TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE — The 1950s was the decade of Strategic Air Command at the Fairfield-Suisun Air Force Base with its flight line dominated by the large bombers.
With the base’s airlift squadrons now stationed in West Germany because of the Berlin Airlift, almost all of the West Coast air transport missions were carried out by Navy transports or transferred to civilian airlines.
In the early 1950s, Moffett Field became the area’s main air terminal and Fairfield-Suisun’s airlift schedule was reduced to a weekly shuttle to Hickam Air Force Base and aeromedical flights flown by C-47s from nearly vacant runways.
On May 1, 1949, Strategic Air Command activated the 9th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing under Col. Raymond Winn at Fairfield-Suisun, bringing with it the RB-29 Superfortress reconnaissance bomber, whose prime mission was very-long-range telephoto reconnaissance across the Pacific.
Winn lasted a little more than a month at the job and, on June 17, he was replaced by Brig. Gen. Robert Falligant Travis.
Six months later, on Nov. 8, 1949, the 5th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing arrived to join the 9th and Travis was put in command of both wings, an unusual setup.
In April 1950, the 9th started replacing its RB-29s with the massive, six-propeller engined B-36 bombers and was renamed the 9th Heavy Bombardment Wing-Heavy.
It was just in time for the outbreak of the Korean War, which saw the 9th increase its local training flights and practice bombing runs in preparation for partial deployment to Korea. By February 1951, the 14th Air Division was headquartered at Travis Air Force Base.
Family housing at the base tripled with the construction of 980 new Wherry housing units, while the base hospital saw the temporary addition of 500 beds to accommodate wounded from Korea, which averaged 2,000 a month during the war brought in by the 1733rd Air Transport Squadron (Air Evacuation).
What was called the “West River Depot,” and later renamed the Fairfield Air Force Station, was located on the southwest corner of the base and soon acquired the nickname of Secret City because of its high security and its work storing and maintaining nuclear bombs. It stayed in business until 1962.
A Strategic Air Command reorganization in 1953 sent the 9th to Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, and the 5th phased out the last of its RB-29s for reconnaissance-configured RB-36s by 1952.
F-86D Sabre jet fighters arrived to defend Travis and other regional bases in July 1954 when Air Defense Command activated the 413th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron. The pilots stood on five- to 15-minute alerts to defend the base and its growing fleet of Strategic Air Command and Material Air Transport Service aircraft should the Cold War go hot.
In August 1955, the 413th was replaced by the 82nd Fighter-Interceptor Squadron, and the F-86Ds were soon replaced in 1957 by the F-102 Delta Dagger fighter, capable of firing air-to-air guided missiles, which could be nuclear tipped. The 82nd and its F-102s left Travis in 1966 for Okinawa.
The Army did its part to defend the base when the 1st Battalion, 61st Artillery, part of the North American Air Defense Command, set up shop in the old base hospital area to oversee the ring of six underground Nike missile bases around Travis, which started to be built in March 1956.
The missile crews stood on alert in shifts 24 hours a day until 1971, when changing military technology made the Nike missiles obsolete. The missile crews packed their bags and left without firing a shot. The sites have since been sold off to become everything from storage for a farm to the home of the Fairfield-Suisun School District’s bus yard.
It was also during the mid-1950s that the Royal Air Force set up shop with a small detachment of three dozen men to support British military aircraft flying through the Western United States and the Pacific. By 2000, that presence had shrunk to only a couple of RAF personnel.
Even though Travis was a Strategic Air Command base, the Military Air Transport Service did ship a lot of personnel and equipment out of Travis to the Pacific.
When the 9th left Travis, three Military Air Transport Service squadrons moved in with their C-54s, which were soon replaced with C-97 Stratofreighters and C-124 Globemasters. They were followed by three more transport squadrons by 1955, which was the same year the 1501st Air Transport Wing was activated at Travis.
Travis formally entered the jet age when the 5th’s first B-52 arrived at the base on Feb. 13, 1959. Named the Spirit of Solano, the bomber was welcomed with much ceremony and even an appearance by California Gov. Edmund “Pat” Brown Sr.
The base’s bomber squadrons completed their conversion to B-52s in September 1958 with Project Adios, the departure of Travis’ last RB-36 with members of the same aircrew who flew in the first one to Travis in 1951.
This was the same time that Strategic Air Command dispersed two of its bomber squadrons to surrounding bases, Mather and Beale Air Force bases, to minimize the wing’s vulnerability to attack. The 14th Air Division also packed its bags for Beale, leaving only the 23rd Bombardment Squadron at Travis.
Travis ended the decade bringing another mission to the base – air refueling in the form of the 916th Air Refueling Squadron and its KC-135 Stratotankers, the first of which arrived in December 1959.
Strategic Air Command also handed over the keys of the base to Military Air Transport Service when that command’s 323rd Air Division was activated at Travis, as well as the Western Transport Air Force in July 1958 with Maj. Gen. Russell Waldron assuming command of Western Transport Air Force, re-establishing airlift as Travis’ top mission.
Western Transport Air Force had just set up shop at Travis in 1958, overseeing four bases including Travis and a slice of the globe from Florida to Saudi Arabia, which included 37,000 miles of military air routes. Even though its East Coast bases were reassigned, the land between the Mississippi River to Saudi Arabia was still a big chunk of territory.
The first mission by a Travis aircraft to Southeast Asia took place in 1954 when, in the aftermath of the disastrous French defeat at Dien BienPhu, 10 of the base’s C-97s collected 509 French soldiers from what was then called Indochina and flew them to destinations in France and Algeria. In 10 years, Travis would be back, and the place would have a new name – Vietnam.
Reach Ian Thompson at 427-6976 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ithompsondr.