Continuing evolution: 75 years of Nellis History

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Jake Carter
  • 99th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
Closing in on its 75th anniversary, Nellis AFB has stood the test of time. Although the Las Vegas Army Air Field opened in 1941, the base's roots can be traced back to a little over a decade earlier when a new airfield opened in the barren desert of Las Vegas.

Pop Simon, a local fuel distributor and entrepreneur, opened Las Vegas Airport in 1929, which was located eight miles northwest of downtown Las Vegas. In 1932, the airfield was purchased by Western Air Express, which carried passengers in between Los Angeles and Salt Lake City.

The U.S. Army surveyed the field in 1940 for use as the Army Air Forces Flexible Gunnery School because of the good flying weather throughout the year, the available access to vacant land for gunnery ranges, as well as being a good distance away from the Pacific Ocean's coastline.

After the survey was completed, the city of Las Vegas purchased the airfield on Jan. 2, 1941 for $10. The U.S. Army leased the airfield three days later.

In October 1941, the airfield was dedicated as the Las Vegas Army Air Field.

Starting in 1942, gunnery training at Las Vegas Army Air Field commenced with student gunners progressing from skeet shooting from atop moving vehicles to mobile sperry ball turrets and stationary top turrets for the B-17 Flying Fortress and, by 1945, for the B-29 Superfortress.

The training produced approximately 55,000 B-17 and 3,500 B-25 Mitchell gunners for World War II.

From July to August 1942, a training film called "The Rear Gunner" which starred Ronald Reagan and Burgess Meredith, was produced at Las Vegas Army Air Field to generate volunteers as military flying was an exclusively volunteer business.

Operations at the base wound down after World War II came to an end which ultimately put the base in stand-by status in December 1946. The base re-opened in January 1949 for advanced pilot training with the first gunnery meet and the opening of the Aircraft Gunnery School in May 1949.

On May 1, 1950, Las Vegas Army Air Field was officially renamed Nellis Air Force Base, after the late 1st Lt. William Nellis, who was shot down while flying during the Battle of the Bulge.

Many of the Korean War aces trained at Nellis AFB or served as instructors after their combat tours.

Later in 1950, Nellis AFB opened its first base chapel and a movie theatre, which provided Airmen an escape from the base's mission during their off-duty time.

In 1956, the 3595th Air Demonstration Flight was assigned to Nellis AFB, which today is known as the U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron, the Thunderbirds.

In 1965, Nellis AFB opened the U.S. Air Force Medical Facility, which was classed as a 50-bed hospital that could care for 9,000 military personnel and their dependents, and an additional 3,000 retired military personnel.

In 1991, the Tactics Weapons Center was redesignated as the U.S. Air Force Fighter Weapons Center and was changed to the U.S. Air Force Warfare Center in October 2005.

Today, Nellis AFB hosts many operations, which include Red and Green Flag, and the U.S. Air Force Weapons School -- all of which contribute to the base's mission of "Testing, Training and Tactics."

To Gerald White, 99th Air Base Wing historian, the history of Nellis AFB has fascinated him since the day he arrived in 2009.

"I didn't know a lot about fighter aircraft with my background in air mobility, but I also didn't know a lot about training and the history in Las Vegas because I had only been here once as a tourist," White said. "I learned how Las Vegas was selected for the mission after it was re-opened after World War II because of its location as well as the development of fighter and their weapons and how the base supported operations in North Korea and Vietnam."

Daniel Wheaton, 57th Wing historian, also is amazed at how large the mission at Nellis AFB has become.

"The big thing I've learned about Nellis AFB is the amazing mission of the 57th Wing that occurs here.  This wing has many missions not found anywhere else in the world; the U.S. Air Force Weapons School, the Aggressors, the Thunderbirds, the 561st Joint Tactics Squadron, the U.S. Air Force Advanced Maintenance and Munitions Operations School, the many exercises under the 57th Operations Group including Red Flag and Green Flag-East and -West, and the many airframe types utilized by and maintained by wing units," Wheaton said. "Every Airman in these units plays a significant role in these missions, and these missions play a vital role in influencing the success of the U.S. Air Force all over the world.  It is quite amazing when you think about it."

There is a never ending learning process about the history of Las Vegas, Nellis AFB and the missions that go on during a daily basis, but White has noticed that the city and the base have coincided and have grown up together.

"In January, it will be the 75th anniversary of the lease of the base," White said. "So basically there has been an Air Force presence in the city of Las Vegas for the last 75 years and the town has grown up with the Air Force growing up with it."