The Bombing of Dickens, Nebraska
Story by Jerry Penry
Memories have faded and very few, if anyone, is still alive today who was witness to the accidental bombing of the small town of Dickens, Nebraska. The exact year is uncertain since newspaper accounts recalling the event many years after the bombing had some thinking it occurred during the Christmas season of 1942, while others maintain it had to have been during the same time in 1943. If it made the newspapers, there was likely no headlines as the military would not have wanted to reveal the locations of their practice bombing ranges.
During World War II, the town of Dickens was a thriving little community in southwestern Lincoln County with about 200 residents. There were two isolated practice bombing targets in the same general area of the state as Dickens with one about 15 miles to the northwest of the town and the other about 15 miles to the northeast of the town. These targets helped the bomber crews who were training in Nebraska practice before going overseas for combat. To simulate nighttime bombing, there were mobile lights at the targets to assist the bomber crews in finding them. Unlike most places in Europe, the towns in central Nebraska did not have to adhere to the lights out or "blackout" conditions since they were not under any eminent threat of an attack. At 20,000 feet about the ground, a few street lights close together in a small town like Dickens could confuse the bomber crews if they thought they were over the target. Many of the airmen training in Nebraska came from larger cities, so they were not familiar with the isolated and small towns in Nebraska that might only have a handful of lights.
Around 8:00 p.m. on that cold December night, a four-engine bomber, possibly a B-24 from the McCook Army Air Field, dropped five 100-lb practice bombs upon the town of Dickens. The practice bombs were generally filled with water or a mixture of wet sand. A black powder explosive charge inside the bomb detonated upon impact and the puff of smoke signaled the location of the hit. One wayward bomb was said to have come through the roof of the lumber company's building, one hit behind the grocery store throwing canned goods off the shelves, one fell behind the old bank building and two more landed in an alley. Had the bombs been real, the town would have been completely destroyed.
The bomber crew was not finished that evening and apparently began another run at the same misidentified target after the first drop. Perhaps it was a different bomber which had followed the path of the first plane over the target, but some believe they saw the plane circle. Five more bombs were dropped, but these landed in a field east of Dickens. One bomb, however, hit a railroad pipeline while another fell into a corral only a few feet from where cattle were feeding.
Rumors immediately began to circulate as to how the crew had mistaken the town of Dickens for the bombing range. Some claimed the crew must have been drunk. It was later learned, however, that the three lights illuminating Main Street were arranged in a similar fashion to three lights set up around the actual target. The navigators on these bombers were trained quickly and nighttime navigation was likely something they had not frequently practiced. Visual sighting of a few lights probably led the bomber to the town of Dickens instead of actually navigating to the correct location.
The following day, trucks from the Army arrived in Dickens and local residents kindly pointed out where the bombs had landed. The enlisted men found the event to be somewhat comical, but the officers who were sent along with them kept a serious nature about them.
After the war, the town of Dickens began to dwindle in population. Today the town is unincorporated.
The M38A2 100-lb. Practice Bomb was most likely the type dropped at Dickens.
It was sand filled with a black powder charge in the fins.
Dickens is located along the upper left edge of the map with one of the nearby bombing ranges identified as "Danger Area" on this restricted map from WWII. The McCook Army Air Field is located at the bottom center of the map.
SCENES FROM DICKENS, NEBRASKA
The other small Nebraska town to be bombed during WWII was Tarnov which is described by clicking on the link below.
BOMBING OF TARNOV