HISTORIC FORT OMAHA


Fort Omaha in 1895     © Douglas County Historical Society

Fort Omaha was first known as Sherman Barracks, and very soon as Omaha Barracks, when the federal government in 1868 obtained land from Omahan Augustus Kountze to establish a military reservation.  The property was later renamed Fort Omaha and in 1878 became the Headquarters for the Department of the Platte, covering territory that stretched from the Missouri River into Montana.

Fort Omaha was a supply fort, rather than a defense fort, and today looks much as it did at the end of the Nineteenth Century, its integrity having been preserved by its designation as a National Register District.  The use, in some cases lack of use, changed through the years, until 1975, when the property was acquired by Metropolitan Community College by quitclaim deed from the federal government.

Facilities for military reserve forces still are located at the perimeters of Fort Omaha, and mustering in and deployment of troops continues from this location.

Between 1868 and today, the Fort records a diverse history.  The Fort was abandoned in 1896, when its need was diminished by expansive settlement of the west the and end of the Indian Wars.  It reopened in 1905 as the Signal Corps School, and the first balloon flight was launched in 1909, beginning the Army's first regular lighter-than-air center.  The Fort was abandoned in 1913 when the Signal Corps School was moved to Fort Leavenworth.

Fort Omaha became the site of America's first military balloon school when the Fort was reactivated in 1916 as the Balloon Section of the American Expeditionary Force, known as the Fort Omaha Balloon School.  Captain Chandler, pilot of the first 1909 flight, was named the Commanding Officer.

 


Bivouac at Fort Omaha, 1918  © Douglas County Historical Society

During World War II, Fort Omaha became the support installation for the Seventh Service Command and was used as a work camp for Italian war prisoners.  In 1947, Headquarters, Fifth Army gave command of the Fort to the Navy, and Fort Omaha officially was named the Naval and Marine Corps Reserve Center.  In 1951 Fort Omaha was designated the U.S. Naval Personnel Center.

Fort Omaha is best known for its role in the 1879 landmark trial of Ponca chief Standing Bear. General Crook, then the Commander of the Department of the Platte, followed orders to arrest Standing Bear and his party of 30 followers and place them under guard at Fort Omaha. The great chief had traveled north to his homeland along the Niobrara River from a reservation in Indian Territory in Oklahoma to bury his son, honoring the son's dying wish and Indian custom. However, General Crook's sentiments were with Standing Bear, and he secretly engaged the services of newspaperman Thomas Henry Tibbles to rally support for the cause. A trial was brought to Federal Circuit Court, with Andrew Poppleton and John Webster engaged as attorneys for Standing Bear. Judge Elmer Dundy ruled in favor of Standing Bear, which represented the first time an Indian was recognized as a person under the law.

 

 

Brief History of the Fort Omaha Balloon School, 1905-1921
Prepared By: Liz Rea, Director of Education

  

1905              U.S. Army Signal Corps transferred all balloon school activities to Fort Omaha, Nebraska, because it provided a steel hangar large enough to house a balloon, a hydrogen generator, a large capacity gas holder, and a motor-driven compressor for storing gas in cylinders.   

1909-1921   Fort Omaha became the first Army school for balloon observers.  For most of those years, Fort Omaha was the world’s largest balloon school. Some 16,000 young men learned their military trade here and put the balloonist skills they learned in Omaha to work in France.  

1913              The War Department closed the Signal Corps balloon facilities at Fort Omaha and moved most of the equipment to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

1916            Fort Omaha was reopened because it had a large steel balloon hangar and a hydrogen plant. It became the nation's center for war balloon training.

1917           On April 6, 1917, the United States declared war on Germany and found its military unprepared for war.

1917              Florence Field, 119 acres of land about one mile north of Fort Omaha along Martin Avenue, was leased by the U.S. government in October and cleared for balloon operations.  Many Fort Omaha recruits received field training here in a simulated “on the front” balloon operations experience.   

1918              In August, Fort Crook was assigned to the Division of Military Aeronautics as a subpost of Fort Omaha by order of the secretary of war.  Fort Crook became a basic training center for recruits entering balloon service.   

1918              On November 11, 1918, the signing of the Armistice brought an end to World War I. 

1919              Balloon equipment and troops were removed from Fort Omaha and Fort Crook.   

1921              The U.S. government moved the entire Fort Omaha Balloon School to Belleville, Illinois, where it eventually was phased out of existence. 

 Balloon School Facts

  • Preparation for balloon observers, dubbed by the men as “the eyes of the Army”, included basic, classroom, and field training. 
     
  • Nearly every soldier who manned an American observation balloon overseas and who directed allied artillery against German troops from such a lofty vantage point was a graduate of Fort Omaha.  So also were the ground crewmen.  
     
  • These were the enlisted men who raised and lowered the huge balloons and maintained a vigil for German planes coming out of the clouds to strafe tethered balloons along allied lines in France. 
     
  • Commands like “haul down” to lower balloons to the ground or “ease off” which allowed a balloon to rise were as familiar to soldiers then as the “all systems go” terminology is to us today in the space age. 
     
  • The balloons flew at altitudes of one to four thousand feet and were linked to the ground by a rope attached to a winch truck. 
     
  • Only two observers were allowed in the basket connected to the balloon at one time.  The rest of the 90-to 160-man company stayed on the ground, moving the telephone lines and ropes that tethered the balloons.  They were favorite targets of German troops and pilots. 
     
  • If air or artillery fire developed, the observer, wearing a parachute harness, was advised to “bail out”.  If time permitted, the order of “haul down” spurred ground crewmen, often the target of enemy shelling themselves, to reel the balloon in until it was close enough to be lowered manually by ropes hanging from its midsection. 
     
  • The duty was dangerous not only because balloons were favorite targets, but also because they were filled with highly flammable hydrogen gas.  Even though the observers were equipped with parachutes, sometimes there was no escape from a burning airship. 
     
  • During World War I, the United States had twelve balloons destroyed and thirty-five balloons burned.  Observers had to jump from the basket 116 times but had few mishaps partially due to their excellent training.   
     
  • The Balloon Division set a record of wartime success.  Seventeen U.S. balloon companies sent to Europe saw action on the front.  Of these seventeen companies, thirteen were organized at Fort Omaha.  The Balloon Corps earned its share of military decorations.  These included the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal, and the Legion of Honor recognition from the United States and France.

 

 

 

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