Apr 23, 2021 I Nick Redfern

From Then to Now: The Development of Area 51, the World’s Most Famous “Secret Base”

The huge area of Nevada that now houses Area 51 had decidedly humble origins. In the pre-World War II period, portions of the land were designated to the Department of the Interior. The reason was to create a large reservation and sanctuary for animals. Things all changed, however, not long after crazed Adolf Hitler began flexing his muscles in Europe – something which led to the start of the Second World War in September 1939. America would join the war in 1941, after the terrible, deadly attack on Pearl Harbor by Japanese forces on December 7. The U.S. Government recognized that it was now all but inevitable that the nation would eventually have to enter the war, chiefly because Hitler’s forces were overrunning significant portions of Europe at an alarming pace. And, it was suggested in some quarters, the United States just might be next on Hitler’s list. Only the U.K. – as an island – managed to avoid being invaded, although it suffered massively from nightly bombing missions by German pilots. Pearl Harbor, though, was the key event which quickly set the wheels in motion for the U.S. to enter the Second World War. But, it’s important to note that the fear of potential war had already led the government to take certain, secret steps to ensure that if the worst scenario really did occur – which, as history has shown, it did – America would be ready to strike back in a decisive fashion.

As a result of the above developments in the war, various new facilities of the military were constructed all across the country. One of those very same new facilities was the Tonopah Bombing Range, based in Nevada. Today, there is a great deal of controversy concerning how much land previously in the public domain has now been handed over to Area 51, all in the name of national security. People have been forced to leave their homes. Land that one could once walk and drive through is now government land – and don’t even think about straying onto it. There is a very good reason for mentioning this: as history has shown, there is absolutely nothing new about any of this. In fact, on October 29, 1940, the U.S. Government quietly grabbed a significant amount of Nevada land to allow for the construction of the aforementioned Tonopah Bombing Range. In the immediate years ahead, there were name changes, new designations, and additional facilities: the Tonopah General Range, the Tonopah Gunnery and Bombing Range, and the Las Vegas General Range. In quick-time fashion, the desert land of Nevada was morphing at a startling rate – and it was morphing into what would ultimately become home to one of the most mysterious, notorious and important installations in the world. You know the one.

As the Second World War progressed, and as it became bleakly clear that defeating Adolf Hitler and his Nazi cronies was not going to be achieved overnight, further development of military facilities in Nevada were created. They included the Fourth Air Force Bombing and Gunnery Range, the Tonopah Army Air Field, and the Indian Springs Auxiliary Army Airfield. When the Nazis were finally, and thankfully, defeated in 1945, matters took a turn out in the desert. While some of the facilities that had played significant roles in the Second World War were shut down, or at least trimmed in terms of their work, a new lease of life and a change in direction was ultimately to begin. In the immediate post-war era, both Tonopah Air Force Base, and what was called the Las Vegas Air Force Base, both took on new roles. It was very much thanks to the work of the Atomic Energy Commission, which pushed for the area to become a central hub for the training of personnel in the fields of bombing, gunnery activity and more. The U.S. Government nodded approvingly at the plans of the AEC and, as a direct result of the AEC’s recommendations and forward thinking, it was on December 18, 1950 that the old Nellis Air Force Gunnery and Bombing Range was transformed into the Nevada Proving Grounds. Close to 700-square miles of local land was given to the NPG, to allow for work to go ahead at full-speed, and to ensure that the public had no access to the facility. Thus began the careful and slow confiscation of countless square-miles of the American landscape.

In terms of important events in the history of the development of Area 51, the next time period of note was 1955: that was when Area 51 really began to come to fruition. But, before we get to that, let’s continue with our study of the work of the overall Nevada Test and Training Range. It was also in 1955 – specifically in July of that year – that the legendary U-2 spy-plane flew at the NT&TR’s huge runway at Groom Lake, thus cementing the range’s undeniable role in aviation history. Further land was soon grabbed, such as that which surrounded the Tonopah Test Range. As a result, and just before the dawning of the 1960s, plans were made for what became known as the Tonopah Test Range Airport. They were plans for the construction of a runway close to 20,000-feet in length. Just about anything – terrestrial or maybe even extraterrestrial – could fly out of the facility. And, largely, no-one would ever know.

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Area 51 site map, as depicted in declassified CIA documents released via its CREST program (Credit: CIA.gov/Wikimedia Commons).

The land-grabbing didn’t end there. In fact, it had barely begun. In this case, the grabbing was internal: in 1961 a wealth of land previously used by the U.S. Air Force was handed over to the Atomic Energy Commission, something which not all of the higher echelons of the Air Force were particularly happy about. They suddenly found out how the locals felt. From the 1960s though to the 1970s, the Nevada Test and Training Range performed a major role in the training of pilots destined to go into battle during the Vietnam War. By the late 1970s, the range’s staff were working on some deeply, secret programs. And "deeply" is a very apt term. One of the primary tasks of the personnel was to bury the wrecks of some of the ill-fated "stealth" aircraft tested out on the range. It was imperative that Soviet space-satellites didn’t take pictures of the crashed planes – and, in the process, secure significant data on America’s growing research into the field of stealth-based technology. So, in many cases, the crashed planes were buried – using bulldozers to ensure the aircraft and their remains were hidden deep below the desert floor. Ironically, given that the Russians were trying to figure out what was going on at the range, one of the aircraft which crashed and was buried – in 1984 – was a captured Russian MiG-23 aircraft.

Today, as well as being home to Area 51, and to the S-4 facility that Bob Lazar claimed he worked at briefly in the late 1980s, the Nevada Test and Training Range houses the Tolicha Peak Electronic Combat Range, the Eastman Airfield Target, and the Point Bravo Electronic Combat Range. That's quite a history!

Nick Redfern

Nick Redfern works full time as a writer, lecturer, and journalist. He writes about a wide range of unsolved mysteries, including Bigfoot, UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster, alien encounters, and government conspiracies. Nick has written 41 books, writes for Mysterious Universe and has appeared on numerous television shows on the The History Channel, National Geographic Channel and SyFy Channel.

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