TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE — If it wasn’t for a persistent cloud of black gnats just outside of Dixon that mercilessly harassed Army Corps of Engineers surveyors, Travis Air Force Base would have been located there.
“They went to a site outside of Dixon and they were sure that would be the site until the gnats arrived,” said Lena Thomas in a 1993 interview.
Her husband, Charles Garland Thomas, was one of the men who started the base in 1942 by cutting barbed wire surrounding a farm that the government had purchased.
Emery Yolo, who lived on Grizzly Island and got a job at the base in 1943, said in a 1968 interview that the land where the runways are now was a great place for hunting geese that would fly in by the hundreds to root around in the gravel for food.
The idea for the base was born in the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the fear that the Imperial Japanese Navy could raid San Francisco Bay. It was to be one of a system of air bases to protect the West Coast.
The Fourth Air Force and the Army Corps of Engineers were sent out to find a section of flat, inexpensive land, good flying weather and favorable drainage with access to nearby railroad and water routes.
In April 1942, the government approved spending $998,000 to buy 945 acres and build two runways and a host of temporary buildings on land six miles east of what the government document described as “the twin farming communities of Fairfield and Suisun City.” Not long after, another 1,312 acres was added and, shortly before the end of the war, another 1,145 was tacked on.
Bulldozers started work on July 6, 1942, plowing under family farms owned by such families as the Calveras family near the present Eucalyptus Park, the Best family, where the stables now are, the Chelps family, where the Crosswinds Recreation Center is now, and the Capral family, which is now the site of the Travis Heritage Center.
Green Valley rancher and future Travis Air Force Base fire chief Robert Dittmer had the job of weighing gravel at the base’s South Gate during its construction. Rock was hauled from quarries on Nelson Hill and the concrete was made on the spot, according to Dittmer in a 1993 interview.
Dittmer was at work when the first aircraft landed on the base’s runway that fall.
It was a small, light, single-engine observation aircraft that flew in from Sacramento. Three officers got out, walked around the field awhile, got back in the aircraft and flew back toward Sacramento, Dittmer said.
Although the 4th Air Force and its bombers never officially occupied the base, its medium bombers did use it for practice landings.
For a few months in late 1942, the runways even sported the outline of an aircraft carrier deck so Navy pilots could practice takeoffs and landings, because the prevailing winds were similar to those encountered during carrier operations at sea.
Up until mid-1943, Air Transport Command’s running of the new airbase was done from Hamilton Field in Marin County, with Lt. Col. Henry Weltmer, administrative officer for HQ West Coast Sector, and his staff driving to the base as needed.
The civilian construction crews of the Casson and Ball Company worked out of a mess hall and two barracks buildings in a grove of Eucalyptus trees about a mile northeast of the flight line.
It was officially activated on May 17, 1943, as the Fairfield-Suisun Army Air Base and started operations on June 1, 1943. Maj. (soon to be Lt. Col.) Arthur Stephensen and a small group of officers arrived on May 29 to stand up the 23rd Ferrying Group.
Army Air Force officials almost named the new base Ragsdale Field that year at the request of local leaders, who wanted to honor Capt. W. P. Ragsdale Jr., the first Air Transport Command pilot killed in World War II.
On June 3, 1943, Stephenson announced publicly that the base was Ragsdale Field, but a War Department directive squashed that idea, forbidding the naming of bases after war heroes. Supporters did manage to get the base’s first street named after the flier.
In October 1943, Air Transport Command moved in, bringing with it a growing force of C-47, C-46 and C-87 transports.
The civilian contract airline Consairways also set up shop there and flight captain William Beeman remembered the base as a place where the cold wind never stopped.
“There were just barracks and no streets, just mud, and in the summer, it was dust,” said tailor Phil Zumpano, who set up the first tailor shop at the base across from the NCO Club in 1944 after he moved there from McClellan Army Air Base.
Yolo said there were no buildings between the barracks in the senior officer area and the shops and warehouse area near the flight line, which meant it was a long, often muddy walk to work.
“Every time we had a little wind, the tar paper would strip off the roofs and the next several days would be spent in putting the roofs back on,” Yolo said.
Within a year of its opening, the base grew to more than 2,000 enlisted men and 17 officers.
The first Women Army Corps arrived in 1944 in a squadron under command of Lt. Audrey Hollenbeck and were put to work in mainly clerical duties – from keeping stock records to processing passengers through the air terminal.
Yolo was repairing the roof to one of the WAC barracks when he met his future wife, then-Sgt. Winnifred Blackwell, who he married in 1947.
The first black soldiers arrived in February 1944 and it is believed that they were the black detachment in the Pacific Wing of Air Transport Command.
“Wartime necessity transformed this sleepy corner of Solano County ranch land into one of the nation’s largest and most important military transshipment points,” wrote author and historian Gary Leiser in his history of the base.
It had become the official embarkation point for the Pacific theater. For the next two years, the base readied more than 2,000 military aircraft for combat in the Pacific, nearly half of which were B-24 Liberator bombers.
As the base’s use grew during the war, the need for housing grew more acute. Waterman Park in Fairfield and Vaca Valley Acres in Vacaville were built to accommodate the base’s service members, Consairway personnel and their families.
By early 1945, even that was not enough and Stephensen put out a published appeal to local homeowners in Fairfield, Suisun City, Vacaville and Dixon to open their homes to service members.
“Residents in Fairfield, Suisun, Vacaville, Dixon and other nearby communities must answer this appeal so that our mission may be fully accomplished,” Stephensen said in local newspapers. “I am confident that patriotic households will realize the urgency and make available every room that can possibly be spared.”
Greta Magers, who graduated from Vacaville High School in 1944, remembered her class performing its senior play at the base hospital for the wounded, as well as Bob Hope performing in one of the hangars, according to an account she wrote for the Travis Air Museum News.
She went to work in the base finance office for D.J. Camparsi, who, in civilian life, was the president of the Bank of America.
“I was the first civilian and only woman in the finance office. I used to bring farm produce from home to the office, lots of fruit and nuts. From time to time, my mom would send homemade fruits and jam,” Magers wrote. “This was always appreciated.”
All of the offices on base were covered with tar paper and Magers’ was right on the runway where “I watched the C-54s bring the wounded home and I saw the famed B-29s land.”
The base also had a train, nicknamed the “GI Choo Choo,” which hauled equipment around the base in the early 1940s, according to Clarence Smith, who was the engineer, in a 1968 Daily Republic interview. Travis continued using a train until early 1990.
By March 1945, when Stephensen departed, the base had become the West Coast’s largest aerial port with a workforce that totaled 3,272 enlisted, 661 officers, 204 civil servants and 829 Consairway workers.
Postwar demobilization meant severe cutbacks for other services, but it meant more business for Air Transport Command and the Fairfield-Suisun Army Air Force Base.
The Pentagon lengthened the runways and built permanent facilities such as the base hospital and several still-existing structures.
Transfer of the transport squadrons to Germany to support the Berlin Airlift combined with the growing importance of Strategic Air Command allowed SAC to use the base for bomber operations in 1949.
Reach Ian Thompson at 427-6976 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ithompsondr.