Badlands Gunnery Range

As a part of the war effort, the U.S. Army Air Force (USAAF) took possession of 341,726 acres of land on the Pine Ridge Reservation, home of the Oglala Sioux people, for a gunnery range. Included in this range was 337 acres from then Badlands National Monument. This land was used extensively from 1942 through 1945 as air-to-air and air-to-ground gunnery ranges. Precision and demolition bombing exercises were also quite common. After the war, the South Dakota National Guard used portions of the bombing range as an artillery range. In 1968, the USAAF declared most of the range excess property. 2500 acres are retained by the USAAF but are no longer used.

Firing took place within most of the present day Stronghold District. Land was bought or leased from individual landowners and the Tribe in order to clear the area of human occupation. Old car bodies and 55 gallon drums painted bright yellow were used as targets. Bulls-eyes 250 feet across were plowed into the ground and used as targets by bombardier bombing flights. Small automatic aircraft called “drones” and 60 foot by 8 foot screens dragged behind planes served as mobile targets. Gleaming bright white from the air, the large fossil remains of the elephant-sized titanothere were commonly targeted by bombers. Hundreds of fossil resources were destroyed in bombing efforts. Today, the ground is littered with discarded bullet shells and unexploded ordinance.

For safety, 125 families were relocated from their farms and ranches in the 1940s. Those that remained nearby recall times when they dove under tractors while out cutting hay to avoid shells dropped by planes miles outside of the boundary. In the town of Interior, both a church and the building housing the current post office received six inch shells through the roof. Pilots in practice, operating out of Ellsworth Air Force Base near Rapid City, found it a challenge to determine the exact boundaries of the range. Fortunately, there were no civilian casualties. However, at least a dozen members of flight crews lost their lives in plane crashes.

Unexploded ordnance (UXO) is explosive or chemical munitions that were prepared for action but did not activate. Most UXO is from past activities associated with training or weapons testing. It comes in all shapes and sizes - from small bullets to large bombs.