The Heartland of Nuclear Deterrence

Topeka Regional Airport has gone by many names over the years. The Kansas airport came into being roughly two weeks after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor in December 1941, after Congress voted to grant permission to create the Topeka Army Air Field (TAAF) on the site. By 1945, TAAF had become one of only three stateside locations from which B-29 crews left for the Pacific to invade Japan. The airfield was shuttered shortly after the war, but it was reactivated as a Strategic Air Command (SAC) base on July 1, 1948. During the Cold War, SAC was responsible for Cold War command and control of two of the three pillars of the US strategic nuclear strike forces: land-based strategic bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs (the third pillar consisted of submarine-launched ballistic missiles and was overseen by the US Navy). SAC also operated all of the reconnaissance aircraft of the United States.

Guide to Forbes Air Force Base

Guide to Forbes Air Force Base published in 1963. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Postcard Forbes Air Force Base

Postcard from 1960 showing the main gate of Forbes Air Force Base. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Soon after its reactivation in 1948, TAAF was renamed Forbes Air Force Base (AFB) in honor of Major Daniel H. Forbes, who perished in June 1948 while testing an experimental YB-49 “Flying Wing” prototype jet. Forbes AFB played a central role in numerous Cold War episodes. In 1952, Forbes AFB became the home for the 55th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing, a US Air Force unit that performed strategic reconnaissance, photography, and mapping missions. The unit flew thousands of nighttime “ferret” missions over the Soviet Union and other communist nations to collect intelligence on Soviet air defense radar networks. During one such mission on July 1, 1960, a spy plane from Forbes AFB was shot down in the Barents Sea. Four of the six crew members died, while the two survivors were held in Russia until after the inauguration of John F. Kennedy in January 1961. This incident occurred just two months after a U-2 spy plane piloted by Gary Powers was shot down while conducting aerial reconnaissance deep inside the Soviet Union, an episode which increased tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. It 1962, it was a 55th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing plane that spotted and photographed the missile laden Soviet freighter bound for Cuba that was at the heart of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Forbes AFB was also central to the US’s Atlas intercontinental ballistic missile program. In February 1959, SAC ordered nine Atlas E missile complexes to be built around Forbes AFB. Construction began in June 1959; all nine missiles became operational between January and October 1961. Atlas missile warheads were designed to deliver a 4-megaton yield to their target. The missiles were held in semi-underground “coffin silos” that required the missiles to be swung into a vertical position to be filled with liquid fuel and launched. However, due to the high cost of maintaining the missiles’ readiness and safety concerns, the Atlas missile sites in Kansas were phased out by 1965 once solid fuel types became available.

Following the decommissioning of Atlas missile sites, Forbes AFB was closed by the Department of Defense in 1973. The site was transferred to the City of Topeka in 1976 to be used for commercial aviation as well as used by the Kansas Army National Guard. In 2012, the airport’s name changed to Topeka Regional Airport & Business Center. It continues to serve both commercial and non-commercial aircraft.

While it may be hard to discern now, northeastern Kansas was a central landscape in the Cold War struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union. Kansas was home to five military installations that were tasked with maintaining the United States’ security during the Cold War. Three of these sites, including what is now called Topeka Regional Airport, operated ICBMs as part of the nation’s nuclear arsenal, which gave Kansas the distinction of holding more ICBM sites than any other state in the nation. These installations, like other SAC sites in the greater Midwest, were located far from both coasts and provided depth to the nation’s most important defenses. At the same time, they contributed to Kansas’ economy by creating jobs and increasing the political importance of the state. Perhaps most important of all, the people that lived and worked at these installations contributed to Kansas’ recent history by sending their children to Kansas schools and by sharing in local triumphs and tragedies, such as the June 1966 tornado that struck Topeka and the cleanup effort that followed. Many remained in Kansas even after the base was closed.

Steven Mutz

University of Kansas

Map of Atlas Missile Sites around Forbes AFB

Map of Atlas missile sites around Forbes AFB. At one point, Kansas had more ICBM sites than any other state in the nation. Photo courtesy of Combat Air Museum.

Combat Air Museum at Topeka Regional Airport

Combat Air Museum at Topeka Regional Airport in 2020. Photo by Steven Mutz.

Forbes Field at Topeka Regional AIrport

Forbes Field at Topeka Regional Airport in 2020. Photo by Steven Mutz.