In 1943, although B-17s had been used regularly in daylight bombing raids over Europe, nighttime bombing was still a relatively new concept to the U.S. Army Air Corps. Tactics were being developed in a hurry to satisfy the increasing demands of the war, and pilots were being trained at a rapid clip.
It was against that intense backdrop that four B-17s took off one night from Dalhart Army Airfield in Texas. The target was in Conlen, Texas, a mere 20 miles from Dalhart Airfield. It was supposed to be marked with four lights at each corner, creating an "X-marks-the-spot" for the student aircrews to hit. Instead, a young navigator led the bomber formation 40 miles in the other direction, to Boise City, Oklahoma.
At zero-dark-thirty, the bombers approached their target, not realizing it had taken them twice as long as it should have to get there. The townspeople were asleep by this time, and the town's lights were out -- except for the four lights around the Cimmaron County Courthouse.
The crew in the lead bomber, thinking they reached their target, let fly a couple of sand-filled training bombs over the population of 1,200. They hit the town butcher's garage, taking out its roof. The next plane's drop fell just short of a Baptist Church. The third and fourth bombers' bombs narrowly missed hitting some of the town's fuel stores.
The sheriff immediately called the base at Dalhart. Dalhart radioed the wayward planes to ask them to ensure they were on target. The crews ensured Dalhart that they were over the training target and were not bombing civilians, which led to an argument between the bomber crews and Dalhart's tower. That's when an electric company engineer shut down the town's electricity, hiding it from the bombers. In all the bombers dropped six training bombs on Boise City.
The crews returned to Dalhart immediately. The navigator was (understandably) fired, while the rest of the crew were faced with a choice: go right into combat as soon as possible or face a court martial. It was a big decision: The Eighth Air Force casualty rate for all of World War II in Europe was a whopping 41 percent, with 26,000 killed in action. These crews would later fly in formations over Berlin.
Fifty years after the bombing, the citizens of Boise City erected a memorial to the event, complete with concrete crater and WWII-era training bomb.