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Nellis celebrates 75 years in Las Vegas valley |

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Nellis celebrates 75 years in Las Vegas valley

Nellis Air Force Base, the home of the Thunderbirds is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year.

In 1941 the outpost that would become Nellis was called Las Vegas Army airfield. It consisted of a runway and a cluster of small buildings. But within weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the base became a beehive of activity.

Forty thousand men were trained to operate the machine guns inside the bubble like turrets of the B-17.

Jerry White is the base historian.

"You've got the tail gunner, two waist gunners, you've got the ball turret runner here, a little guy, had to be to fit in there," White said.

The training of short, but courageous men who could fit inside the ball turrets was so important, Ronald Reagan and 5-foot-6-inch Burgess Meredith filmed a classic recruiting film on base.

"You know Pee Wee, you look like you'd fit inside of the fish bowl," Reagan said.

"Well I'd sure like to be in there sir. I'd like to shoot a gun again too sir," Meredith responded.

The rawest recruits practiced by firing shotguns from the back of moving trucks in the open desert before taking to the sky, where they shot at targets towed by other aircraft.

One of the actual "tow targets" is currently on display at the Clark County museum.

"Every person's bullet had a different paint job on the nose. So as they were shooting each person had a chance to shoot at the tow target, then when they came down they checked the tow target to see what color of bullets went through it, who had the best shot. It's kind of low tech, but it works," said Mark Hall-Patton, Clark County museum administrator.

In the 75 years since then, the desert outpost now called Nellis Air Force Base has become one of the most high tech and relied upon assets in the United States military.