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09/25/2012

World War II and the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks Monument

Desert bloom_copyright Lisa MandelkernDesert Bloom near Sierra de Las Uvas Mountains, courtesy Lisa Mandelkern 

Many national monuments in the West feature unique landscapes, archaeological sites, and wildlife.  The proposed Organ Mountains Desert Peaks National Monument near Las Cruces, New Mexico has those-- the Butterfield Stagecoach Trail, the Gadsden Purchase boundary, Billy the Kid’s Outlaw Rock, and numerous petroglyphs and pictographs.  It also includes WWII era aerial targets, a unique feature that resonates with veterans and historians alike. 

The 1940 census reported 132 million people in the United States, with just over half a million in New Mexico.  War had already broken out in Europe, and President Roosevelt and Congress directed an unprecedented buildup of the U.S. military in anticipation of the U.S. entrance into the war.  Southern New Mexico was no exception.  The Army Air Corps selected the Deming airfield as one of many bases for training airmen as pilots, navigators and bombardiers.  These airmen proved vital to the allied success in the Second World War.

Deming was a sleepy farm and ranch town with a population of 3,500 in 1942 when the US Army awarded a $45,000.00 contract for construction of 24 aerial targets.  Construction started on  October 26, 1942, with completion a mere 50 days later – urgency was the order of the day.  Each target consisted of four concentric rings, the outermost 1,000 feet in diameter, with a wooden “shack” resembling a pyramid at the center.  Nighttime targets required generators to power strings of lights that formed large “crosshairs” on the ground.  The targets were located on a rectangular grid spanning roughly 40 by 50 miles of extremely remote terrain.  Seven of these targets lie within the proposed monument boundaries. 

Weathered metal from WWII target siteWeathered metal from WWII target site

An astonishing number of “sorties” were flown by the Deming airmen between 1942 and 1945, typically four to five thousand per month – equating to one every 10 minutes, around the clock, day in and day out, for two and a half years.  Dummy bombs, filled with sand, were dropped at a rate of one a minute throughout this period.  Airmen were trained to use the Norden Bombsight, a highly sophisticated mechanical computer (an original Norden Bombsight resides at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California) that used input from the plane’s altimeter, airspeed indicator, gyroscopes and autopilot to compute the expected trajectory and control the release point of air-dropped munitions.  The Norden Bombsight was initially considered “top secret”, but after the war it was learned that plans for the Norden were leaked to the Germans, and both the Germans and British were working on similar designs. 

Graded target ringGraded target ring with Massacre Peak, site of an Apache wagon train ambush, in the background

Today, when viewed from the ground, the last remains of the targets look like shallow, concentric trenches that are being slowly overtaken by the timeless forces of nature.  Although the army cleaned the sites extensively, an occasional piece of rusty metal remains behind.  From the air, the targets bear a remarkable resemblance to alien crop circles.  One target in particular, #22, provides a physical connection with previous chapters of historical significance.   Just a few miles west are the ruins of Fort Mason, which provided respite for travelers and protection from Apache raids.  The northern edge of Target #22 is actually bisected by the Butterfield Stagecoach Trail, while the Gadsden Purchase boundary cuts a line across the southern portion of the target oval.  Although little known by local residents, the WW II era aerial targets within the proposed Organ Mountains Desert Peaks National Monument bear silent witness to a very important chapter in U.S. history.

--By David Soules, volunteer for the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks Campaign 

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