Railroad marker at Dickens
WWII practice bomb
Memories have faded and very few, if anyone, are alive today who were witness to the accidental bombing of the small town of Dickens during World War II.
The exact year of the bombing is uncertain, since newspaper accounts recalling the event many years afterwards had some thinking it occurred during the Christmas season of 1942, while others maintain it had to have been during the same time in 1943.
If it made the newspapers at the time, there were likely no headlines as the military would not have wanted to reveal the locations of their practice bombing ranges.
During World War II, the village of Dickens was a thriving little community in southwestern Lincoln County with about 200 residents.
There were two isolated practice bombing targets in the general area of Dickens, with one about 15 miles northwest of the town and the other about 15 miles to the northeast.
The targets helped bomber crews training in Nebraska practice their duties, before going overseas for combat. To simulate nighttime bombing, lights were turned on at the targets to help the bomber crews in finding them.
Unlike most places in Europe, the towns in central Nebraska did not have to adhere to the lights out or "blackout" conditions since they were not under threat of an attack.
At 20,000 feet about the ground, a few street lights close together in a small town like Dickens could confuse bomber crews if they thought they were over the target.
Around 8 p.m. on that cold December night, a four-engine bomber, possibly a B-24 from the McCook Army Air Field, dropped five 100 pound practice bombs on the town of Dickens. The practice bombs were generally filled with water or a mixture of wet sand. A black powder explosive charge inside the bomb detonated upon impact and the puff of smoke signaled the location of the hit.
One wayward bomb was said to have come through the roof of the lumber company building. One hit behind the grocery store, throwing canned goods off the shelves. One fell behind the old bank building and two more landed in an alley. Had the bombs been real, the town would have been completely destroyed.
The bomber crew made their first drop but were not finished that evening and apparently began a second run at the same misidentified target. Perhaps it was a different bomber that had followed the path of the first plane over the target, but some believe they saw the plane circle.
Five more bombs were dropped, but these landed in a field east of Dickens. One bomb, however, hit a railroad pipeline while another fell into a corral only a few feet from where cattle were feeding.
Rumors immediately began to circulate about how the crew mistook the village of Dickens for a bombing range. Some claimed the crew must have been drunk. It was later learned, however, that the three lights illuminating Main Street were arranged in a similar fashion to three lights around the actual target.
The following day, trucks from the Army arrived in Dickens and local residents kindly pointed out where the bombs had landed.
Enlisted men found the event to be somewhat comical, but officers who were sent along with them kept a serious nature about them.
After the war, the town of Dickens began to dwindle in population. Today the town is unincorporated.
The same thing that happened at Dickens occurred at the small town of Tarnov between Columbus and Norfolk.
Airmen tried to do some nighttime bombing practice with few mobile lights around a target. A lot of the airmen were from big cities and probably thought every town should be like the ones they were familiar with that would have had many lights.
Also, the navigators probably did not have a lot of nighttime training. At least a few just saw the lights and directed the pilot over them.
The bombing of Dickens was not the only serious mishap in southern Lincoln County during WWII.
On April 10, 1945, a crew of 14 airmen from the McCook Army Air Field were flying back to Nebraska from Maxwell Field in Alabama when their B-17F plane crashed in a field southwest of Wellfleet, west of Maywood.
Five crewmembers were killed in the crash.
A faulty altimeter was blamed, for indicating the plane was at a safe altitude just before it skidded on the ground and broke apart.
This report was written by Jerry Penry for his website, www.nebraskaaircrash.com, and published n the March 26 print edition of the North Platte Bulletin. It was updated later by the memories of Pat Alyward, a boy in Dickens when the bombs fell. Alyward’s recollections will be published in a second installment. – Editor.