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Bomb fragments recall WWII home frontTell North Platte what you think
 
Photo by Bonnie Edwards
Jerry Penry points to bomb fragments in a field not far from Wallace
Photo by Bonnie Edwards
Penry and fragment (click on image to enlarge)
Courtesy Photo­Image
Edwards found the faint image of a target in this 2012 aerial photo.
Courtesy Photo­Image
Target clearly outlined
Photo by Bonnie Edwards
Closer views of fragments in the field.
Photo by Bonnie Edwards
Photo by George Lauby
Another fragment, photographed outside the Bulletin's office

Clayton Yonker was 16 years old when the bombs fell on Dickens during World War II.

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Yonker, now 87, recalls cultivating corn for his dad north of Dickens. He pulled a two-row cultivator with a Ford tractor. He was making his way through corn that was 10-15 inches tall when he nearly ran into the hole in the ground, he said.

“I went back and told Dad about it,” he said. “Dad looked at it and said, ‘Oh, that’s a bomb.' We went to Wallace and got ahold of the Army people there. They came and took it.”

Some Army personnel attached to the McCook Air Base stayed in Wallace, helping coordinate the training of bomber crews for overseas duty. The crews made flights over two practice fields in Lincoln County. The bombadiers aimed to hit circular targets laid out on pasture land.

One practice field was south of North Platte and another was south of Sutherland, not too far from Wallace.

Many of the practice runs were conducted at night. Once in awhile, careless or novice bombardiers would let bombs fall outside the practice field.

The practice bombs contained a small explosive charge and were full of water or flour. They did relatively little damage.

On the most well known night of mistakes, a dozen or so bombs rained down on the village of Dickens. One went through the roof of the lumber yard.

The so-called bombing of Dickens happened in the wintertime in 1942, as near as anyone can recall. A report of that bombing was presented by writer Jerry Penry. Penry came across the story when he was researching for a book, Nebraska's Fatal Air Crashes of WWII. Penry also discovered an accidental bombing of a small town in northeast Nebraska named Tarnov.

When Yonker read Penry's account of the bombing of Dickens in the Bulletin, he called and offered his own recollections of those days. He told the Bulletin that the bomb crater he found in the cornfield in the summertime was a hole about 18-inches deep. The bomb itself was about 2-feet long. It was a little bigger around than a cream can, he said.

Yonker’s farm and ranch was eight miles south of Dickens, generally in line with the practice bombing field near North Platte. He said after he found the bomb in the cornfield, Army soldiers came from Wallace every day for awhile and looked for more stray bombs. They found a half dozen or so, but seven bombs remained unaccounted for.

“That land is so rough -- the hills and canyons -- they couldn’t get over them with their 4-wheel drive trucks,” Yonker said. So, he, his brother and neighbor Walt Chamberlin rode horseback over some nine sections of land, looking.

They were partially successful.

“It was a big area,” he said. “We found three more, but four of the missing bombs are still out there somewhere, as far as I know.”

Paul Broeder lived about a mile-and-a-half south of the bombing range south of North Platte.

He was about six years old. He recalls the bomber planes flying over their house as they approached the target. 

“They’d come in low in the middle of the night,” he said. “They made a lot of noise.”

Broeder said he and friends would explore the outskirts of the range, and once in awhile venture onto the range itself, which would have terrified his parents if they had known.

Broeder said the practice bombing range also had a cave with a gas engine to power a handful of lights that were across the range, he said.

He said the bombs sometimes started a small grass fire when conditions were right. The range had a fire break – a strip of plowed ground – surrounding it.

It was quite an experience for everyone, he said.

“We’d lay on haystacks and watch,” he said.

“We’d get in trouble for it," he added.

Jerry Penry had a secret mission last summer – to find some bomb remnants. He found an ally in Lincoln County Surveyor Boni Edwards.

Penry, who is the Lancaster County Surveyor, was a featured speaking in Curtis last summer at a convention of county surveyors. Edwards, knowing of his interest, got out some aerial photos of the area before the convention, trying to figure out where the old practice bombing targets were located.

“I started making phone calls and found out the approximate area from Jim Griffin at museum and Kaycee Anderson at the library," Edwards said. "We thought there was one north of Wallace, and I called the Wallace real estate agent Lynn Swanson, and he told me about the property there."

When Edwards looked at a 2012 aerial photo, the target popped right out at her. It had been so dry that summer; the grass was short and she could see the outline of the bulls eye, which was once marked by lime.

The center of the target was 100-foot in diameter with another concentric circle about 200-feet from the bulls-eye, Edwards said.

She checked another aerial photo from 1958. She said both bombing fields were visible in that photo. But when she checked a 1977 photo, she couldn't find the practice target south of North Platte. It under a center pivot by then.

When she talked to Penry, he readily agreed to take a closer look with her. They started searching, using metal detectors, and found bomb remnants everywhere, Edwards said.

Some were in holes 2-3 feet deep. Some were right on the surface. Some had been tossed in a blowout to keep the wind from tearing the soil up.

Edwards and Penry collected the fragments that were nearest the surface – about 30-40 in all, in pieces.

“They were all blown up and mashed up.” she said.

Edwards plans to donate some of the remnants to the Lincoln County Historical Museum, if the property owner has no objections.

She said the bomb fragments will be lasting evidence of training on the home front during World War II as well as the day the bombs fell on Dickens, and the young flight crews who went overseas to risk their lives in the war against the Nazis and Japanese.

 

This is part three of a series of "bomb reports" that began March 26 with Jerry Penry’s story about the bombing of Dickens. Part III was first published May 26 in the Bulletin's print edition. - Editor.  


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The North Platte Bulletin - Published 8/28/2014
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