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Rob Branting's knowledge of the Lincoln Air Force Base and the Cold War fills an entire website.

Someday, he hopes it will fill a book and maybe even a museum.

He must be an old veteran who served on the base, which operated in northwest Lincoln from 1954 to 1966.

Not even close.

He's a 25-year-old college student studying parks and tourism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He has no relatives who served at the base and he was born about two decades after it closed.

But for the past 10 years, the young man has spent his free time documenting and building a digital history of the base. As the men and women who served, worked and lived on the base die off, Branting said he feels a greater urgency to spread their stories.

"That's the main mission, to get Lincolnites, to give them the knowledge, there was something so big, so important internationally at the base for so many years," he said last week.

Most Lincoln residents don't know the base once placed their city at a crossroads potentially leading to the end of the world. Although it's harder to imagine nuclear holocaust now, by the late 1950s, it was a very real possibility as the world's two superpowers stockpiled weapons of mass destruction and escalated the rhetoric of war.

At its zenith, the Lincoln Air Force Base marshaled enough nuclear armament to wipe out a continent. The base maintained combat readiness for as many as 120 B-47 Stratojets equipped with nuclear bombs. And its crews operated a dozen Atlas F intercontinental ballistic missiles aimed at Russia from silos around Southeast Nebraska.

The base was a critical part of the Strategic Air Command, headquartered at Offutt Air Force Base in Bellevue. Military leaders at SAC commanded the nation's nuclear arsenal, which held the power to unleash what surely would have been the war to end all war.

The base also housed crews for KC-97 Stratotankers, which flew refueling missions for the bombers. Among the major units stationed at Lincoln were the 818th Air Division Command, the 98th Bomb Wing and the 551st Strategic Missile Squadron.

To handle all those massive aircraft, the Air Force built a 10,200 foot long, 200 foot wide runway consisting of enough concrete to equate to 33 miles of highway, Branting said.

As many as 6,000 officers, enlisted men and civilians lived in and around the base. They lived in more than 1,000 housing units (today's Arnold Heights), sent their kids to a school, prayed in a chapel, swam in two pools, watched movies in a huge theater, shopped at a supermarket and drank in nightclubs -- all within the base's boundaries.

Stories of crashes involving base personnel are among the most compelling, Branting said. Perhaps the scariest involved a crew from Lincoln, carrying a nuclear payload, that skidded off a runway at a military base in England in 1956, killing the crew and setting fire to a nuclear weapons storage bunker. One expert said it was a miracle at least one of the stored weapons did not detonate.

Bowling Lake at Lincoln Air Park is named after the commander of the crew, Capt. Russell Bowling.

Another crash that illustrated the commitment of flight commanders happened March 7, 1963. After takeoff, an explosion tore through Capt. N.V. Meeks' B-47. He piloted the plane high enough for the crew to safely evacuate, but because he feared it would careen into a schoolhouse, he guided it to a farm field and lost his life.

The Air Force sent personnel to Lincoln from all over the country. Ken Fisher was an Airman 2nd Class, born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., assigned to the 551st SMS when he arrived in Lincoln in 1964.

"Dead serious, the people of Nebraska opened up their hearts to us," Fisher said last week.

One example: While pulling duty at a silo during a snow storm, area farmers would drive their tractors to deliver homecooked meals so crew members wouldn't have to eat K-rations.

Fisher credited the Air Force, and the kind people of Lincoln, for shaping the character of a young man who didn't know what he wanted to do with his life. Now he's 65 and a retired deputy assistant chief with the New York Fire Department.

And he can't say enough about Branting and his efforts to preserve the history of the base.

"I think this guy has done a spectacular job," Fisher said.

About a year ago, Branting moved the website to a different host, which provides more capability to store information and present photos. It's at lincolnafb.org.

Although he's busy with his studies and internships, he has made a commitment to add to the site as much as possible. To do so, however, he needs to hear from more veterans from the Lincoln Air Force Base.

He wants to document their stories, while there is still time. 

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Reach Joe Duggan at 402-473-7239 or jduggan@journalstar.com.

 

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