-29 crashes, and although the war was far away, the training for war is always hazardous. On January 3, 1945, tragedy struck when Lt. John Jamison was killed when he was hit by a spinning propeller. Lt. Jamison had flown forty-five combat missions in Europe, and had received the Distinguished Flying Cross as well as the Air Medal with three oak clusters.

An event in Europe took place which had profound effect on the base. On December 17, the Germans pushed into Belgium and Luxembourg. German Field Marshall von Runstedt caught the allies by surprise and smashed forward in the Ardennes. German soldiers in American uniforms infiltrated American lines, and bad weather grounded the Allied Air Forces. By the 31st of December the Battle of the Bulge was over; more than one hundred thousand men on both sides were either killed, wounded, or missing. Stripped of all replacements, the American Army had to dip into its home resources, or risk being driven back into the sea.

The Army Air Force was not immune, and January 1945, many men were transferred to the Infantry and hastily shipped to Europe; a move which irritated Air Force Brass and seriously affected morale at the base.

The month of December 1944, was not without its bright spots as B-29 Super Fortresses from the Mariana's hit Tokyo. Many of the crews who participated in the air assault on the Japanese Capitol were no doubt trained at Pyote.

contributed by Buster Yarbrough

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page created July 2, 2006