Map of the area, circa 1942.
The Bulletin recently ran an article about the bombing of the village of Dickens during World War II, written by Jerry Penry, a writer who has investigated Nebraska mishaps of WWII such as plane crashes and accidental bombings.
Later, we talked to a survivor of the Dickens bombing who was 8-years-old at the time.
Pat Aylward, who now farms and ranches about five miles north of Dickens, was living in the village of 200 people when the bombs fell.
The year was 1942, as he recalls.
Some have said the accidental bombing happened around Christmas time, but Aylward thinks it might have been earlier because the ground was not frozen because the bombs sunk into the ground.
He said it was about 8:30 p.m.
Pat and his friend Lawrence Shill were in the Dickens grocery store with a handful of adult hangers-on when they heard a big plane fly overhead. Everyone went outside to see what they could see in the darkness, which wasn’t much.
Judging from the lights and noise, Aylward guesstimates the plane was flying at about 500-1,000 feet. Aylward and Lawrence started for their homes about three blocks away. They were next-door neighbors near the school building. He said they were aware of some smoke in the air as they ran for home, and a plane made another pass overhead.
“We thought the Japs were bombing us, sure as hell,” Pat said. On the first pass, the plane reportedly dropped five bombs, one of which landed about 20 feet behind the grocery store. Another bomb went through the roof of the lumber yard building, about 50 feet from the first bomb.
Another bomb hit and broke a water line near the railroad tracks. The line connected a pump to the tank that filled steam locomotives.
Aylward said each bomb was about the size of a five-gallon cream can, with a little powder in the end, similar to the cap of a 12-guage shotgun shell, so they made a boom and left a puff of smoke when they hit.
The bombs weighed 100 pounds each and were generally filled with water or a mixture of wet sand, Penry reported.
On the second airplane pass, more bombs fell, most of them in fields outside town. One of them landed in a pen with a milk cow, but did no real damage.
“We didn’t really know what happened until the next morning,” Pat said.
An Army crew arrived in Dickens early the next day to see what happened. They had stayed at a motel in Wallace.
People were buzzing about the bombs, and the boys had as much or more information as anyone, so they got to ride along in the jeeps to help find the bombs, a memorable ride.
“We kinda knew where the bombs from the first pass went,” Pat said. “It was quite an experience when you’re a kid.”
Pat recalls the bombs sunk into the ground when they fell in open areas.
Lawrence Shill has since died, so Pat tells everyone that he is the lone survivor of the bombing of Dickens, a concept that is good for a laugh or two. He will be 80-years-old this summer.
Fifteen years ago, he and his wife were on a bus tour to Branson, Mo. and one of the passengers was a man from Arnold who loaded the bombs on the plane that day at the McCook airfield. They had some laughs about it.
The cause of the mistaken bombing run remains a mystery. Rumors circulated that the crew must have been drunk or something. However, the three lights illuminating Dickens’ Main Street were arranged in a similar fashion to three lights at the actual target -- a practice site about 15 miles north.
Despite rumors, Aylward doesn’t think the accidental bombing was the plane crew’s fault at all. The way he heard the story, the men in charge of the practice range went to North Platte for a little fun, stayed too long, and didn’t get back in time to light up the lights there.
World War II made a big impression on Aylward, who now farms and ranches about five miles north of Dickens. The war was an everyday thing.
“We had scrap iron drives and we kids picked up all the metals we could find,” he said. “We were captivated by the war.”
This report was first published in the Bulletin's April 2 print edition.