TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE — It’s nickname was “secret city.”
Many knew the 3083rd Aviation Group was there, but few knew what it did behind closely patrolled perimeter fences.
The sign over the front gate of the Fairfield Air Force Station declared the unit as “Best Damned Outfit in the USAF,” but gave no further clue.
Today, many of the people who knew of the 3083rd believe the unit handled atomic weapons, maintaining them and loading them onto the base’s bombers. But no one who served in the unit, even decades after it closed, will confirm it.
“It’s still a fairly sensitive subject,” said retired Chief Master Sgt. Floyd Park, a nuclear weapons technician with the unit, in a 1990s Daily Republic interview.
Most of the former members are reluctant to talk about what the facility did. Some admit that from 1953 to 1962, it stored, handled, loaded and unloaded what they referred to as “special weapons” at Travis.
All training had to be approved by the Atomic Energy Commission, Park said. To say anything further could have ruffled some feathers, Park added.
The Fairfield Air Force Station covered 512 acres, where the 60th Security Forces headquarters now stands. It was its own separate, self-contained base, which was established on Sept. 8, 1952. It was one of five such groups established between 1951 and 1954 to handle nuclear weapons.
“It was part of a plan to have depots at all the different bases,” said retired Chief Master Sgt. Delane Kelly.
The 3083rd’s airmen loaded bombs carried on the Strategic Air Command’s 5th Bombardment Wing’s B-36 Peacemaker and then the B-52 Stratorfortresses.
“Whatever SAC wanted, we would go and give it to them,” Park said.
Six hundred military and civilian men and women organized in four squadrons made up the unit. Passing through just the first gate alone required secret clearance. Passing through the four other interior gates required higher clearances.
“There were many people who served at our installation who never got past the first gate,” said retired Lt. Col. Ed Craig.
“We were formed to receive, ship and repair all kinds of munitions,” said retired Lt. Col. Curt Burgan in a 1990s interview. “We had some of the highest trained men in the Air Force.”
“Some of the weapons were so sensitive that you couldn’t open them up unless you had two people in the room who knew what they were doing,” Park said.
Relations with Travis, which was a Strategic Air Command base at the time, were rough at first because during the 1950s, “SAC was looked upon as a God and we weren’t SAC,” Parks said.
“But once they (Travis) got used to it (the station’s existence), we fit like a glove,” Park said.
The 3083rd’s commander had the final word on who got to enter his facility. Burgan remembers refusing one high-ranking base officer access.
“He was not yet briefed on our status and he was mad,” Burgan said.
Another Travis commander, offended by the sign saying the 3083rd was the “Best Damned Outfit in the USAF,” demanded the sign be removed. The 3083rd’s commander refused and the sign stayed up.
Five fences surrounded the base and the third of the five was electrified.
“Security got tired of constantly picking up dead rabbits,” Burgan said.
Three migrant workers whose car broke down on Highway 12 almost became victims, too. The three saw the facility’s lights and mistook it for a small town. Security police caught them as they finished scaling the second fence and were about to scale the third.
The unit had its own sports teams and clubs. It had good community relations, because of the sports activities. Its members turned out in strength for community projects, such as building a Little League park where the Chick-fil-A restaurant now stands.
One of the unit’s more resourceful scroungers convinced the Navy to supply them with boats, which were moored at Brannan Island.
“We were the only Air Force unit around with its own Navy,” Park said.
The small fleet included a 10,000-gallon fuel barge, a 99-foot maintenance barge, a gig, a runabout and a captain’s boat.
The 3083rd received at least two E-for-Excellence banners for good work, Burgan said.
Advances in weapon technology and the advent of the missile age made the depots obsolete by the early 1960s.
“Weapons developed to the point that we were no longer needed,” Burgan said. “It was to a point that you could plug in a component and if the light was red, you sent it back, and if the light was green, it was good.”
Burgan commanded the facility when it closed in July 1962. Everything had to be accounted for, down to the pillows, he said.
The only thing left of the base after it closed was a radioactive burial site, which was a backfilled trench that contained cleaning materials from the maintenance of nuclear components at the facility.
Reach Ian Thompson at 427-6976 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ithompsondr.