Fort Omaha

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Training the “Angels of Hell” — Fort Omaha’s Balloon School in World War I

By Bob Lohman

This week we honor the sacrifices of our nation’s military veterans on Veterans Day, a holiday that began as Armistice Day, commemorating the silencing of the guns in France at “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.”  With the holiday’s roots in World War I, it is an appropriate time to remember Fort Omaha’s contributions during the Great War—namely the operation of the Army’s Balloon School.  It is hard to read the words “balloon school” without smiling over such an anachronistic sounding institution, but balloons were no joke in the early era of aviation. They provided a stable platform for observing enemy movements and time aloft was not constrained by fuel capacity. While the era of manned observation balloons largely ended on Armistice Day 1918, Fort Omaha’s balloon soldiers made their mark on the battlefields of the western front and contributed to the defeat of the Kaiser’s army.

Fort Omaha actually hosted two Balloon Schools; the first from 1908-1913 and the second, which encompassed World War I, from 1916-1919. Balloons saw their first use by the U.S. Army in the Civil War. While not a huge success, the ability to observe enemy movements from above remained alluring and military balloons were again employed during the Spanish American War with mixed results. In the early 20th Century U.S. Army, the operation of balloons and aircraft was the responsibility of the Signal Corps. Originally, the Signal Corps planned to house the balloon effort at Fort Myer, Virginia; however, they were unable to construct a hydrogen plant there and transferred the balloon school to Fort Omaha, the home of the Signal Corps’ school for non-commissioned officers.

Construction of a balloon hangar and hydrogen plant began in 1908 and the first balloon filled with hydrogen generated at Fort Omaha ascended in April 1909. The school conducted classes for balloon pilots every May until it closed in October 1913, when the cash-strapped Army decided to concentrate its limited aviation funds on airplane development. Less than a year later, World War I broke out with the assassination of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo. While the United States managed to remain neutral through the first three years of the conflict, by 1916 the Wilson administration deemed it prudent to develop more robust military capabilities to protect American interests. A growth in aviation was part of the Army expansion, and since observation balloons were widely used by both sides in Europe for directing artillery, the Army decided to re-establish its Balloon section. Fort Omaha, which had retained its hydrogen generation plant and balloon hangar, was the logical site for the new operation, and the reborn balloon school was opened there in November 1916. Five months later, the United States entered World War I.

IMAGE 1: Balloon Hangar and Hydrogen Plant at Fort Omaha

The balloon school at Fort Omaha conducted two types of instruction. The first course of instruction was for the “Flying Cadets,” volunteers learning to become balloon pilot/observers.  Volunteers for the flying cadets included both civilians and junior enlisted men. Instruction was conducted in the former Department of the Platte Headquarters Building, commonly referred to as the “Old North Barracks” during the WWI era. The training was developed by Major Hersey (soon to be Commander of the balloon school) and encompassed topics like map reading, artillery observation, winch operations, telephones, panoramic drawing, cordage (knot tying), military skills, and meteorology.  The students also benefited from the experience of the British and French advisors attached to the school. The cadets were housed in single-story buildings behind the “South Barracks” (currently called the Double Barracks).

The growing need for balloon pilots quickly outgrew Fort Omaha’s limited capacity and the Army contracted with a private balloon school in St. Louis to provide the aerial portion of the pilot training. That school moved to Camp John Wise near San Antonio, Texas in the fall of 1917. Flying cadets subsequently conducted their 3–4-month ground school at Fort Omaha and then spent a month at Camp Wise to complete the required 8 flights to receive their balloon pilot license. Upon successful completion of their training, the cadets were commissioned as Army officers and provided the leadership for the newly forming balloon companies.

IMAGE 2: Balloons Ascending over the Fort Omaha Parade Field

The second type of instruction at Fort Omaha was for the newly-formed balloon companies and the scores of enlisted men that performed the various support functions involved in assembling, launching, recovering, maintaining, protecting, and transporting the balloons. The designation, size and structure of balloon units evolved over the first year of the war, but by June of 1918 the Army had settled on numbered balloon companies consisting of 7 officers and 180 enlisted men that included observers, hydrogen specialists, a maneuvering detail, parachute packers, a basket detail, truck drivers, maintenance sections for the balloons and trucks, cooks, machine gunners, communications specialists, and an administration section. Each company supported one Cagout style balloon, a finned cylinder that looked like a smaller version of today’s blimps.

Draftees arrived at Fort Omaha from various locations and were assigned to newly organized balloon companies. After a period of basic training in “the school of the soldier,” the troops were taught skills like knot tying, filling the balloon, attaching the basket, operating the winch to raise and lower the balloon, and parachute packing. Soldiers chosen to be specialists like truck drivers and machine gunners were sent to courses at other locations and returned to their units upon completion of their training. Classroom instruction was conducted in the South Barracks building, but much of the training was of the “hands on” variety and performed on the parade field. One veteran recalled that the initial instructors were “tough old Army sergeants” who showed no mercy to the green draftees. Later, the cadre were drawn from balloon companies that had recently completed their training. The troops were predominantly housed in tent camps set up in the northwest part of the fort.

IMAGE 3: 5th Balloon Squadron Tent Camp at Fort Omaha
Note the General Crook House and Archive Center in the background.

The limited size of Fort Omaha and its tree-lined parade field meant no more than three balloons could ascend at one time. This severely constrained the school’s ability to meet the growing demand for new balloon companies to support the rapidly expanding American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), and the need for additional training sites became paramount. In July 1917, Company B was sent to Fort Sill, Oklahoma to serve as the cadre for a new balloon school at that location. In October, the Army leased 119 acres north of Fort Omaha and dubbed it Florence Field.  The addition of Florence Field enabled the Balloon School to more than triple the number of companies that could be trained at one time.  However, even this increase was not enough to accommodate all the balloon companies in training.  In the summer of 1918, three companies were sent from Fort Omaha to establish a school near Acadia, California (Ross Field) and a month later three more Fort Omaha companies opened a training site at Camp Morrison, Virginia. Fort Omaha further expanded its training operation to Fort Crook (today’s Offutt Air Force Base) a month before the Armistice, using the fort to conduct basic training for new draftees.  In total, some 17,000 soldiers passed through the various balloon schools.

IMAGE 4: Tent Camps and Balloons at Florence Field

While the flying cadets and school cadre were housed in barracks at Fort Omaha, everyone else slept in 8-man pyramidal tents. New arrivals in the winter of 1917-1918 had to draw platforms, tents, and stoves and assemble their new homes before they could go to bed. The veterans of that period recall the freezing temperatures and sleeping in their clothes with everything else piled on top of their cots for warmth. Fortunately, the weather began to warm up in April. The quality of food in the balloon companies was dependent on the competence of the company cooks. One veteran recalled that his unit’s cooks only knew how to make “slumgullion,” a cheap stew mixed with macaroni. Other veterans were luckier, with one even declaring he “ate better than he did at home.” Soldiers looking for some variety in their diet could find home cooking at the Red Cross food stands outside the front gate, and the Junior League of Omaha hosted a canteen for officers in the southeast corner of the post. For amusement on post, the soldiers could write a letter, have a doughnut, or find reading material at the YMCA. There was also a post newspaper, The Gas Bag, that provided Fort Omaha and Army news. Troops seeking more active entertainment could catch a trolley outside the front gate on 30th Street and head into Omaha to catch a movie or show, drink a beer, attend a dance and flirt with girls, or visit an amusement park. Several veterans mentioned the support and friendliness of the people of Omaha, stating they frequently received invitations to dine in civilians’ homes.

IMAGE 5: Interior of YMCA at Fort Omaha

Training for the balloon companies typically lasted about five-to-six months. Reveille for the trainees was at 0600, followed by breakfast, policing the parade field, and work details. Training and balloon ascensions started mid-morning and continued until dinner. Simulated explosions were employed to train observers on adjusting artillery. One training detail mentioned (and disliked) by many of the enlisted veterans was digging balloon beds, which were large shallow balloon-sized pits that could accommodate a partially deflated balloon when not in use. The bed was covered with a canvas hangar or camouflage and provided shelter for the aircraft.  Numerous balloon beds were dug at both Fort Omaha and Florence Field. Training with the combustible hydrogen-filled balloons could be a dangerous endeavor. In May 1918, a balloon exploded in the 14th Balloon Company at Florence Field while being deflated inside its shelter. Two soldiers were killed and twenty injured in the blast that was believed to be sparked by static electricity.

IMAGE 6: Balloon Bed at Florence Field

Once a balloon company completed its training, it shipped out to an embarkation port for transport to England and France. A veteran of the 2nd Balloon Company recalled his unit’s departure was highlighted in the dramatic local newspaper headline; “Angels of Hell Go to France.” Upon their arrival in France, the balloon companies were sent to one of two training camps run by the AEF. There they received additional instruction before deploying to support one of the infantry divisions. The 2nd Balloon Company was the first American balloon unit to arrive at the front in February 1918, followed by the 1st Company in March. Of the 35 Balloon Companies that made it to France, 17 would see duty at the front and make 1642 ascensions. The units that did see action were used hard. The 2nd Company spent 251 continuous days at the front and the 1st Company served from March until the armistice without relief.

Balloon companies performed multiple duties in combat. Connected to artillery units by field telephones, they called for and adjusted shelling on enemy positions. They also collected information on German positions and troop movements, which they captured in drawings, photographs, and reports that were sent to higher headquarters. Although they were strongly protected by antiaircraft guns, German aircraft attacked AEF balloons 89 times; 35 balloons burned and 12 more were shot down. Because the observers used parachutes to bail out when attacked, only one observer, Lt. Cleo Ross, was killed during the war when his burning balloon touched his parachute and set it ablaze. Two more observers were captured when their winch line parted and prevailing winds took their balloon into enemy territory. The balloon companies’ positions were also subjected to shelling and gas attacks whenever they ascended, making them very unpopular with the nearby infantry units.

IMAGE 7: 2nd Balloon Company in the Aisne – Marne Offensive

The role of manned balloons in modern warfare ended with the Armistice on November 11, 1918. Airplanes and eventually helicopters and drones would perform the airborne artillery spotting and intelligence-gathering roles in succeeding conflicts. Of the 89 U.S. Army Balloon Companies that were formed during WWI, at least 38 spent some period of their training at Fort Omaha and Florence Field. As noted, only 17 balloon companies saw action at the front, although some 30 more were en route when the war ended. Following the war, the Army’s balloon operations were consolidated at Scott Field, Illinois, and Fort Omaha’s balloon school closed in the fall of 1919; Florence Field was returned to the heirs of the original owner and eventually developed into housing. After the war, the old balloon soldiers refused to fade away and formed the National Association of American Balloon Corps Veterans in 1932, publishing a quarterly newsletter, Haul Down and Ease Off, for several years. The balloon veterans’ organization also made periodic pilgrimages to Omaha for reunions and visits to Fort Omaha up until the early 1980s.


“Balloons Up” – Short Life of the Army Balloon Service. (2022, April 1). Retrieved from Meandering through the Prologue:

Balloons and Dirigibles in WWI. (2023). Retrieved from The National WWI Museum and Memorial:

Beemer, A. (1981). Interview with 9 Balloon Corps Veterans. (D. Dustin, Interviewer)

Havens, K. (1981). Interview with 9 Balloon Corps Veterans. (D. Dustin, Interviewer)

Herbert, C. (1981). Interview with 9 Balloon Corps Veterans. (D. Dustin, Interviewer)

Lieutenant William Collins (1918). Pictorial History of Fort Omaha. Omaha: U.S. Army Balloon School.

Mauldin, F. (1981). Interview with 9 Balloon Corps Veterans. (D. Dustin, Interviewer)

Moore, S. T. (1963). “When Sausages Blazed in the Sky”. Air and Space Forces Magazine, 85-88.

1918 Influenza pandemic

Douglas County has endured the tragedy of a pandemic multiple times since its beginning in 1854.  Records provide some idea of how the influenza pandemics of 1889, 1899, 1957, 1968, and the H1N1 influenza pandemic of 1997 affected our community. The catastrophic pandemic of 1918 became the single greatest natural catastrophe since the Black Death in the 1300s.

Of course, these records do not tell the personal stories of those who lived and died during these terrible times in our County’s history. I urge you to share your stories of the current pandemic by using the links below, calling our office to schedule an interview, or writing it down and mailing it in.  Our stories are critically important history.  I’ll start by sharing a couple of personal stories.

In February of 1957, the H2N2 virus emerged in China.  It claimed 116,000 lives in the United States.  One of those lives was my older brother, just a toddler. No statistics on the number of deaths in Omaha in November of 1957 begin to describe the pain.  This year, our family has been looking forward to two weddings!  My nephew and his fiancée made the prudent decision to move their June 2020 wedding to June 2021.  I hope and pray my son’s wedding in September will be able to go forward as planned.  We have all been affected by this pandemic.  Together we can document stories, photos, and statistics for future generations to have a better idea of what it was like.  Statistics are not enough.

Omaha in 1918 had a population of around 180,000.  In September of 1918, the Omaha Daily Bee began to publish some articles about an influenza outbreak.  The big news story for all newspapers was the end of World War I. The outbreak of illness that was primarily concentrated on the military did not make major headlines.  This biological invasion of the world was known by various names; in the U.S., the Spanish flu, Japan – “wrestlers fever”, England – “Flanders grippe”, Germany – “Blitz Katarr”.

The first wave began in the spring and summer of 1918 and was present in the U.S. in military Midwestern outposts and spread to numerous states. Europe was affected during the same period. For the most part, the civilian population was spared.  Once the virus mutated and re-emerged in the U.S. in September it was a different story.  Between late August and early January, 22 million lives were lost worldwide.  The U.S. lost 600,000 people, both young and old.  The hardest-hit age group was 20-40 years old.

Just as now, the virus spread across all demographics. Political leaders including the Kings of Spain and Great Britain, The Emperor of Germany and President Wilson suffered from the virus.

In the U.S., health departments closed theaters, churches and places of public assembly for weeks. While at the same time, cities conducted rallies and parades for Liberty Bonds, aiding the spread. Medical professionals were short-handed. At Fort Omaha, buildings were converted into makeshift hospitals to accommodate soldiers stationed there and those coming through Omaha by train.  A variety of measures were attempted to treat and prevent the spread including injections of blood plasma from survivors, concoctions of graham crackers, egg punch and sanitizing drinking fountains with blowtorches. Gauze masks were handed out, telephones were sanitized with alcohol. People were required by law to carry a handkerchief.  Anti-spitting ordinances were in effect along with curfews. Morgues were over-flowing, especially on the East coast.

The Aksarben festival, a week’s worth of activities, went on as scheduled.  The first Omaha death attributed to the flu was October 3rd. The 35-year-old pastor of St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, Rev. Siefke S. deFreeze lost his life. Many died within 48 hours of contracting the virus.

On October 3rd, Omaha’s Health Commissioner, Dr.  Ernest T. Manning, issued the following precautions:

  1. Avoid crowded streetcars, rooms, etc.
  2. Gargle the throat and spray the nasal tract with a normal salt solution
  3. Keep the bowels free.
  4. Keep a state of high individual resistance by hygienic living
  5. Some physicians recommend inoculations with the grippe vaccine

On October 4th schools, churches, theaters, dances lodge and labor meetings and Red Cross workshops were closed.  Streetcars were required to leave their windows open. Quarantine was issued at Fort Omaha. There were no reported cases at the Fort on October 4th by the end of the day on the 5th, there were 200.  The Fort hospital added curtains between the beds to prevent spread. Medical personnel was required to wear white caps, gowns and gauze face masks.

Dr. Manning assured people that it was fine to attend all outdoor events.  The Red Cross asked the public to sew 1,000 face masks.  The Visiting Nurses Association made an urgent plea for all women, regardless of medical training, to help assist with the number of flu patients.

By October 7th, Omaha had over 2,000 cases of influenza reported. VNA made nearly 12,000 visits to sick Douglas County residents. The spreading continued.   Nearly 1,200 workers from packing plants had the virus. Without a clear understanding of how the virus was spread and no effective treatment, efforts to contain the disease were seriously crippled. By mid-month City officials made a public announcement that restrictions could be lifted within a week.  Instead by October 17th, there were 9,500 cases in Nebraska with 5,000 of them in Omaha. Finally, by October 21, the state issued closures of schools, theaters, movies, and public gatherings both indoors and outdoors.  It even canceled Nebraska versus Notre Dame football game!

Omaha defined public gatherings as 12 or more people.  Attendance at funerals was limited to relatives and all businesses had to close by 4:30. The county and federal courthouses were shut down.  Complaints poured into the health department reporting people who were not in compliance with the restrictions.

There was a discussion of whether whiskey aided in the recovery of the disease. Despite Nebraska’s prohibition law, 500 gallons of whiskey were turned in at hospitals to treat patients.

Dr. Manning formed a joint research committee with UNMC and Creighton University.

On Friday, November 1st the restrictions in Omaha were lifted. Douglas County lost 442 residents to the pandemic.  Some of the changes affecting residents after the pandemic were; dropping the practice of drinking out of a common communion glass, theaters were fumigated and guests were encouraged to occupy every other row in the theater, vaudeville acts were forbidden to make fun of the flu, streetcar companies were encouraged to not overcrowd the streetcars.

Fort Omaha lifted its month-long quarantine on November 2, recording 47 deaths. Some cases continued into November.  On December 20 the State Board of Health declared influenza a quarantinable disease. Every household containing one or more flu patients was placed under strict quarantine and no member of the family was allowed to leave or enter the house. In Omaha, blue quarantine cards were printed and tacked on those homes that contained flu patients.  Approximately 1,000 houses were ”closed”. The penalty for violation ranged from $15 to $100 and physicians were required to report all new cases.  The restriction applied until four days after the patient’s fever subsided.  Dr. Manning was not in favor of the state’s guidelines. Omaha’s Chamber of Commerce made a formal protest to Nebraska’s State Board of Health. They contended that if the order were allowed to continue, businesses would become seriously demoralized, and firms would go bankrupt.  The general order by the state was lifted on December 30th.

The spring brought a third wave of the disease, which was not as severe.

Please share your stories of how this pandemic is affecting your life.  Together we can paint a realistic picture of the 2020 Coronavirus Pandemic and its effect on Douglas County.

Kathy Aultz


Help us create a record of the 2020 Coronavirus Pandemic by sharing your photos and stories with the Douglas County historical Society. You can share your photos in our community folder here:

You can also share your stories on our website or contact us to schedule an interview:

Metropolitan Community College’s Telecommunication Tower

On June 27, 1991, Metropolitan Community College (Metro) broke ground on a controversial 199-foot telecommunications tower on the northwest corner of the Fort Omaha campus. The tower’s purpose was to support the distance-learning program so that students could take a class offered on another campus at a closer campus. Two other Metro campuses had distance-learning before it came to the Fort.[i]  After battling the Belvedere Point Neighborhood Task Force and others over the tower destroying the historical landscape, the Education Department approved the tower and funding for it.

The State Historical Preservation Office issued a “no-effect” verdict for the proposed tower built on the northwest corner on the Fort Omaha Campus. They applied the criteria outlined in 36 CFR part 800.9 (a) and (b). Preservation Architect Michael Ridone argued that television towers were temporary; therefore, they do not cause permanent damage to the site. “The Fort,” he said, “has been compromised so much, it doesn’t matter what you do to it.” Using the example of Jobber’s Canyon destruction, he continued that, “Omahans don’t care about their history anyway.”[ii]

The Planning Board approved the tower in an, “undeveloped,” corner of the Fort as the “greatest good for the greatest number.” The college performed a 5 years study and consulted 50 experts looking for alternative technologies and locations to put the tower.[iii] Metro argued that the site was the cheapest, and they could not afford to put it anywhere else or use any other method.[iv] The college maintained that the tower presented the, “least possible impact for the fewest number of people at a price that the taxpayer can afford.”[v]

The Belvedere neighborhood group, a neighborhood located northwest of the Fort, tried to stop the tower. The neighborhood taskforce included Warren Flearl, Al Allen, Tom Zimmer, Jeanne Jones, Craig and Kathryn Reisser. A member told the press that, “We’re not just a bunch of weirdo radicals. Maybe because we live in the neighborhood we know a little bit more or care a little bit more about what goes on down there.”[vi] They utilized section 106 of the National Historical Preservation Act of 1966 (NHPA) that ensures federal agencies consider preservation values on historical properties.[vii] They argued that the tower would destroy a historical landmark, a religious landmark, and other viable options existed.[viii]

Fort Omaha’s historical district sits on 80 acres with several historical buildings constructed between 1870 through 1920. In the early 1900s, it housed the Signal Corps and the Balloon School during World War I. The Fort eventually went to the Navy. In 1974, the federal government bestowed national landmark status on the area. The federal government turned the buildings over to Metropolitan Community College in 1975. The location for the tower was right next to the historic Crook House, one of the most famous buildings at Fort Omaha.[ix]

The location was also on the spot where Standing Bear went to pray and gave his farewell speech. To Native Americans, the area was sacred and considered, “Holy Ground.”[x] Standing Bear was a prisoner and could only go where he pleased on the Fort. Ponca tradition requires that Native Americans seek out the highest place to pray. The highest place on the Fort was the hill where the college wanted to build the tower. In historical documents refer to this spot as the, “little hill.” Putting a tower in this location would alter permanently a sacred Native American site. [xi]

They argued that Metro could put the tower on the south end of campus and use Benson High’s or KMTV’s tower as a relay. A tower built on the south end at 270 ft. would provide the same coverage as the proposed northwest corner. Landscaping and painting the base green would not mitigate the adverse effects of the tower. Metro argued that the cost of lights would make the tower cost prohibitive.[xii]

In 1991, Metro got their telecommunication tower. The Belvedere neighborhood association effectively got their point across. They did not stop the tower, but they made it known that Fort Omaha was first the people’s fort, representing an important part of Omaha history. The fight for protecting historical landmarks from progress is a battle fought every day in the United States.

[i] Keith Faur, “Metro Breaks Ground for Tower” (27 June 1991), Omaha World-Herald, pg. 15.

[ii] Nes Latenser, “Letter to Mr. Jerry L. Rogers, Associate Director, Cultural Resources,” 16 November 1990.

[iii] Katheryn Reisser, “Letter to James A. Hanson, Director of Nebraska State Historical Society,” 6 February 1990.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Rick Ruggles, “Neighborhood Group, Metro Tech at Odds Plans for Ft. Omaha Tower Still Under Siege” (8 January 1990), Omaha World-Herald, pg. 9.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Cassie Keener, “The Basics of Section 106 Review” (1 July 2014), National Trust for Historic Preservation,, accessed 13 February 2020.

[viii] Rick Ruggles, “Neighborhood Group, Metro Tech at Odds Plans for Ft. Omaha Tower Still Under Siege.”

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Katheryn Reisser, “Letter to Manuel Lujan, Secretary to the Department of the Interior,” August 25, 1990.

[xi] Rick Ruggles, “Neighborhood Group, Metro Tech at Odds Plans for Ft. Omaha Tower Still Under Siege.”

[xii] Ibid.

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