Bowling Lake

Since 1958, Bowling Lake has been a well-known landmark in Lincoln’s Air Park. It is doughnut-shaped, 28 acre water feature today utilized as a city park. During 1957 and 1958 the lake had been dug out by Air Force volunteers sometimes  by hand as ordered by Colonel Perry Hoisington III, the 818th Air Division commander at the then Lincoln Air Force Base. While the goal of recreation was in mind, initially the lake was created in hopes of reducing vehicle accidents by base personnel. Here would be a nice place to relax instead of having to drive into the city for entertainment.

By late 1957, it had been determined to name the lake for Captain Russell Bowling whose aircraft crashed in England resulting in the deaths of the crew but also a “Broken Arrow” incident involving a fire breaking out amongst nuclear weapons.

Captain Russell Bowling

A graduate from Hearne High School in Hearne, Texas, Bowling went on to become a Dallas firefighter for a time before attending flying school at Kelly Field in San Antonio, Texas later that year. During World War II, Bowling had served aboard a B-26 bomber in the European theater of operations flying a total of 46 missions. By the end of the war he had been decorated with an Air Medal with seven clusters, a Purple Heart, a Good-Conduct Ribbon and the Distinguished Flying Cross.

By 1956 now Captain Bowling was commanding Crew R-38 within the 307th Bomb Wing stationed at Lincoln Air Force Base. His crew’s co-pilot was 2nd Lieutenant Carroll Kalberg, a 26 year old officer who had spent two years in the service in Germany in the late 1940s. His navigator was 25 year old 1st Lieutenant Michael Selmo, from St. Petersburg, Florida. During the fateful mission on July 27th, 1956, Tech Sergeant John Ulrich was aboard checking out some electronics issues on the aircraft.

RAF Lakenheath in 2015 (

The Accident

The 307th Bomb Wing had during the summer of 1956 transferred to Royal Air Force Station Lakenheath, England for a temporary deployment. During the early-to-mid 1950s, it was standard to forward-deploy a wing of B-47 bombers to bases in England, Morocco, Guam and Japan to position the nuclear bombers closer to their targets in the Soviet Union. These “TDYs” as they were called were later judged to be expensive and too taxing on crews considering the 90-day deployments, later to be replaced with “Reflex Action” deployments of smaller numbers of bombers rotating to Europe and Asia.

While in England, crews were expected to maintain proficiency in flying and Crew R-38 was no exception. On July 27th, 1956 Captain Bowling and his crew took off in B-47E 53-4230 and conducted two radar “bomb” runs on a London Radar Bombing Site (RBS), conducted an air-refueling via an 307th Air-Refueling Squadron KC-97 and was finishing the mission by performing “touch-and-go” landings, a circuit of practice landings on the Lakenheath runway. Unfortunately the runway was built over a “hump” of ground so it was not an absolutely smooth, level run. With the B-47 bomber’s tendency to “porpoise” or bounce somewhat uncontrollably quite easily anyway, it was only a matter of time before RAF Lakenheath’s runway would spell disaster for a B-47.

In a post-accident review, there were some thoughts that Bowling’s co-pilot Lt. Kalberg was practicing landings from his back seat, something Bowling was not authorized to instruct although the runway hump was later announced as the biggest contributing factor.

As the B-47 slowly descended onto the concrete it hit the hump, bouncing skyward before settling down and bouncing again. The aircraft was now out of control and the right wing of the bomber dropped and struck the runway. In compensation the aircraft now rolled to its left whose wing struck the ground much more violently. The bomber pitched off the runway and began to disintegrate, with at least one history stating the aircraft actually “cartwheeled” off the runway. In either event the bomber then smashed into a nuclear weapons bunker not far off the runway and burst into flames.

A Mark-6 bomb like the three contained within the bunker

Burning Bombs

While the B-47 had not been carrying a nuclear weapon itself, the bunker where the jet exploded and pouring burning jet fuel onto possessed three Mark-6 nuclear weapons (bombs whose wartime yields would range from 8 to 160 kilotons). Where many stories of the crash proclaimed the danger of these bombs detonating and vaporizing RAF Lakenheath, this was not the case. These early bombs required their cores of plutonium material to be inserted before being able to create a nuclear explosion. Those Mark-6s sat empty of plutonium, those cores were stored in a different bunker; however they did possess a great deal of high explosives that still threatened the base and any firefighters. A similar incident at Fairfield-Suisun Air Force Base involving a B-29 crash with a Mark-4 nuclear weapon (also without a core) caused a detonation and killed 19 people and devastating the base’s fire team.

Firefighters at Lakenheath quickly extinguished the fires however air operations at the base were rescinded for two days following the crash. A memorial service was held on July 28th at Lakenheath while those back in Lincoln mourned the loss of the crew. A SAC officer investigating the crash sent a top-secret memo to Commander-in-Chief Strategic Air Command General Curtis LeMay regarding the matter, and has since passed into legend concerning American Cold War nuclear accidents.

         “…Have just come from the wreckage of B-47 which ploughed into an igloo in Lakenheath ADS (ammo depot storage). The B-47 tore apart the igloo and knocked about 3 Mark sixes. A/C (aircraft) then exploded showering burning fuel overall. Crew perished. Most of A/C wreckage pivoted on igloo and came to rest with A/C nose just beyond igloo bank which kept main fuel fire outside smashed igloo. Preliminary exam by bomb disposal officer says a miracle that one mark six with exposed detonators sheared didn’t go. Fire fighters extinguished fire around Mark Sixes fast. Plan investigation to warrant decorating fire crew…” (A copy of the memo can be seen here)

A photo of the R-38 crew, from left to right 2nd Lt Carrol Kalberg, 1st Lt Michael Selmo, Captain Russell Bowling (Cold War Cornhuskers)

A Memorial to Bowling

 As mentioned previously, by late 1957 the decision had been made to memorialize Captain Russell Bowling by naming Bowling Lake after the man. On Thursday June 19, 1958 the lake after much hard work was nearly complete. 25,000 visitors attended the ceremony that day to dedicate the lake. All of the base’s commanders were there along with the 2nd and 8th Air Force commanders, the mayor of Lincoln, the governor of Nebraska, Hollywood actor Andy Devine (who had contributed money to build a mock-lighthouse at the lake) as well as Bowling’s surviving family. The ceremony was a memorable one according to Mike Hill’s Cold War Cornhuskers. The Strategic Air Command band was playing the Star Spangled Banner as a flight of four Air National Guard F-86 jet fighters shot over the lake, one peeling away and helping perform the “Missing Man Formation”, a maneuver in remembrance of downed or missing airmen.

Over the next several days an Aqua-Air Show was held at Bowling Lake with speed boats, aerial displays provided by the Air Force Thunderbirds flying F-100 Super Sabres and every night finishing with a spectacular fireworks show. 166,000 people would attend the event over that weekend in June 1958. A great remembrance to a crew who had perished during the Cold War but also a celebration of airpower and the “elbow grease” of the countless volunteer airmen and officers who created the base lake.

In front of Bowling Lake Lodge a statue to Bowling was erected and unvailed during this ceremony in June 1958. From Left to Right Brig Gen Hoisington, Bowling's surviving family and Andy Devine on the far right. (Cold War Cornhuskers)

Bowling Lake Today

After 1958 until 1966, the base lake helped provide boating, fishing, swimming and a great number of other activities for the airmen and officers of Lincoln Air Force Base. A Shelter-House was constructed north of the lake and provided space for even more recreation there. A family of goats was introduced to the center island to help keep weeds and grass down while airmen sunned and fished nearby.

By 1966 the base was closed, Bowling Lake lived on much more quietly. Not until the 1970s would Lincoln Parks and Recreation would support the property (actually owned by the Lincoln Airport Authority) and the lake re-emerged as a favorable fishing and recreation spot for Arnold Heights residents. By the 2000s it had been decided to redevelop the lake in an effort to better support fish habitat and public access. The lake was dredged, new ADA fixtures were emplaced while lingering signs of the days of Lincoln Air Force Base were removed including many old concrete poured railings, Andy Devine’s lighthouse and a couple of “keystones” denoting the 307th Bomb Wing and the 98th Bomb Wing along with their contribution in building the lake.

The old dock near the shelter house remains, although the shelter house itself after becoming “The High Chaparral” nightclub for a time was torn down in the 1980s. There are no more goats, no more roars of B-47 bombers taking off in the distance and not much to explain why the lake is there, who built it and why they named it Bowling Lake.

A small grouping of playground equipment emerged on the center island during Spring 2017 and an aging historical marker denotes that this was in fact Lincoln Army Airfield and Lincoln Air Force Base to passers by. But there was so much more to be told.