From 1905 to 1918, the US Army used Fort Omaha to train troops for its aerial surveillance program. The era when the US Army Signal Corps was stationed at Fort Omaha is mentioned occasionally in Omaha history, but few people understand the extent of the work done in North Omaha, what effects it had on the community and beyond, and the role of Fort Omaha in the history of the US Army and beyond. This is a history of the Fort Omaha Balloon School.
Moving to Omaha
The US Army began experimenting with hot air balloons for high height surveillance since the early 1890s. In 1905, their Signal Corps moved into Fort Omaha. The first location for all military airplane use in the United States, the US Army Signal Corps logically launched their work with hot air starting in 1904.
In 1905, the Signal Corps Companies B and D were sent to Fort Omaha to start a balloon school for the instruction of enlisted men and the ballooning activities. According to the 1905 Field Service Regulations, a division would include a signal company comprising 4 officers and 150 enlisted men. These men would be divided into detachments to provide corps level communications, visual signaling, and the construction, operation, and repair of telegraph and telephone lines.
The Signal Corps completed its new balloon facilities in 1908, including a plant to generate hydrogen. A balloon hanger was built in 1909, and with the United States entry into World War I, Fort Omaha became a observation balloon training school. More balloon hangers were built and a hydrogen production plant was built. Another building to house experimental lighter-than-air vehicles was built, too. Soon, Fort Omaha was the main and largest ballon school, training approximately 16,000 men.
In 1911, the US Army established a “Military Aviator” rating and began handing out badges to pilots soon afterwards.
The US Army’s presence in North Omaha proved remarkable to the community on March 23, 1913. That was the day the Easter Sunday tornado struck, demolished a wide swath of the community and killing more than 100 people. Troops from the fort swept into the city immediately afterward, bringing soldiers, doctors and others to help with search and rescue missions, doctoring and clean-up efforts. Although their efforts weren’t very important, the community was truly appreciative.
Moving the Signal Corps
In October 1913, the Corps abandoned its post at Fort Omaha, and the Army transferred the balloon facilities to the Agriculture Department for use by the Weather Bureau in the making of balloon explorations of the upper atmosphere. Meanwhile, the Corps moved the signal companies stationed at Omaha to Leavenworth.
However, their departure was short-lived and in 1917 they were back. Instruction of officers in balloon service began at Fort Omaha in March 1917. In April 1917, the United States entered World War I. The Signal Corps set up the first weather station in the United States at Fort Omaha that year. However, Company A of the 1st Balloon Squadron left Fort Omaha in September 1917.
But… On October 1, 1917 the US Army began leasing Florence Field, 119 acres north of Fort Omaha. The City of Omaha built fire hydrants, sewage lines and two miles of roads free of charge, while crews from Fort Omaha constructed red slate-roofed wood frame buildings that included a headquarters, barracks and mess halls, all painted sage green with ivory trim. The entire Florence Field was surrounded by a wire fence. There were gates at North 30th and Martin Avenue, and another set at Redick Avenue and North Ridge Drive.
Three balloon school squadrons were operating in Florence Field by December 1917. In these schools, the flight officers learned a variety of skills, including mapping, aerial photography, parachuting, communication techniques, and balloon care. Noncommissioned soldiers learned hydrogen balloon inflation, techniques of controlling the balloon, care of communications systems, and balloon care. Cordage, knots, gas making and care of the cable and winches holding the balloon were all taught.
- First Balloon School Squadron left Fort Omaha for Fort Sill, Oklahoma in September 1917
- Second Balloon School Squadron left for Europe in November 1917
- Third Balloon School Squadron left for Europe in January 1918
- Fourth Balloon School Squadron left for Europe in February 1918
- Fifth Balloon School Squadron left for Europe in March 1918
Other squadrons soon left. In September 1918, the US Army established another camp further north of Omaha near Fort Calhoun. In November 1918, the Armistice was signed and WWI was finished.
Army aviation remained within the Signal Corps until 1918, when it became the Army Air Service.
In 1919, the balloon equipment and troops were withdrawn from Fort Omaha and in 1921 the Fort Omaha Balloon School and all relocatable equipment were moved to Fort Scott, Illinois. The balloon hangar was probably demolished after the school was relocated. Six wooden barracks that were built at Florence Field by the end of the war. In September 1919, they were cut into 24 cottages and used to house homeless people in North Omaha. Cut into 20×30 houses, they were moved to individual sites, resided, given new doors and windows and other interior equipment.
The year the Army withdrew, Florence Field was sold to a developer named George Martin. He planned a neighborhood there and subdivided it, and graced a main roadway with his own name. Today, Florence Field blends seamlessly into the rest of North Omaha’s fabric.
You Might Like…
- An Interesting History of Fort Omaha
- A North Omaha History Guide to Fort Omaha by Adam Fletcher Sasse
- History of the Florence Field Neighborhood
- Inez Whitehead, “Fort Omaha Balloon School: Its Role in World War I,” Nebraska History 69 (Spring 1988): 2-10.