The Afterlife of Chanute Air Force Base

Chanute Air Force Base opened in Rantoul, Illinois in July 1917 and was a vital part of the local economy for nearly 76 years. After its closure in 1993, the base was divided into residential and commercial properties, but many buildings remain abandoned. The Chanute Air Museum (closed in 2015) moved into one of the old hangers, and its website offered an illustrated retrospective of the base’s history. Inevitably, local kids exploring the abandoned parts of the base in the past few years have begun to bring home unusual stories.

Chanute Field, as the facility was originally known, opened as a result of the First World War. When the United States entered the war in 1917, our fleet of military aircraft was woefully inadequate. The War Department quickly allocated funds to open the Field and begin training an air corps. After the war, Congress bought the land around Chanute Field and authorized construction of nine steel hangers. Fires plagued the original base, since many of the buildings were made of wood.

Between 1938 and 1941, as the United States began modernizing its military, a “renaissance” occurred at Chanute. Buildings such as a headquarters, hospital, fire station, water tower, gymnasium, and even a theater were installed. The Works Progress Administration provided everything necessary for a permanent air corps to be stationed there.

At the outbreak of World War 2, thousands of new recruits flooded the base. According to the Chanute Air Museum website, the number of trainees at Chanute Field reached a peak of 25,000 in January 1943. After the war, however, the facilities deteriorated and the base gained a negative reputation. It became a joke in the Air Force that if someone needed to be punished, “Don’t shoot ‘em, Chanute ‘em.”

In the 1960s and ‘70s, Chanute Air Base played an important role in American missile development. It was the primary training center for the LGM-30 Minuteman ICBM and the Air-Launched Cruise Missile. In 1971, the Air Force closed the base’s last remaining runway. In the following years, Chanute continued to be a training center for new aircraft pilots and engineers.

At the tail end of 1988, the Department of Defense recommended that the base be closed to save money. The end of the Cold War was the final nail in the coffin, and Chanute locked its doors and hangers for the last time on September 30, 1993.

Most of the outlying structures of the base, including the officer’s quarters and the barracks, are now occupied as residences. There remains, however, a portion of the base that is abandoned. While by no means properly maintained, it is heavily patrolled by local police. Visitors are free to tour the grounds, but not enter the buildings.

Inevitably, local kids exploring the abandoned parts of the base in the past few years have begun to bring home unusual stories. Some visitors have, through the broken windows, reported seeing an officer working at his desk. Others say they have seen phantom airmen strolling the weed-choked sidewalks or sitting in the cockpits of the planes behind the Air Museum.

On September 13, 2001, at 10pm, a police K-9 unit responded to a trespassing call at White Hall, one of the largest abandoned buildings on base. Dutch, an experienced canine with 957 drug arrests under his collar, pursued something up to the roof, where he suddenly and unexpectedly leapt 15 feet off the building and fell to his death.

White Hall was torn down in 2015. Demolition on the venerable building began in October 2015 and proceeded in stages, so that the building’s concrete skeleton was still standing in April 2016.

Author: Michael Kleen

Michael Kleen is an author, raconteur, and occasional traveler. He has a M.A. in History and M.S. in Education. He enjoys studying military history, folklore, and philosophy.

One thought on “The Afterlife of Chanute Air Force Base”

  1. I was at Chanute in 1980. For a native San Francisco Bay Area, California boy, living in a quiet Midwestern rural town was a novelty and pleasure. I loved Chanute and Rantoul. Now I just read about the Hazardous Materials problem on the base, and while I’m in agreement with the Rantoul citizenry that this is a terrible problem that will probably take years to clean-up, I beseech the fine People of Rantoul to harbor no I’ll feelings towards Chanute or to the Air Force. I’m sure the base has been good to Rantoul’s economy over the years and that many select, fine Air Force individuals have enriched the lives of Rantoul citizens. I hope to return on a pilgrimage to Rantoul, not just to see the base but also Rantoul itself, where I went to church, saw Star War’s Empire Strikes Back, and bought my first solid fuel engine model rocket at the town hobby shop, which, then, was located right outside the base entrance. God Bless Chanute Air Force Base and Rantoul, Illinois. Kevin M. Jue, Berkeley, California

    Liked by 1 person

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