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Pratt's Role In WW II

By Carol Bronson
Pratt Tribune Apr. 27, 2001
An opportunity is available this weekend for those who remember when there was an Army Air Field instead of a municipal airport north of Pratt, with long-range heavy bombers instead of light civilian planes, as well as for those who are unaware of the community's importance in World War II.


The B-29s are coming back to Pratt, in a documentary film to be shown at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Pratt County Historical Museum. The public is invited and refreshments will be served.
Pratt Army Air Field was established in 1943 to provide training for the new B-29 bomber just off the production lines at Boeing in Wichita and Renton, Wash. A smaller number of planes were built in Georgia and Nebraska, according to a Boeing Company website. Within a short time, Pratt accommodated 7,000 servicemen and their families. Anybody who had a spare room could rent it, according to Dorotha Giannangelo and other Prattans who remember the period.
Douglas McLelland was transferred from bombing missions in the Caribbean to the 40th Bombardment Group at Pratt as an instructor in charge of the bombing and gunnery ranges. Servicemen came in on the Santa Fe train and were transported through town to the base in military trucks. He recalls that everything surrounding the B-29 or the earlier model, the YB-29 was top secret, requiring special clearance to even get close. He also remembers that there were lots of “bugs” to be worked out of the plane and that the base mechanics made some of their own tools to work on them.
McLelland's job as a bombardier was made nearly obsolete by the remote firing capability of the B-29. Nor could he be a tail gunner because he was too large to crawl through the tunnel leading to that area of the plane. He was disappointed that he didn't get to see combat over Japan, something everyone at the Pratt base believed they were training to do.
He's not disappointed with an assignment that made Pratt his home.
“Pratt was wonderful to me,” he said.
He met and married his wife while he was stationed at the base and remained to work at the Woolwine Company for five years and the Pratt Post Office for 30.
McLelland didn't see further combat during World War II, but others from the Pratt base did. Squadrons were continually reorganized, to take advantage of experienced personnel. Some eventually found their way to India, where they flew the first planes to attack Japan, according to Jason Cromer, co-producer of the film. As many as 1,000 B-29 Superfortresses at a time bombed Tokyo, and the planes carrying the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were B-29s. Shortly after the second atomic bomb, Japan surrendered.
A Pratt County native and graduate of Skyline High School, Cromer discovered much he didn't know about the area. The first officers were housed at the former Calbeck Hotel, where Wes Norman's Edward Jones Investment office is now located. The Municipal Building was used as a USO center, and that need was partly responsible for its construction. Bob Hope performed in a USO show at a hangar on the base. The Barron Theatre provided a good escape for the troops. He can't believe that 7,000 of them lived in Pratt, either at the base or in town.
“The B-29 air fields (at Pratt, Salina, Walker and Great Bend) had a profound effect on the war,” Cromer said. “If these planes hadn't been built there is no question the war in the Pacific would have been extended, with greater loss of life.”
The field had an impact on Pratt as well. Businesses were started and expanded, churches were strengthened. People stayed and started families. The overall community benefited, Cromer said.
“It's important that people learn from the past and realize that Pratt played an important role in the war,” he added.
A B-29 memorial is being constructed in Great Bend and restoration of a plane is being done at Boeing in Wichita. That, coupled with the fact that time is running out to capture the stories of Kansans actually involved, sparked an interest in the documentary, Cromer said. The film was produced by Smoky Hills Public TV and shown as a part of the station's recent pledge drive. It yielded the highest one-night gross in the station's 19-year history, he said. It will be shown later on public television stations in Wichita and Topeka.
The story is told through the use of old photographs, music, newsreel and military films and interviews with military and civilian men and women, including McLelland, who were involved with the B-29 and its air bases.
Transcribed by Madeline Martin, Nov. 16, 2007