(Image credit: aircraftboneyards.com)
The origin of the name of Pyote, Texas is unknown, but possibly derived either from a mispronunciation of the word “coyote” by foreign railroad workers or it was a variation of the word peyote, the name of a local cactus plant. Pyote is located roughly about halfway between Pecos and Monahans in Ward County, Texas. It has had two notable “boomlets” in its history, the first after oil was discovered in the area around 1920 and a second during World War II.
We came across the name of this air field while reading “A Higher Call” by Adam Makos, a wonderful book that relates the fascinating story of a wartime encounter between Charlie Brown, pilot of a wounded United States Army Air Corps B-17 Flying Fortress bomber and Franz Stigler, pilot of a German Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter. Many months prior to their fateful meeting in the skies above Germany, Pyote was casually mentioned in the book as the location where Brown had picked up his B-17 crew at this Texas air field, though there is no further discussion of the air field in the book.
Pyote began its life as an air field when the United States Army Air Corps chose it (along with other locations similar to it) as the site of a B-17 training base, partly because of its sparse surrounding population and the usually aircraft-friendly West Texas weather. Construction began in the fall of 1942. The air field featured two runways of 8,400 feet in a V and connected by a taxiway that completed a triangle. At its peak, Pyote housed some 6,500 individuals and was used to train B-17 pilots on precision bombing methods. Due to an abundance of West Texas rattlesnakes in the area, it took on the nickname of “Rattlesnake Bomber Base.” For a time, it was the largest B-17 training base in the United States.
Pyote Army Air Field was in active use as a B-17 base until the B-29 Superfortress came on line and became the focus of wartime training. The facility was later renamed Pyote Air Base. At the end of the war, it was decommissioned and became an aircraft storage depot. Many different aircraft models were stored here. Some were historically significant, such as the well-known “Enola Gay,” the B-29 that carried the atomic weapon that bombed Hiroshima, Japan before it was transferred to the Smithsonian Institution.
Also stored there was the possibly less well known, but very interesting aircraft known as “The Swoose,” a B-17D that saw extensive time in the South Pacific during the war. “The Swoose” had the distinction of being in service from the beginning to the end of the war and now resides at the United States Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. Officially, it was Boeing B-17D serial number 40-3097. It served in the Philippines, Java and Australia being assigned to both the 14th and 19th Bombardment Groups. In 1943, it was reassigned to Panama and remained in service until 1953.
(Capt. and Mrs. Frank Kurtz and “The Swoose” – image source unknown)
This particular B-17 began its service life going by the name of “Ole Betsy” and flew several missions immediately after December 7, 1941, including the first combat mission against the Japanese in the Philippines within hours of the Pearl Harbor attack in Hawaii. In early 1942, it suffered heavy damage from Japanese fighters. The damage was repaired in Australia including a tail section grafted on from another B-17, and the aircraft was returned to service. It later became the transport for Lt. Gen. George Brett in the spring of 1942 and was renamed “The Swoose” (half swan, half goose) by Weldon H. Smith, a crew member, after the subject of a then popular novelty song. Most of the time it was flown by Lt. Gen. Brett’s pilot, the highly decorated Captain Frank Kurtz. Eventually, many of the guns were removed, but the aircraft remained in service until the end of the war, being used as a high speed transportation vehicle for Lt. Gen. Brett. After the war, it was stored at Pyote before being conveyed for a time to the Smithsonian Institution and then finally to the Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson, where it is currently in the process of being restored. It’s believed to be the only surviving B-17D in existence.
Captain Frank Kurtz had been a swimmer in the 1932 and 1936 Olympics. He had aspirations of becoming an airline pilot before the war. He had taken some of his flight training at Randolph Air Force Base outside San Antonio, Texas. Flying figured into his whole life. His wife Margo Rogers Kurtz is the author of a book about the couple called My Rival, The Sky. They are also parents of veteran actress Margo “Swoosie” Kurtz, who was named for this historic aircraft.
During the Cold War years, Pyote was reconfigured as an “early warning” radar station and it served in that capacity from around 1958 to 1963. Today the shells of only a couple of structures remain. The outline of the runway and taxiway can still be seen from the air and satellite maps just south of Interstate 20 and there is a museum dedicated to the base in nearby Monahans.
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