U.S. DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIORBUREAU OF LAND MANAGEMENT
photos by Zane Fulbright, Lewistown Field Office
A BLM parcel about 12 miles north of Winnett, Mont., was recently listed on the National Register of Historic Places because of its military contributions to the United States during a time when much of the world was at war.
At first glance, this parcel looks like many other BLM parcels in this area: a remote, gently sloping drainage of mostly flat, mixed-grass prairie. There are few trees or natural features to draw your attention.
If you visit this BLM parcel today you’ll notice unusual circular patterns that were plowed into the landscape decades ago and you’ll find scattered scraps of metal that provide no clues about their origin. For the most part, the only sounds you’ll hear are the songs of Western meadowlarks on the wind or the low, guttural bellow of a nearby Angus bull.
Today’s setting is nearly tranquil.
However, this parcel’s history is very distinct from other BLM lands. Just over 67 years ago it was requisitioned into military use by the Department of Defense and its use was dedicated solely to the U.S. Army Air Corps. After the Air Corps completed the prerequisite design and construction work, the site became known as the Lewistown Pattern Bombing Range.
The 150-acre Lewistown Pattern Bombing Range (plus a buffer zone of about 2,250 surrounding acres) played a contributing role in 1943, as the United States was developing the technology to use high altitude bombing as a means of bringing WWII to an end.
The setting was not nearly as peaceful then as it is today.
In 1943, the skies above Winnett rumbled day and night with the sound of B-17 heavy bomber squadrons (15-18 planes per squadron) flying out of Lewistown, Great Falls, Cut Bank and Glasgow in combat formation to drop strings of 100-pound inert/dummy bombs on the Lewistown Pattern Bombing Range. The young pilots, bombardiers and other flight crew members (a typical flight crew consisted of 10 men) were using this range to perfect their bombing accuracy with the use of a new, secret bombsight before they were deployed into combat. The new bombsight was rumored to have the accuracy to “drop bombs into pickle barrels.”
The circular, earthen bombing range is a huge bull’s eye, 1,000 feet in diameter with five concentric rings spaced 100 feet apart. The individual rings were originally plowed 18 – 24 inches wide and 6 – 10 inches deep.
The center of the target is a circle, 200 feet in diameter. During its use in 1943, the center of the target was marked with a red, wooden pyramid 20 feet square by 20 feet tall. All that remains of the pyramid today are a few scraps of red, wooden material strewn across the acreage.
The metal fragments scattered across the site are the remains (nose cones, cylinders and tail fins) of the countless 100-pound inert bombs dropped on the earthen bull’s eye. Each inert bomb (about four feet long and eight inches diameter) was equipped with a spotting charge (a cylinder containing three pounds of gun powder and an impact fuse) that would ignite upon impact, producing a white smoke as evidence of where the bomb hit.
The National Register nomination package for the Lewistown Pattern Bombing Range was compiled by Zane Fulbright, a BLM archaeologist in Lewistown, and Benjamin Miller, an archaeology technician who worked several seasons in Lewistown. The nomination package reveals a remarkable set of stories that weave their way through many chapters of our country’s Army Air Corps history between 1942 and 1945.
Some of these stories are perhaps still known by a few long-time area residents; most were probably never known; but all have ties to the Lewistown Pattern Bombing Range and the skies over Winnett.
A Sense of Urgency
In 1939, the Army Air Corps had 17 bombing practice ranges scattered throughout the United States. However, at about that same time, the President’s Advisory Commission to the Council of National Defense was warning of a world conflict and advised then President Franklin D. Roosevelt that the Unites States should accelerate its efforts to create military training facilities.
In December 1941, the United States was pulled into World War II. Soon, U.S. and Allied Forces were battling German and Japanese forces on numerous fronts in Europe and the South Pacific.
In 1942, the Army requisitioned the use of these 2,401 remote acres for the Lewistown Pattern Bombing Range (2,078 acres from the Department of Agriculture and 323 acres from Petroleum County). The isolated country and lack of lights visible at night made this undeveloped area ideal for training missions. Flight crews compared night maneuvers over this remote site as similar to flying over a blackened-out England.
By late 1945, the Army Air Corps had nearly 800 practice ranges and associated training facilities scattered across the nation.
The Advent of the B-17 Bomber
The first B-17 rolled out of a Boeing Aircraft Company hanger to take flight in 1935. Later that same year the U.S. ordered 13 of these aircraft. However, world events would quickly accelerate the need for B-17s and between 1935 and 1945, the U.S. government purchased 12,732 of the sturdy B-17s.
The Lewistown Pattern Bombing Range was one of only a hand full of such ranges built and used for B-17 bombing practice runs in Montana and the only one still present on the landscape today.
The B-17 earned the nickname “flying fortress” as it was heavily armed with 50-caliber machine guns (as many as 13 guns located at strategic ports from nose to tail) and because the plane could withstand heavy combat damage and still return its crew safely home. A squadron of B-17s was quickly recognized as an able combatant by enemy pilots.
Still 4,735 B-17s were lost to combat missions during WW II.
The Lewistown Pattern Bombing Range was one of several primary training sites in the northwest dedicated to perfecting the Norden Bombsite, which promised to be so accurate it would present a huge high altitude aerial bombing advantage to its owner. In a time of world war, such a promise came with the need for absolute secrecy about the bombsite’s design and the location of the models in use. The promise also required young bombardiers to swear an oath of secrecy and death if necessary to protect the new technology.
Before each practice run, the flight crew bombardier would remove a Norden Bombsite from specially designed storage vaults and install it in the nose cone of his assigned B-17. After each practice bombing run, the bombardiers would then return the Norden Bombsite to the special storage vaults for safe keeping. Armed guards were always present when the Norden sites were taken from and returned to the storage vaults. One of those storage vaults can still be found at the Lewistown Airport.
The Norden Bombsite was designed to compensate for wind speed, altitude and true groundspeed to deliver an on-site hit. Upon the final approach to a target, the bombardier using the Norden Bombsite assumed the B-17’s autopilot mechanism and actually flew the plane until the bombing run was completed.
There was much debate about the true accuracy and advantage offered by the Norden Bombsite. However, some bombardiers swore by its accuracy; and what better endorsement could the site have?
A Spy in the Mix
The Norden Bombsites used at the Lewistown Pattern Bombing Range were designed by Carl Norden, a Dutch engineer who immigrated to the United States in 1904. And although its design specifics and storage locations were closely guarded secrets, in 1942, a German spy (Herman Lang) who worked in the Norden Factory, in New York City, sold the design to Germany.
Later in the war, the Luftwaffe began using a bombsite similar to the Norden. However, timing and practice gave the U.S. the advantage in using the Norden Bombsite and high altitude aerial bombing.
From Practicing Over Central Montana to Combat over Germany
After repeated practice runs over the Lewistown Pattern Bombing Range in 1943, the Montana bombardment groups, including Lewistown’s 615th Bomber Squadron, were detailed into combat over Germany.
The Montana-trained squadrons flew 1,263 combat missions; dropped 71,128 tons of bombs on enemy targets; and shot down 1,018 enemy aircraft.
The Montana-trained crews earned Presidential Unit Citations for valor and fortitude and their unwavering courage and unbowed bravery and were said to “shine as this nation’s bright pride.”
The Montana bombardment groups lost 548 B-17s in combat.
The Timeline to Being Decommissioned
In 1942, the Lewistown Pattern Bombing Range was requisitioned into military use. In 1943, the skies above Winnett were busy with squadrons of B-17s as the flight crews practiced their war-time bombing skills. In 1944 and early 1945, the Montana bombardment groups served with courage and honor over the skies of Germany.
Early in 1945, the United States and the Allied Forces could see their strategic efforts bringing the war to a conclusion.
In May of 1945 (shortly after braking German supply lines, defeating German forces in numerous battles across occupied Europe, Hitler’s suicide and the collapse of absolute German military order) German forces began surrendering along numerous fronts in Europe.
On July 26, 1945, the U.S. and Allied Forces issued the Potsdam Declaration outlining the terms of surrender for Japan. On July 28, the Japanese Prime Minister announced that the Japanese government would ignore the declaration. On August 6, an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima; and on August 9, an atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. On August 15, 1945, a stunned Japan announced its surrender to the Allied Forces and World War II drew to a close.
Just as quickly as it was commissioned into service, the Lewistown Pattern Bombing Range was decommissioned back to its original use. In 1945, the Army Air Corps decommissioned the Lewistown Pattern Bombing Range acreage back to the Department of Agriculture and Petroleum County. When the Grazing Service and the General Land Office combined to become the Bureau of Land Management in 1946, the land transferred from the Department of Agriculture to the Department of the Interior.
Today, the acreage is dedicated to livestock grazing.
Some History Should Never Be Lost
On March 10, 2010, the Lewistown Pattern Bombing Range was added to the National Register of Historic Palaces. The site merited this distinction because of its contributions to the World War II era in our country’s history and because the bombing range is still visible today.
The old Lewistown Pattern Bombing Range maintains a high degree of integrity and still serves as a silent, but visible reminder of a time when our country shared a unified mission. Perhaps (as time dulls our memory of places and events) this listing on the National Register of Historic Places can help current and future generations remember the significance of our country’s involvement in WW II; the sacrifice of those who served in the military then; and those who serve today.