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First B-29 Superfortress From Pratt

Source: Pride August 26, 1959 (A Supplement to the Pratt Daily Tribune)
First B-29 Superfortress from Pratt
At 1 a.m. of a day late in March of 1944 a B-29 Superfortress took off from the Pratt Army Air base, bound for India, the first such plane to leave the United States for the Pacific theater of World War II.

 

The takeoff of the plane from the runways of what is now the Pratt municipal airport signaled—although none knew it then—the beginning of the end of World War II. The B-29's went on to play an important part in the Pacific victory and one of the Superforts dropped the first atomic bomb.
The flight from Pratt was a highlight in Pratt's record of help and contributions during two World Wars. Newspaper files and personal recollections point out that Pratt was always ready and willing to help in time of national emergence.
The biggest story of World War II in Pratt, however, wasn't told at the time. Wartime secrecy clamped down on information regarding activities at the air base.
At the controls of that first B-29 to leave for India was Col. Jake Harman, a Boeing Aircraft Co. engineer and one of the men who had “babied” the B-29 through its life from drawing board to war with Boeing.
During the two weeks following Harman's flight, a secret fleet of B-29's followed from Pratt, Salina, Great Bend and Walker air bases, Kansas homes of Wichita-made B-29's.
But an even greater drama—the “Battle of Kansas” preceded the takeoff. Much of that “battle” was fought in Pratt. Crews and engineers from Boeing Wichita and Boeing Seattle worked around the clock at the Kansas bases to correct electrical and mechanical difficulties, which had rendered the giant planes almost unflyable.
But, fighting cold winter temperatures, sleet and snow, men worked around the clock to get the planes flying in four weeks' time.
The story of World War II in Pratt goes further than activities at the base, though. Headlines in The Tribune during that period called for “persons having extra rooms,” “getting piles of scraps ready,” and “volunteers needed to help fight the war.”
Prattans responded. Red Cross Grey Ladies and USO workers volunteered. A USO center was established at the Municipal building. Prattans rented basement, upstairs and downstairs apartments to airmen flowing into the base daily. A bus line ran regular schedules from Pratt to the air base.
On Jan. 21, 1943, The Tribune reported work at the air field was on in earnest. About 13,000 persons attended the formal opening of the field on May 2 of that year. On March 2 the USO center, with Mrs. Paul Garst supervising and Louis McCoy heading the committee, was opened.
The population of Pratt more than doubled during the time the base was in operation here.
However, before the establishment of the Army air base here during World War II, Pratt county headed the list of many events during the first World War.
“Pratt county has won distinction in everything pertaining to the war,” according to early newspaper reports. In volunteer enlistments, in the character of the soldiers recruited from this county through the machinery of the draft, in the individual heroism of its soldiers under action, in the Red Cross movement, in the personnel of the Home Guard and in fact in every phase of war activity Pratt county stands at the head of all counties in Kansas.
In the first Liberty Loan campaign Pratt county was given no apportionment. Consequently there was no organized campaign for selling of bonds. But without any effort except the spontaneous response of the people as to the importance of the job, Pratt county subscribed and purchased $102,000 worth of bonds.

 

The second bond issue netted $198,050 and the total shot to $205,050 several days before the national campaign closed.

 

Pratt's apportionment in the Third Liberty Loan campaign was $230,000—then it went over the top with a total sale of $355,300.

 

The fourth loan drive equaled $807,500.

 

Because of the great amount apportioned to the county and the amount of work necessarily involved in disposing of the bonds in the prescribed time, it was thought advisable by T.C. Carver, chairman of the Tenth Reserve District, to effect an organization.

 

He selected George W. Lemon as chairman for Pratt county. The county was then thoroughly organized by precincts, townships and wards. The members of the Pratt County Council of Defense were largely entrusted with the work of organization and solicitation.

 

As a result the county not only succeeded in selling the prescribed number of bonds in the stipulated length of time, but sold an amount of $880,400, thereby not only successfully raising the quota but going over about $75,000 “over the top.”

 

In War savings stamps campaign, Pratt county won additional honors. In this campaign it headed every other county in the United States. The war savings stamps campaign was under the personal supervision of T.C. Carver by virtue of his position as chairman of the Tenth Federal Reserve District. The apportionment for Pratt county in this campaign was $241,000, or $20 per capita based on a population of 12,000 for the county.

 

At the close of the campaign Pratt county exceeded this amount by over $110,000 or a grand total of $351,480.

 

In the last war relief campaign, for the Jewish-American fund, the county again did her whole duty, exceeding her apportionment by many hundreds of dollars. S. H. Shrack, county chairman, had not yet been able to report that the county had “plenty to spare.”

 

The Home Service section of the American Red Cross looked after the boys. Walter Pedigo was the chairman and Mrs. W. A. Ellis the executive secretary.

 

Company “A” of Pratt attained a strength during World War I of about 100 members. The officers of Pratt Company “A” were A.S. Farmer, captain; F.E. Hardesty, 1st Lt.; and Charles C. Stalcup, 2nd Lt.

 

Company “C” of Coats: L.L.Orr, Captain; Wade Eubank, 1st Lt.; and A.E. Horney, 2nd Lt.

 

Company “D” of Greensburg: C.E. Cooke, captain; Homer J. VanFossan, 1st Lt.; and Charles H. Bissitt, 2nd Lt.

 

The officers of the 25th battalion of the Kansas State guards were, Ralph Judkins, major; F.W. Tierney, captain of supplies; The Rev. Merrill C. Brooks, adjutant; and B.F. McDaniel, sergeant major.

 

...The pilots will be trained by the Pratt Junior College and the Swinson Brothers Flying Service. Earl Swinson, Larry Farmer and Si Darling flew three planes form Wisconsin and Ohio and the fourth from California.

 

War dogs took their place in the line of duty at the Pratt Army air field which was under construction Monday Sept. 28, 1942. The dogs were a part of the guard squadron fixed with the responsibility of keeping the field under close surveillance at all times.

 

And the war dogs, K-9's to the men and also referred to facetiously as WAG's , were not the fierce and ferocious beasts that may have been conjured up in the public mind by the cartoonists. They were collies, German Shepards and various cross-breeds and they responded to such commonplace names as “Rex,” “Prince,” “Shep,” “Pal,” and the like.

 

The American Legion cannon was sent into a scrap drive. Dr. R.A. Flanders fired the final shot. The half-ton cannon with at least 200 pounds of brass was then thrown onto the “heaping big” scrap drive.

 

Pratt County's scrap drive was 1,600 tons piled in the schoolyards at North and Central schools. Even the filter system at the swimming pool was added to the pile.

 

From September 27 to Oct. 21, during the war, a total of 1,217,860 tons of scrap iron was collected.

 

Also during 1942 blackouts were observed in an area of nine states and Pratt reported 100 per cent “lights out” during one of the drills.

 

On April 7th, 1944 movement of a 497th Bomb Group was begun during that time, Pete Etcheto, an army officer now living outside Iuka recalled.

 

On June 13th a B-29 of the 870th squadron crashed on a take-off and killed tow officers and injured the rest of the crew. The planes were called “flying coffins” by some of the men.

 

On July 31st the Pratt field, located where the present municipal airport stands had 18 B-29s, 15 B-17s and had completed 13,398 flying hours.

 

The most important thing that made the Group a cohesive unit, was the move from Clovis, N.M. to Pratt. The four Maintenance Squadrons were at Pratt, servicing the planes of the 40th Bombardment Group, then in the last stages of training. Likewise, a number of the personnel of the 497th Group were attached to some of the tactical squadrons of the 40th Group.

 

The improvement facilities for training at Pratt were so obvious that they hardly required more than a passing nod. At Pratt the whole Base was available for training.

 

Maybe there was space at the airbase but in Pratt the need for rooms and apartments was becoming critical with the influx of people coming to the airbase daily. The population of Pratt more that doubled. Restaurants were full, a USO center was established at the municipal building and a steady stream of busses made a fun from the air base to Pratt.

 

At the end of an epoch in Kansas history the Pratt Army Air Field was inactivated after nearly three continuous operations.

 

The closing of the pioneer B-29 training field brought to an end history which began with the development of Superfort itself and was now only ending the fruits of its labor having played one of the most vital roles against the successful prosecution of the war against Japan.

 

Activated officially in March of 1943, Pratt, commanded first by Lt. Col. John F. Nelson, housed its first B-29s and began training the 40th Bomb group, the first of its kind, for service in the Pacific.

 

Many returned to Pratt after the was—Pete Etcheto, Bob Crabill, Ed Bowe, Bob Sheegog, and others. Some gave their lives and never returned.

 

Mayor G.W. Sitton was named chairman of the Pratt Defense council shortly after the outbreak of was with Japan. Other defense council members included, Frank Adams, Ira Cater, Amos Glad, Walker Crossifeld, T.M. Bryden, Marvin Ray, Roy Shafer, Brad Eastmen and E.E. Scantlin.

 

The first call for selective service trainees since the nation was at war, left Dec. 30th 1941, to start training at Fort Leavenworth. Those in the Pratt area among the first to leave included Lester Barnes, Ivan M. Beard, Errol N. Thomas, Jack V. Brown, Raymond Bryant and Earnest P. Braden.

 

Prattans glancing back in retrospect of the year 1942 found it one in which their eyes constantly were lifted above their own sectional horizons. They watched with a tenseness that only bitter war can bring and as their men by the scores marched off to training camps and they read of local boys at close grips with the enemy in the far Pacific on Bataan, Corregidor, over occupied France, in Alaska, In England, Australia and North Africa.

 

At home they devoted their whole efforts to helping win the war. They learned of rationed goods, they organized into local defense units, they purchased war bonds far above the quotas allotted to them. They performed innumerable volunteer tasks, all helping support the men carrying the fight to the enemy.

 

It was a year of stirring events.

 

Prattans realized that the coming 12 months would have in store for them all the uncertainties that war can bring.

 

During 1943 it is reported by Mrs. M.J. Enlow, then chairman of the defense council, that a number of workers of the feeding committee arose before daylight to prepare breakfast for 350 soldiers from a troop train that stopped here.

 

Transcribed by Madeline Martin 02/07/2008