ELLSWORTH AIR FORCE BASE | What is a name? It can be a symbol of marriage, a title of a business or an aircraft designation. For Ellsworth Air Force Base, it epitomizes a legacy.
Since June 13, 1953, when former President Dwight D. Eisenhower christened the base’s name, the military installation nestled between the Black Hills and Badlands of South Dakota has been known as Ellsworth AFB, memorializing a titan of Air Force leadership and heritage.
“We are met here in tribute to a gallant and patriotic American, a man whose name will always be an honor to the members of his family and to the air base,” Eisenhower said.
During World War II, Brig. Gen. Richard E. Ellsworth served in Alaska and the southwest Pacific. He was awarded the Legion of Merit, two Distinguished Flying crosses and three Air Medals throughout his career, logging nearly 800 hours of combat flying time in the China-Burma-India Theater.
After the war, Ellsworth served on the staff of the Air Weather Service in Washington, D.C., as chief of the operations and training division. Later he was the 380th Reconnaissance Group commander at Morrison Field, Fla., and then Fairfield-Suisun AFB, Calif. Prior to becoming the wing commander at then-Rapid City AFB, he served as chief of plans for 2nd Air Force at Barksdale AFB, La. Gen.
Ellsworth’s feats quickly ended March 18, 1953, when the base commander of Rapid City AFB was one of 22 killed when his Convair RB-36 Peacemaker crashed in Newfoundland.
“The renaming honors a hero who set an example for all of us, and as a general officer who was still flying the RB-36, Brig. Gen. Ellsworth led from the front — a very good example for enlisted, officers and civilians who are all Airmen to follow,” said Col. John Edwards, the 28th Bomb Wing commander.
The installation was originally named Rapid City Army Air Base in 1941 when the base was created to train B-17 Flying Fortress crews, renamed in 1915 to Weaver AFB, then Rapid City AFB and, finally, Ellsworth.
“The base and wing are linked forever to Brig. Gen. Ellsworth, his family, his crew and the RB-36 Peacemaker,” said John Moyes, 28th BW historian. “We serve at a base named for a true patriot who served his country, took care of the people who served alongside him and made the ultimate sacrifice, along with his crew, while serving his country.”
Serving the nation is a continuous cycle. Airmen are consistently asked to train, work, fight and sacrifice for their fellow wingmen, the Air Force and the United States. This is something Airmen in 1953 were asked, Airmen in 2018 are asked and future Airmen will be asked.
Former Airmen remember how Ellsworth understood this, and was hands-on with whatever his Airmen were working on, no matter what they were doing.
“He seemed to understand that while it might have been all about the mission, it was the people who made the mission,” Moyes added. “He cared about his people. He earned the respect, trust and loyalty of those with whom he served at all levels. That might just be the greatest honor to him and his legacy.”
History gives us names of people that can be role models to emulate, have achievements to outshine and ideas that may have failed in the past, but could succeed in the future.
Moyes explained that history can teach about what went right, what went wrong, the lessons learned and charts a course for present and future actions. Not only that, history can put a face and story to events from the past.
“We find ourselves saying, sometimes, ‘if they can do it, we can do it,’ and that’s a powerful message,” Edwards said.
For 65 years, the Airmen of Ellsworth AFB base have followed the name of the man who led from the front and was willing to pay the ultimate price for his nation.