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Military planted dozens of bases in state during WWII

Discussion in 'WWII General' started by JCFalkenbergIII, Sep 14, 2008.

  1. JCFalkenbergIII

    JCFalkenbergIII Expert

    Jan 23, 2008
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    Military planted dozens of bases in state during WWII

    By Cyndee Fontana and Mark Grossi / The Fresno Bee
    09/13/08 22:35:08

    The creeping shadow of World War II ignited a national push to churn out planes and pilots in the early 1940s.
    Lured partly by cheap and vacant land, the military planted dozens of bases and auxiliary fields across California. Thousands of would-be aviators flooded the state -- and the Central Valley -- to learn how to handle fighters, bombers and transport planes.
    With vast stretches of flat ground and mainly calm weather, California was considered an optimal place to train pilots.
    But many young men never made it overseas; they were lost instead to training missions across the rugged Sierra Nevada.
    Some confronted bad weather. Some were careless. And some were victims of both the elements and their own inexperience.
    No one knows exactly how many World War II aviators crashed and died in the Sierra's 400-mile expanse. Anthony J. Mireles, author of "Fatal Army Air Forces Aviation Accidents in the United States, 1941-1945," counts more 2,200 fatalities throughout California.
    In "Aircraft Wrecks in the Mountains and Deserts of California," authors G. Pat Macha and Don Jordan describe more than 100 World War II fatalities in the Sierra.
    Neither list is exhaustive. Jordan figures that hundreds of military planes crashed in the Sierra during World War II. He pointed to tricky weather, inexperienced pilots and complex planes with limited navigation and safety systems.
    "They were putting 19-, 20-year-old kids behind the wheel of some powerful airplanes and putting 10 men in there with them," Jordan said.
    Some Sierra crashes are legendary, including two B-24 bomber accidents that happened on back-to-back days in 1943.
    On Dec. 5, a crew of six vanished on a training mission that left Fresno's Hammer Field for Bakersfield, Tucson, Ariz., and then back to Fresno. Other pilots reported turbulence and clouds in the Sierra that day.
    The B-24 wreckage wasn't discovered until 1960. All six men were killed; the plane still rests in Hester Lake, a 12,000-foot-high icy pool near LeConte Canyon in eastern Fresno County.
    Nearly a dozen planes took off the next day to search for the missing plane. One B-24 crashed into Huntington Lake, killing six of eight crew members aboard. The two survivors blamed mechanical problems, but one also reported gusty wind.
    Radio operator George Barulic, the last living survivor of the crash, doesn't remember any wind that day.
    "Things happen," said Barulic, 86, now retired in Florida. "It's the nature of life, especially in wartime."
    In the 1940s, aviation was relatively new. Daniel Sebby, director and curator of the California State Military Museum in Sacramento, said many Americans could remember the Wright brothers' first flight in 1903.
    Flying "was still a thrill, still a dangerous thing to do," he said.
    To feed the war effort, military plane production mushroomed from about 20,000 in 1941 to roughly 96,000 in 1944, Mireles said. Some were being fine-tuned even as they rolled out of production.
    Would-be aviators were college students or graduates -- mainly athletes and overachievers, Mireles said. But as the war continued, and the need for aviation cadets grew, authorities loosened entrance requirements.
    "They needed a lot of pilots and they needed them quickly," said Joe Pruzzo, executive director of the Castle Air Museum Foundation in Atwater.
    At each of three levels of training -- primary, basic and advanced -- about a third of the cadet class would wash out, Mireles said. Also at each level, planes became more powerful and complicated, and the aviation problems more complex. They also could be less forgiving of mistakes.

    Charlie Sill, who piloted a B-24 in 47 missions over England, said most training planes weren't tough to fly.
    An exception was the AT-9. Sill described its reputation with a bit of humor: "If one [engine] failed you, the other one would fly you to the scene of the crash."
    Sill, 84, completed pilot training in Texas; he now works on the restoration crew at Castle Air Museum in Atwater. He said flying the B-24 was like driving a truck because of the strength it took to control and maneuver.
    World War II training planes were hardly high-tech marvels, Sebby said.
    "At the primary and basic level training, they [aviators] were lucky to have a radio," he said.
    Dozens of Army Air Forces and other bases opened in California during the war years, including Hammer Field in Fresno, the Merced Army Air Field (later renamed Castle) and the Lemoore Army Air Field.
    Harold Horg, now a volunteer at the Legion of Valor Museum in Fresno, took basic training for the Army Air Corps in a BT-13 in Lemoore. Horg, 85, said his training flights soared over the Valley.
    "Back then it was all farm land," he said. "It wasn't difficult if you had to go down" in a forced landing.
    B.A. Hansen, 85, took the cadet exam and entered the service in 1942. He flew fighter planes at the end of the war and ultimately retired as a lieutenant colonel.
    During basic training in Merced, Hansen flew a BT-13 over Half Dome just to take a look.
    "Maybe I wasn't aware that it's not a good thing for young pilots to do" because of the tricky weather, said Hansen, who lives near Winton in Merced County. "I don't think they knew about all the problems that they've had over the years."
    In the Sierra, storms appear out of nowhere. Fierce winds can drop a plane hundreds of feet. Mountain passes mask dead-end canyons.
    "You've got to get higher than the mountains, and flying in clouds you can pick up a lot of ice" and lose lift on the wings, Mireles said.
    Weather likely factored into the November 1942 crash of an AT-7 that smashed into Mendel Glacier. Four aviators died in the crash; the wreckage wasn't discovered until 1947.
    Even then, the bodies couldn't be located in the rugged terrain. Two airmen, Leo Mustonen and Ernest "Glenn" Munn, were found on the glacier over the past three years.
    Retired Lt. Col. Don Satterthwait, 85, of Clovis, learned to navigate in an AT-7, similar to the one that crashed on Mendel. He flew 25 missions in World War II and remembers the AT-7 as a sturdy plane.
    "It could fly on one engine if it had to," said Satterthwait, who completed his pilot training in Texas.
    The Sierra continued to claim military lives even after the war. In March 1946, 26 men died when their C-47 transport crashed near Truckee -- described then as one of the worst peacetime plane disasters in history.
    The plane carried high-ranking Army and Navy officers and many enlisted men headed for separation centers for discharge. Eyewitnesses said the plane "exploded like a puff of fire" and spun into a pine-covered Sierra mountainside. Jordan believes the plane was caught in a thundercloud and then a downdraft that ripped off a wing. He calls it "a famous Sierra scenario ... It can tear an airplane apart."

    FresnoBee.com: Local: Military planted dozens of bases in state during WWII
  2. texson66

    texson66 Ace

    Jul 12, 2008
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    Well, it seems that the two CA Senators and numerous CA Congress critters have certainly done all in their power to close as many of the remaining military bases in CA as often and as quickly as they can. Historical markers may be all that will be left.
  3. brndirt1

    brndirt1 Saddle Tramp

    Jul 7, 2008
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    they were more important in the training and such, but on the northern border of MT., and sourthern Canada (here in MT.), there are at least two, and perhaps three bases which were built for the aircraft transfers to the USSR.

    The one in Cut Bank is the largest left over I think (one can see the old runways from the air), but most of it is overgrown with weeds and praire grass. There is another in the Glasgow area, but I don't think it is nearly as large. The one in Lewistown has been "kept up" after a fashion, in that not all of the runways have been abandoned.

    The HUGE base at Great Falls is still in operation, but at a much lower level than in the seventies and eighties. That is Malestrom, and it is still active in the Minute Man ICBM stuff, but at a much lower level as well.

    We here in Billings also had a very sad C-47 crash after the war, there is a memorial to it out near the Rocky Mountain College campus, I'll see if I can find a link to that. I used to have one, somewhere.

    Thanks for the story there JCF!
  4. brndirt1

    brndirt1 Saddle Tramp

    Jul 7, 2008
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    Found that link from a couple of years ago!


    Look at the date, Dec. 8th 1945. That makes it especially sad, these men had survived the war and were returning home. Think of all the jovial "be home for Christmas" chatter that must have been going on in that C-47. I had heard about "a" transport plane crash during the war years in Billings, but until now had assumed it had something to do with the American transfer of planes and stuff to the USSR and never even looked into it.

    Just goes to show, a person hardly ever has the "full story" of those years, even at a local level.
  5. Seadog

    Seadog Member

    Oct 23, 2006
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    While California had a large number of fields, it came in a distant second to Texas. In fact, Texas had almost a third more fields than California. Florida was almost tied with California. Interesting, Oklahoma was fourth on the list of fields with 99 on record.

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