It was about half past midnight on July 5, 1943. The heat of the day had given way to the usual cooling that occurs during the summer at Boise City, located in the far western end of the Oklahoma Panhandle. Most of its 1,400 residents had gone to bed when an airplane began dropping bombs on the sleepy town. The town’s residents awoke to a series of six bangs and booms that sounded more like large firecrackers they had heard a day earlier as they celebrated Independence Day.
A few minutes earlier, Fred Kreiger, band director in the local school and also editor of the weekly Boise City News, had gone to bed when he heard the drone of a plane, a whistle, a crash, and an explosion. He quickly got up, dressed, and ran outside. “My first thought was an enemy plane,” he recalled, but wondered why Boise City would be bombed. “After I saw how deep the bombs bored into the pavement, I was glad I hadn’t hid under that big paper cutter at the office,” said Kreiger, who added, “What this place needs are some searchlights and anti-aircraft guns.”
When the bombs began falling, F. L. Bellew, the town’s night watchman, was near the post office. He flattened himself on the sidewalk, watched the sky, and wished he had his high-powered rifle as the plane made a second pass over Boise City. Not far away, near the Cimarron County Courthouse, Coleen Jones and four girlfriends had just left the local movie theater. Their dates were soldiers from the U.S. army air force base at Dalhart, Texas, about 30 miles south of Boise City. When a bomb hit the ground, Jones asked a soldier what it was. “By God, it’s a bomb!” he quickly replied. They ran away as fast as they could for safety.
At the Liberty Café, located on the highway, seven oil company truckers hurriedly put down their coffee cups and sandwiches and ran to their loaded tanker trucks and drove out of town as fast as they could. Not far away, Pastor R. D. Dodds found the front door on his white-frame church blown open and some of the rainbow-colored windows broken. Later he told a reporter, “If one-fourth of the people who came to see the hole the bomb made would only attend church.”
By the next day, nearly every resident of Boise City had learned that their town had been bombed by the U.S. Army Air Force. Lieutenant Max Siegel, public relations officer at the Dalhart base, arrived in Boise City and made the announcement. He added that no one had been hurt and that property damage amounted to less than 25 dollars. The B-17 Flying Fortress that dropped the bombs was one of a group that had taken off from Dalhart to bomb an army range near Conlen, Texas, northeast of Dalhart. One of the planes got off course, and the navigator spotted the lights of Boise City, and especially one light in the Cimarron County Courthouse square that had the general pattern of the bombing range. Major C. E. Lancaster, commanding officer of the Dalhart base, described the bombing as accidental, caused by “a mistake of navigation.” Lancaster explained that the crew believed the lights in the courthouse square were those of the bombing range.
The B-17 made six passes over Boise City, dropping one bomb on each run. Fortunately, they were practice bombs containing just over 97 pounds of sand and about three pounds of gunpowder. In reconstructing the events of the early morning hours of July 5, investigators determined that the first bomb landed in an alley northwest of Court Avenue near an apartment where several people were sleeping. It hit an empty garage, blowing open the door and leaving a 20-by-40-inch crater. The B-17 made another pass over Boise City, aiming at four lights. The bomb they dropped missed the First Baptist Church by inches and left a crater three feet deep. On the plane’s next pass, its third bomb hit the earth in front of the Style Shoppe building. The fourth bomb hit only yards from the McGowan Boardinghouse and missed a parked tanker truck full of fuel. The fifth bomb hit some 80 feet from a small house, and the sixth bomb fell near the railroad tracks on the southeastern edge of town.
About then Frank Garrett of Boise City’s power company ran to the Southwestern Public Service building and pulled the town’s master light switch. He hoped the townspeople would not mind. To the crew of the B-17, starting on another pass over the town, the sudden darkness suggested the bombing practice was not succeeding.
The B-17 made no further passes over Boise City and returned to its air base at Dalhart. As the bombs were falling on Boise City, John Atkins, the town’s air raid warden, hurriedly phoned a report to the FBI in Oklahoma City. Atkins then sent the Oklahoma adjutant general a telegram that read, “Boise City bombed one a.m. Baptist church, garage hit.” Before the sun rose on Boise City the following morning, FBI agents, U.S. Army officials, and the Oklahoma Highway Patrol had men on the scene investigating what had happened. In the next weekly issue of the Boise City News, editor Fred Kreiger wrote that the bombing was “mortifying” and “horrifying.”
But the anger felt by most Boise City residents soon gave way to pride as news of the bombing focused national attention on their town. Time magazine carried a story on July 19 headlined “The Bombing of Boise City” and noted that the citizens of Boise City acted the way most civilians do who have never been bombed before. The magazine said, “Most of them ran like hell, in no particular direction.” Newsweek magazine observed that Boise City was one of the most unlikely targets for an air raid. By the end of World War II, Ripley’s Believe it or Not, a syndicated cartoon for newspapers, was describing Boise City as the only town in the continental United States to be bombed during WWII.
In 1993, 50 years after the bombing, the citizens of Boise City sent letters to military magazines and otherwise sought to locate the B-17’s crewmembers to invite them to the town. In time, they located some the members, most of whom remained tight-lipped. The crewmembers did not want to go to Boise City, preferring to remember their outstanding record in Europe rather than their blunder in the Oklahoma Panhandle.
The crew apparently had the choice of disciplinary action after the incident at Boise City or immediate transfer to the European theater of war. They chose war and left for England. Most of them remained together and became one of the top B-17 crews in the Eighth Air Force before the war ended.
One crewmember, Henry Garringer, a former sergeant in the U.S. Army Air Force, did agree to tape a message over the telephone from his home in California. He blamed “motivation” as the cause of the accident and admitted the crew “screwed up,” but he added that the crewmembers spent the rest of their military careers being the best. Garringer’s message was played over a public address system on July 4, 1993, at the dedication of a bronze plaque near a bomb crater and a replica bomb protruding from cement, memorializing the night Boise City was bombed half a century earlier.
Appeared in This Land, Vol. 6, Issue 4, February 15, 2015. Reprinted with permission from Stories from Old-Time Oklahoma by David Dary. Courtesy University of Oklahoma Press.