by Darla Van Rosendale
As Veterans Day, November 11, is approaching I stop to reflect on the history of the part of the city we are located in. Our campus sits on part of the site known as the Sioux Falls Army Air Corps Technical Training School in the early to mid-1940s. As I have shared what I have learned about this training school over the years I often have heard stories from residents about their experience with the school whether it was working as an instructor or in other capacities on the base, being involved in the construction of the base, meeting a spouse who came for training, or working in or living in buildings that were moved and repurposed after the war.
Construction began in early 1942 with 5,000 workers hired to construct the equivalent of a small city virtually from scratch. During the first winter, they were housed in tar paper-covered barracks that had been designed for a warmer climate. They installed 30 miles of streets plus sewer, water, and electrical systems. And erected many buildings including 8 warehouses, 3 chapels, an 8,000-bed hospital facility, barracks, classrooms, administrative, and other support buildings in which to house and train up to 16,000 men at a time. The employment situation in the Sioux Falls area changed overnight. Unemployment virtually disappeared and people flocked to Sioux Falls to get the well-paying construction jobs. When the construction phase was completed, the military draft provided continued employment for many of the workers for the duration of the war.
The main entrance was at Russell and Prairie very close to our campus. The hospital was located about where our campus stands, and the laundry facilities were about where the Veterans Memorial Park is today. Close by were the officers’ quarters. The base also consisted of a post headquarters building, a service club, guest house, 9 post exchanges, a sports arena, Northwest Security National Bank, 6 dispensaries and infirmaries, post office, dental clinic, barber shop, tailor shop, and numerous athletic fields including a golf course on the south side (Elmwood).
In July 1942 the soldiers began arriving and the radio school began converting them into radio operator technicians. They became Radio Operator Mechanics (ROMS). At its high point, the school enrolled 27,000 men with classes running 3 rotating shifts during each 24-hour day. The base trained nearly 50,000 servicemen during its brief 3 ½ year existence and over half of the ROMS in Europe came from Sioux Falls.
The base required hundreds of civilian employees to work in its numerous canteens, barbershops, gas stations, theaters, and other support facilities. Downtown businesses saw a large economic impact because on their days off the soldiers crowded the stores, bars, restaurants, and dance halls. This allowed the businesses to expand and gather the assets that became the foundation of their postwar success.
The servicemen spent a great deal of time downtown Sioux Falls. Bus services were available between the base and downtown to take them to the USO Clubs – Main one at 11st St and Main Ave downtown, also the YMCA on Minnesota Ave and a 3rd one at St. John’s Baptist Church on North Minnesota Ave. Other opportunities for the service men downtown were the Masonic Lodge on W 10th St, Knights of Columbus on N Summit Ave, and Odd Fellows on S Dakota Ave. Graduation ceremonies were held at the Coliseum in downtown Sioux Falls.
The base stimulated the City’s population growth in the 1940s. Housing became scarce in Sioux Falls due to the hundreds of people who came to seek jobs directly or indirectly related to the radio school’s presence. Also, wives and children came to be near their husbands and fathers during their 18 to 26-week training periods. In time virtually every house in town rented rooms, and in some cases, rooms were divided by temporary partitions to create additional accommodations for the swollen wartime population.
On Dec 8, 1944, a plane crash killing 10 men at the Sioux Falls Army Air Force Base.
On the last day of 1945, more than 4 months after the end of the war, the radio school closed. After the war, the base became a relocation center for soldiers. As many as 10,000 men were here at any given time waiting to be discharged from the army. In December of 1945, 50,000 men came through this base being discharged.
Soon after the land and its facilities were returned to the City of Sioux Falls. Many of the 950 radio school buildings were dismantled, but more than 450 were sold for 5% of their appraised value. Building materials that had been non-existent during the war years continued to be scarce in the postwar period. Consequently, the availability of the radio school buildings was a boom to the city. Area colleges acquired buildings for classrooms and dormitories to accommodate the dramatic increase in student enrollment caused by returning GIs with veteran’s educational benefits. Several church congregations in new suburban neighborhoods solved their need for a church building by purchasing and moving radio school chapels to new sites. Barracks became private homes in several new areas of the city, and lumber from radio school buildings made the construction of other new houses possible. Post-war a number of buildings were moved to the Veterans Hospital and Sioux Valley Hospital area which was on the outskirts of town at that time.
The radio school provided the city with much improved municipal airport facilities as civilian operation of the Airport resumed in 1946. The South Dakota Air National Guard was located at the Sioux Falls Municipal Airport in September 1946, under the command of Col. Joe Foss. They were designated the 175th Fighter Squadron and were assigned the large Military Hangar along with several other required military buildings.
What a meaningful history this area of Sioux Falls has! I want to thank all those who have served or are serving in the military for all you have done for us. Your willingness to serve, dedication to the service, and commitment to our country is greatly appreciated! THANK YOU AND GOD BLESS YOU!