Minnesota Flyer - Serving Midwest Aviation Since 1960

Martinus Stenseth


December 1, 2020

Photo courtesy of Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame

Martinus Stenseth, date unknown.

Nellis Air Force Base is a huge facility. It has two 10,000-foot-long runways and is home for more Air Force units than any other military installation. The base is located on the northeast side of Las Vegas (that's "The Meadows" in Spanish FYI), a sprawling metropolis with a permanent population getting close to three quarters of a million. "Vegas" is the entertainment and gambling capital of North America and visitors can swell the area's population by 50%.

In the 1930s, about 8,400 people lived in Las Vegas, but the town already had a reputation as "sin city." What would become Nellis Air Force consisted of dirt runways, an operations building and a well. It was called McCarren Field after a local politician and was operated by "Western Air Express" (later "Western Airlines") as a stop on their mail route. By 1941 the Army Air Corps had decided it was the right location for a training base but wanted it operational in six months. Somebody with organizational skills and common sense was needed. In a rare lucid moment, the Army picked a former Minnesota farm boy with the improbable name of Martinus Stenseth for the job.

No doubt disappointing many of the thousands of GIs that would pass through the base, one of the first things Colonel Stenseth did was close the City's 64 brothels. Las Vegas Army Airfield became operational in December 1941 and was a training base for B-17 gunners and pilots. The gunnery training was an appropriate assignment for Stenseth since he was a crack shot and knew a lot about using machine guns to destroy the bad guy's aircraft.

Martinus Stenseth was born on the Norman County farm near the community of Heiberg in 1890. He graduated from what was then the "North West School of Agriculture" (now University of Minnesota, Crookston) in 1916, and became a member of the Minnesota National Guard. He enlisted just in time to help "Blackjack" Pershing secure the U.S./Mexican border from the incursions of Pancho Villa.

Being an infantry man in the Texas desert must have convinced Corporal Stenseth that there had to be a better deal. When he got back to Minnesota, he applied for transfer to the Signal Corps, which then ran the Air Service. After completing his training in 1918 Lieutenant Stenseth was assigned to fly SPADs with the 28th Aero Squadron in France. In less than two months he destroyed eight enemy aircraft. On Oct. 22 Stenseth found a bunch of Germans attacking a lone French reconnaissance airplane. He was by himself, but dove into the fight anyway. Single handed he fought off the attackers, destroying one of them in the process. For his heroism, Stenseth was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

After the Armistice, he did some military odd jobs in Europe before going back to the Texas border as commander of the 90th Aero Squadron. His next move was back to his home state where he was an advisor to the National Guard in both Iowa and Minnesota. For reasons unknown, the Army decided an ace fighter pilot should go to advanced cavalry school in Fort Riley, Kansas. Then they gave him a staff job in Washington. Before the outbreak of the next war, he was back flying as commander of the 2nd Observation Squadron in the Philippines then the 52nd Student Squadron at Randolph Field, Texas,

Once the gunnery school was going, he became Brigadier General Stenseth and commander of a training wing that included schools in Kingman and Yuma Arizona plus the one at Las Vegas. In 1945 the general was sent to the air base at Keflavik, Iceland to take charge of the U.S. forces on the island. That being another logical move since Stenseth's parents were Norwegian immigrants and Iceland was a Norse colony early in the millennia. But too much time in the desert must have climatized Stenseth. He retired in 1950 and moved back to Las Vegas, although he spent summers near his hometown in northern Minnesota.

Photo courtesy of Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame

Lieutenant Stenseth during his time as an adviser to the Minnesota and Iowa National Guard. Shown here with a "DeHavilland DH4".

That same year, Las Vegas Army Airfield was renamed to honor a local hero. Lieutenant William Harrell (Billy) Nellis went to high school in Las Vegas and flew P-47s in Europe supporting George Patton's 3rd Army. He was killed flying a low level attack mission during the "Battle of the Bulge."

Western Air Express started passenger service in the late 1930s and constructed a terminal building that later became the base operations building for Nellis and in 1980 was named after Gen. Stenseth. After World War II, airline operations for Las Vegas were moved to what was then called "Alamo Airport" and owned by a flyer appropriately named Crockett. George McCarren (who the airport at Nellis was named after before the Army took over) got the funding for the move so now Alamo became McCarren International Airport. With apologies to Texans everywhere, Alamo is the name of the poplar tree found in the American Southwest so it's not proprietary but it does take the story back to San Antonio where General Stenseth finished up his career at Kelly Field as part of the new United States Air Force.


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