HomeNewsArticle Display

Find gives glimpse of life nearly 60 years ago

RANTOUL, Ill. -- It was 1954; the worst of times and the best of times as a construction worker rolled up a copy of the Chicago Herald Tribune and stuffed it into one of the legs of a water tower being built at Chanute Air Force Base, Ill.

Fast forward to April 2012; the construction worker's rolled up newspaper, intact and legible, is discovered when that same water tower in Chanute's 900 area is demolished under an Air Force Center for Engineering and the Environment contract.

The newspaper fragment, which now resides at the former Chanute AFB Museum in Rantoul, Ill., gives an interesting flashback to those times - the era of film legend Marilyn Monroe juxtaposed against the birth era of the hydrogen bomb.

It was the worst of times ...
The United States detonated its first H-bomb in 1952. The famous 1954 Bikini Atoll blast, at 15 megatons, was 1,000 times more powerful than the atomic bomb at Hiroshima, Japan; so powerful it overwhelmed the measuring instruments. In November 1955, the Soviets detonated their first H-bomb, and in 1961, they detonated a 50-megaton bomb, the most powerful in the world at that time.

Delivery vehicles for the bombs became frantic priorities for both sides. The U.S. Air Force was retooling its aircraft mechanic schools to service rapidly specializing aircraft for carrying ever-diversifying nuclear payloads. Chanute, located in east-central Illinois, was bustling with new schools and new training activity to meet the challenge.

In 1954, the F-84 became the first production fighter aircraft to utilize in-flight refueling and the first fighter capable of carrying a nuclear bomb. The F-84 was finally declared fit-for-duty for its new role in 1954, and mechanics scrambled to update their capabilities. Money began pouring into Chanute to expand its schools and training facilities.

In fact, as the 1950's plunged the nation into the "Cold War," Chanute played a key role in training the maintenance conversion of aircraft like the F-84.

It was only the beginning as Chanute also rushed into preparing qualified maintenance personnel for the growing spread of the Strategic Air Command's bombers, missiles and associated support infrastructure. The urgency to keep the nation's retaliatory strike capability effective frantically drove all training programs.

As the Air Force launched its conversion to an all-jet force and rocketed its missile development programs into top priority, Chanute was selected as the prime mechanics training base, eventually for such nuclear vehicles as the B-52 and B-58 bomber aircraft.

Yet, all the changes couldn't come fast enough. According to the General History of Chanute Air Force Base, "In 1954, Chanute's 3345th Technical School readied trainers and other facilities necessary to train the maintenance personnel. To provide sufficient space at Chanute for this training, the Air Training Command directed that Sheppard Air Force Base absorb Chanute's jet engine courses for the F-80 and F-84 aircraft.

During 1954, Chanute's Jet Engine Branch produced 5,000 jet engine apprentice level mechanics. In 1955, Chanute partially completed the new test cells in the 900 area of the base. This enabled students to completely disassemble and reassemble a variety of engines and start them up in the soundproof facilities."

It was the age of flurry. It was the age of fear - fear that America would not be able to maintain its edge on nuclear retaliatory strike capability. It was the age of outfitting B-52s with the Hound Dog nuclear cruise missile -- also maintenance-trained at Chanute -- to pre-empt a strike from Soviet air defenses enabling America's almost exclusively aircraft-delivery for nuclear weapons to actually make it through to designated targets.

It was the age of experimentation, such as the failed attempt to strap an F-84 under the belly of a B-36 in an effort for squadrons to carry forth their own fighter protection. And, it would be just 10 years later that civil defense units would begin routine drills for grade-school students to practice head-between-the-knees nuclear drills within "protected" areas of school houses just 60 miles from Chanute. I participated in those drills as a third-grader.

It was the best of times ...
It was September 1954 when the National League New York Giants swept the American League Cleveland Indians in the World Series in four games: 3-0, 3-1, 6-2, 7-4. The final two games were witnessed, to the home crowd's dismay, at Cleveland Stadium.

It was the golden age of movies, the mix of black and white and color, the year many film makers were already retooling their own industry's mechanics to begin production of Technicolor films. Many classics were produced in 1954 like "On the Waterfront," "White Christmas," "Animal Farm," "Rear Window," "The Caine Mutiny," and "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea."

It was a year of the film icons' private triumphs and tragedies, such the much-publicized marriage between Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe, and then their tragic divorce less than a year later in October 1954.

No one could have predicted a simple rolled up newspaper from nearly 60 years ago would serve as a relic from a different era, a different mindset, a whole different world cast in long-past urgencies, now rich history.