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A history of the Ellsworth Air Force Base

South Dakota Historical Society

In January 1942, as the US was entering World War II, the War Department established an Army Air Base in Rapid City. The base would train crews for the B-17 Flying Fortress with deployment to fight the Axis in Europe.

In late September 1942, the control tower opened along with runways, quarters, offices, and five hangars were completed by the end of the year. By early 1944, the base was known as the 225th Army Air Force Base Unit. Their mission had changed from training entire units to training individual replacement personnel for units deployed overseas. The field's instructors taught thousands of pilots, navigators, radio operators, and gunners through the second world war.

On July 15th, 1945, Rapid City Army Air Base was placed on standby status as the Army Air Forces began to demobilize. But just a few months later, the base was reactivated and briefly trained weather reconnaissance and combat squadrons. Over the next two years, improvements were made to accommodate the B-29 Superfortress.

The role of the base in Rapid City continued to evolve as the Air Force was established as a military division separate from the Army. Its official name varied until March 1953. That spring, an Air Force transport crashed in Newfoundland while returning from a routine exercise in Europe. Brigadier General Richard Ellsworth, commander of the 28th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing, and 22 other airmen were killed. In June 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower visited the base to re-dedicate it in memory of Ellsworth. The base was subsequently renamed Ellsworth Air Force Base.

The base played a critical role in the Cold War and other conflicts and the base is also home to the South Dakota Air and Space Museum. As for the future, Ellsworth Air Force Base has been selected as the preferred base to host the first operational B-21 Raider bomber unit. The B-21 is expected to enter service in the mid-2020s. But it was in January 1942, that the War Department first selected the area just east of Rapid City to host a major training base for the Army Air Corps during WWII.

Production help is provided by Doctor Brad Tennant, Professor of History at Presentation College.