The Historical Foundation and the Historical Society of Southeast New Mexico are hosting talks on Sunday, June 30, and Sunday, July 28, at the Archive Building, 208 N. Lea St.
“We have our Sunday Fun Day, but it stops during the summer. We have the perfect opportunity to bring in Roswell’s former Mayor Bill Brainerd,” said the Foundation’s Administrative Director Bonnie Montgomery.
Brainerd became mayor in 1968, the year that saw the close of the one-time Roswell Army Air Field at Walker Air Force base. “It was the largest Strategic Air Command in inventory strength,” he said.
During that time, Roswell lost one-third of its population as the military and their families moved from the area. “Our population dropped from 48,000 to 32,000 … The closure was announced on Dec. 18, 1967, effectively ruining the Christmas for everyone involved. My predecessor as mayor was Gail Harris. He got word to Gen. (Curtis) LeMay of SAC and asked if there was [auth] anything he could do. That’s when we found out that this order came straight from the White House,” said Brainerd.
He believes that this was an act of revenge on the part of President Lyndon B. Johnson, who also closed Air Force bases in Salina, Kan., Sherman, Okla., and Amarillo. “He was a vindictive man, Johnson, and these were the four most Republican counties in the United States, all voted against him during the election.”
Brainerd referred to the closure as the biggest hit to real estate in Roswell. Harris was in real estate. Suddenly, all the housing at the base, plus another 6,000 houses in Roswell lay vacant. “You could buy a house for next to nothing, Many people were so desperate to sell that they would let someone by if someone could takeover the payments,” he said.
“The only thing that increased was liquor and grocery sales.” He explained that many of the people bought such items in the commissary.
Harris formed four teams to manage the transfer of the buildings from Walker to the City. The closure took six months to accomplish. “Gail Harris does not get nearly enough credit for the work he did. I signed the act that named a street after him,” said Brainerd.
The base was broken into four parts. The city got the airport, ramps and hangars. Eastern New Mexico University took over many of the buildings and the dorms. The building at Fourth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue went to the courts. “The old building was torn down and the new Federal Courthouse was built. The old rehab building went to the State,” Brainerd said.
He named two other people who were significant in the easing the pain of transformation, Gov. David H. Cargo, who served from 1967 to 1971, and Bill Bacon who was a career air force officer and commanded Walker.
Brainerd also described Walker’s participation in World War II, with the Enola Gay dropping the atomic bomb known as Little Boy on Hiroshima and Bockscar dropping Fat Man on Nagasaki. “Everything that could have gone wrong did with Bockscar. The plane took off with a hot bomb. The weather was horrible and visibility poor. Bockscar went to their primary and secondary targets and couldn’t unload their payload. They had to settle on Nagasaki.”
He said that it took a full three years to recuperate the losses following Walkers closure. The houses at the base were maintained as rentals and that era saw the birth of the Roswell Housing Authority.
Brainerd admitted he had not outlined his talks yet, but the 86-year-old has accumulated a wealth of information in his life, as a survivor of the Dust Bowl and the Depression, a veteran of WWII and one of the people who recreated the City of Roswell in what can be called its reformative years.