TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE — It was a sunny day at the 8th Air Force airfield at Bassingbourn, England, on May 19, 1943, when the B-17 Memphis Belle rolled to a stop and its aircrew knelt to kiss the grassy ground after they became the first bomber crew to complete 25 missions over Nazi-occupied Europe.
Halfway around the world, Air Transport Command activated the Fairfield-Suisun Army Air Base, an event that was hardly noticed in the fighting as World War II was proceeding through its fourth year.
The Fairfield-Suisun Army Air Base’s birth was part of the Allied tide that was beginning to push back the Axis powers across the globe. The base’s opening was just one of many events in the war during the spring and summer of 1943.
By late spring that year, World War II’s turning points – Midway, Guadalcanal, Stalingrad, the Battle of the Atlantic and El Alamein – had long passed.
The Allies knew they were going to win, it was a question of how long and what the cost would be.
The Fairfield-Suisun Army Air Base’s first unit, the 914th Quartermaster Division from Hamilton Field, moved into its new home the day before 238,243 German and Italian troops surrendered in Tunisia on May 11, 1943, bringing the North African campaign to a close.
It opened the way for the July 10, 1943, invasion of Sicily, the first step in the liberation of Europe.
The 914th set up shop one month after American codebreakers intercepted a message saying when the man who engineered the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor would be flying to inspect Japanese forces in the Solomon Islands.
A flight of P-38 Lighting fighters used the information to ambush and shoot down the bomber carrying Adm. Isoruku Yamamoto over Bougainville on April 13.
American and Australian troops continued their slow push up the New Guinea coast while Marines and Army soldiers took their next step on the road to Tokyo – the invasion of New Georgia on June 30.
In the Northern Pacific, American forces landed on the Aleutian island of Attu on May 12 to kick the Japanese out of their only toehold in North America, finishing the fight on May 28 at the cost of 600 Americans and 2,500 Japanese.
British and American chiefs of staff met in Washington on May 14 to plan Operation Pointblank, the destruction of the German war industry from the air.
It was to be a year-long, around-the-clock aerial assault. One of those fliers carrying out that assault would be the Fairfield-Suisun Army Air Base’s future namesake, Brig. Gen. Robert Travis.
During the night of May 16, the Royal Air Force pulled off the stunning Dambuster Raid, breaking open two dams in the Rhur using specially designed “bouncing” bombs.
The Jewish Warsaw Ghetto revolt, which started April 18, drew to a tragic close on May 16 with the destruction of the Warsaw synagogue.
“The Warsaw ghetto is no longer in existence,” reported SS Brigadier Jurgen Stroop to Berlin.
An advance party of the 23rd Ferrying Command, under Lt. Col. selectee Arthur Stephensen Jr., arrived at Fairfield-Suisun Army Air Base on May 29 and the base was formally opened on June 1.
The next day, POW and Royal Army Col. Edward Dunlop recorded the latest death in his camp on the Thailand-Burma railway.
“God knows the angel’s wings must have been over us in view of the terrible mortality in all other camps up and down this line, which seems to be built on bones,” Dunlop wrote in his memoirs.
There would be two more years of fighting and agony to go before the war ended.
Reach Ian Thompson at 427-6976 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ithompsondr.