A few short weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, a team of U.S. Army engineers arrived in Rapid City with plans to transform a barren plateau east of town into a new Army airfield. Surveying the landscape during that cold January in 1942, they could scarcely have imagined the long-reaching effect their work would have, both on the surrounding region and for the nation’s defense during the next 70 years.
In a herculean effort, workers from around the area worked swiftly to construct facilities on land adjacent to the old municipal airport. The new Rapid City Army Air Base welcomed its first B-17 Flying Fortresses in September 1942. Col. Charles Oldfield was the first commander of the base, where the Combat Crew Training School soon provided qualified B-17 aircrews desperately needed for missions in the European theater.
From September 1942, when its military runways first opened, until mission needs changed in July 1945, the field’s instructors taught thousands of pilots, navigators, radio operators and gunners from nine heavy bombardment groups and numerous smaller units. All training focused on the Allied drive to overthrow the Axis powers in Europe.
Like many of the bases that sprung up across the country during the war, Rapid City Army Airfield was originally intended to be a temporary facility “for the duration.” The growing nuclear threat from behind the Iron Curtain, however, quickly established Rapid City in a new role on the front lines of the Cold War. After World War II, the base briefly trained weather-reconnaissance and combat squadrons using P-61 Black Widow, P-38 Lightning, P-51 Mustang and B-25 Mitchell aircraft. Those missions soon ended and Rapid City Army Air Field temporarily shut down from September 1946 through March 1947. When operations resumed in 1947, the base was a new United States Air Force asset. The primary unit assigned to Rapid City Air Force Base was the new 28th Bombardment Wing — flying the B-29 Superfortress.
The installation changed names a few more times during its early years. In January 1948, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Carl A. Spaatz renamed it Weaver Air Force Base in honor of Brig. Gen. Walter R. Weaver, one of the pioneers in the development of the Air Force. In June of that year, in response to overwhelming public appeals, Secretary of the Air Force Stuart Symington returned it to its previous name. The base was declared a permanent installation in early 1948.
Shortly after additional runway improvements, in July 1949, the 28th BMW began conversion from B-29s to the B-36 Peacemaker. The massive B-36 Peacemaker, a 10-engine, nuclear-capable bomber dubbed the “magnesium overcast,” is still the largest combat aircraft ever to see active U.S. Air Force service. This was a period of tremendous investment in base facilities, including the construction of the cavernous B-36 aircraft hangar — now known as the Pride Hangar — that remains a regional landmark. In April 1950, the Air Staff reassigned the base from 15th Air Force to 8th Air Force.
It was also during this period that a tragedy provided the installation with its namesake. While leading a procession of RB-36s back to Rapid City following an exercise in England, Commander Brig. Gen. Richard Ellsworth and 21 other crew members of the 28th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing died in a crash over Newfoundland in March 1953. Three months later, President Dwight D. Eisenhower personally dedicated the newly renamed Ellsworth Air Force Base in honor of its fallen leader June 13, 1953.
Military organizations periodically upgrade manpower and machines to meet new national security requirements. The organizations on Ellsworth AFB have been no exception. Headquarters Strategic Air Command reassigned the 28th BMW from 8th Air Force back to 15th Air Force in October 1955. Approximately one year later, SAC set plans in motion to replace the 28th BMW B-36s with the new all-jet B-52 Stratofortress. The last B-36 left Ellsworth on May 29, 1957, and the first B-52 Stratofortress arrived 16 days later. In 1958, all base units came under the command of the 821st Strategic Aerospace Division, headquartered at Ellsworth.
The 1960s saw further expansion of Ellsworth’s role as a pillar in our nuclear deterrent strategy. In October 1960, Ellsworth entered the Space Age with the activation of the 850th Strategic Missile Squadron, initially assigned to the 28th BMW. For more than a year, this squadron prepared for the emplacement of Titan I intercontinental ballistic missiles, which finally arrived in 1962, shortly after the activation of the 44th Strategic Missile Wing in January. At that time, Headquarters SAC also named the 44th SMW as host wing at Ellsworth.
Titan’s life span was short in western South Dakota. In July 1962, SAC had effectively rendered it obsolete by activating the 66th Strategic Missile Squadron, the first of three such units slated to operate 150 Minuteman I ICBMs under the 44th SMW. The 67th Strategic Missile Squadron joined the 44th in August, followed by the 68th Strategic Missile Squadron in September 1962.
On June 1, 1971, SAC inactivated the 821st Strategic Aerospace Division. By October of that year, an upgraded Minuteman II also replaced earlier missiles. At its height, the 44th SMW consisted of three operational squadrons responsible for nearly 150 Minuteman II missiles. Ellsworth’s missileers faithfully performed this difficult and often lonely duty for nearly 40 years, until the last missiles were taken offline in April 1994.
Throughout the Cold War, Ellsworth developed a reputation as “The Showplace of Strategic Air Command,” standing guard with the dual nuclear deterrent of ICBMs and bomber aircraft. It carried out these vital missions from 1961 to 1994 with relatively little change. Then, the 1980s brought many new challenges.