We received an inquiry last week (August 13, 2012) wondering if we were going to note the 70th anniversary of the Los Alamitos Naval Air Station, it having begun operations in August 1942..
This would certainly be a noteworthy achievement, but despite what is printed on some websites, August is not the base’s anniversary and even using 1942 as its first year of operation is open to discussion. Like so many other things around here, there is considerable confusion about the base’s exact beginnings.
In 1938, even before the war in Europe and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Congress authorized the construction of new naval aviation training facilities. The Navy already had a reserve training base at the Long Beach airport. But that location couldn’t accommodate the Navy’s training as it was, especially with the 1940 groundbreaking of the new Douglas Aircraft plant at the north side of the airfield. The wide open and flat farmland around Los Alamitos could.
In August 1940, the Long Beach Press-Telegram noted that the Long Beach Naval Reserve Air Base was going to lease 480 acres of land just east of Los Alamitos (owned by the Los Alamitos Sugar Company) as an auxiliary field for some of the expanded operations of the Naval Reserve Air Base Long Beach. The property was bounded by Lexington and Moody Avenues, with the railroad tracks its northern boundary and Farquhar the southern boundary.
Rapid German successes and Japanese aggressions necessitated the need for increased Navy training facilities, and a larger Douglas Aircraft facility. Something had to give and the most logical was to move the NRAB facility. Navy planners in Sanm Pedro and Washington were by now very aware of all the open land around Los Alamitos, and the biggest chunks were owned by rancher Fred H. Bixby and his sister, Susannah Bixby Bryant.
Because of his oil income, Fred Bixby had neither the need or inclination to sell off any of his beloved ranchland. His sister was not so reluctant.
On March 29, 1941, the Press-Telegram reported the Navy had bought from Mrs. Susannah Bixby Bryant 1,300 acres of open farmland for “a huge new reserve base for navy aviation.” This was immediately south of the already leased land — south of Bryant Road (present Orangewood) and north of Bixby (think Main Way extended east). The next day the Times announces construction will begin on a 965-acre site which adjoined 480.6 acres already “leased from the Los Alamitos Sugar Company “and extends north and south of Katella Road.”.
A subsequent article in the Press-Telegram on April 3, 1941 noted that work was to start on a 480-acre site,” and that the reserve unit “was already using a 160-acre runway [sic] which was leased from the Sugar Company.” and that “the Navy had already taken title from Susannah Bixby Bryant through condemnation. (Orange County had also been served condemnation papers, probably to include county operated lands like roads and utility easements.) Interestingly, the article said “construction of the barracks will be one pf the first moves, in order that 100 or more students now housed in private facilities may be accommodated at the field.”
Local old-timers remembering Navy pilots practicing touch and go landings on this site, which was the first military airbase in Orange County. Former airfield commander Tom Lasser says he has seen reports that show the airfield was in operation as early as 1940. Perhaps it was on this 160-acre runway on a 480.6 acre field.
The confusion in acreage probably resulted because the government acquisition, and the subsequent ones to enlarge the base’s runways, were done through condemnation of a number of smaller parcels. If reporters only looked at certain condemnations, they came up with different amounts of acreage.
Later histories say the Navy offered Mrs. Bixby $350 an acre, but that in the best patriotic spirit she sold it for $300. Newspapers at the time said only that the price was undisclosed.
Congress authorized over $3,000,000 for the new air facility which would have two runways, one 5,000 feet (15 city blocks. originally planned to run due east-west), and the other 3,500 feet (to run ran due north-south.)
The tenant farmers who had been working these lands — mainly Belgians, but some Japanese on the southeastern corner or on Hellman land — now had to find new sections to work. The Japanese would not have the chance. After the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, over 19,000 Japanese-Americans from Los Angeles and Orange County would be removed from Southern California.
While construction of the main base was underway, cadets from Long Beach continued to use the existing field at Katella and Lexington and at other “outlying” practice fields like this — including Seal Beach Airport (Crawford Field), East Long Beach (current Meadowlark Golf Course), Horse Farm (Stanton), Haster Field (Bolsa Grande High School in Garden Grove) and Mile Square (Fountain Valley) and East Bluff Field in Newport Beach .
Los Al would be an E-base (Elimination Base) where cadets endured tough drills and weaker, less qualified future pilots washed out. While the base still under construction, the first cadets roomed in Long Beach boarding houses with little supervision. But life without bed checks came to an end around April and May 1942, when the Long Beach cadets started moving into the expanded facilities at NAS Los Alamitos. In April 1942 a Corona newspaper article noted that “Part of the personnel is already located there.” Many of the exiting pilot journals and post-war memoirs give further evidence that all personnel were up and operating at Los Alamitos by mid-June. 2
There are reports that the base was formally commissioned on May 31, 1941, and by July 1, the NRAB Long Beach command reported that it was now calling itself NRAB Los Alamitos, and that all flight equipment had been moved, and “all flight activities were being carried out at the new location.”
So what starting date do we use for the Los Alamitos airfield? Do we use the August 1940 date when 160 acres were leased from the sugar company to establish an outlying airfield? Do we use the Feb-March 1941 dates when the larger plot of land was purchased from Susannah Bixby Bryant? The late 1941 date when some support units had already started transferring operations from Long Beach to Los Alamitos? Or the April 1942 date when cadets began moving to Los Al, and holding classes and other operations there? Or do we use the reported May 31 “official commissioning” date (although documented proof of this date is still hard to come by), or do we use the records of the Naval reserve that says on July 1, NRAB Long Beach was now NRAB Los Alamitos?
Whatever the starting date, the cadets were paid $21 per month as Seamen 2nd Class and learned to fly in plywood Boeing Stearman N2T1s biplanes, all painted yellow, and called, naturally, “The Yellow Perils. They studied for seven hours a day — in the classroom they learned Morse code, dead reckoning, celestial navigation and rate of closure; in the plane they practiced takeoffs and landings and basic maneuvers at Los Alamitos and the surrounding auxiliary airfields. But by the end of 1942 Los Al had graduated 729 pilots who were then sent to Corpus Christi, Texas for more specialized training.
By early 1943, the facility had increased its planes from 36 planes to 140. There was now a pool and a gymnasium, tennis and handball courts and a base theater which would show movies and, be used for many USO shows. About this same time, the base was promoted from a reserve training base to full base status and its mission changed to support training for aircraft carrier units.
Over the rest of the war it supplied thousands of pilots for the air war against Japan. At the end of the World War, it scaled down, but quickly resumed full-scale operations when the Korean War began in 1950. That year it beat out LaCrosse, Wisconsin as the Navy’s busiest reserve air field. By now its pilots were also flying jets and helicopters. Over the next few years, among the pilots who used the Los Al runway were future astronauts Neil Armstrong and John Glenn — with the latter taking off from the base during his record setting transcontinental flight in 1957.
With the encroachment of Rossmoor, College Park East and other surrounding tracts, the Navy’s activities were more and more limited, so they decommissioned the base in 1972 and over the next few years, the property was returned to the Federal Government through the Corps of Engineers and eventually the Army and the California National Guard assumed control with the post renamed the Armed Forces Training Center and then later the Joint Forces Training Base which it still is today.
Over the years, besides fulfilling its military functions, the base has provided thousands of jobs for local residents, untold rental income for local property owners, little league fields, theater facilities, a large swimming pool, emergency help during disasters like the 1952 floods or the large earthquakes — and a buffer against the omnivorous growth of even more tract homes, which has not only reduced local traffic but really helped shape our community and keep it “small town” and unique.
So this month, let’s take the time to wish The Base a Happy 70th, or 71st, 71,5 or 72nd birthday — whichever you feel it should be.
Larry Strawther is, among other things, a local history buff who runs the Los Alamitos-Rossmoor History Project website (www.losalhistory.com) and is the author of a Brief History of Los Alamitos and Rossmoor which will be published by the History Press in November. He is also the long-time editor-publisher of Local Sports (www.localsports.biz).