TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE — Brig. Gen. Robert Falligant Travis was a leader who didn’t like coming in second in anything, according to one officer who served under him in the skies over Europe during World War II.
Like other exacting commanders, Travis’ ire could take on a form akin to the wrath of God, but his ability to push men to do their best distinguished him and helped get him his star.
It made him one of the more successful bomber wing commanders in Europe and brought him to command of what was then the Fairfield-Suisun Air Force Base.
Travis was born Dec. 26, 1904, in Savannah, Ga., with military roots that included 19th century lawyer and soldier William Barrett Travis, who commanded the regulars at the Alamo and died with his men when Mexican leader Santa Ana stormed the mission in 1836.
Travis graduated from West Point in 1928 and received a commission as a second lieutenant in the field artillery. His flying career started not long after, when he entered Primary Flying School at Brooks Field, Texas. A year later, he graduated as a pilot from the Air Corps Advanced School at Kelly Field, Texas.
After graduating from the Air Corps engineering school at Wright Field, Ohio, Travis was sent to Seattle to supervise construction at the Boeing Airplane Co. plant for the fledgling B-17 Flying Fortress, according to a family history.
The performance of the first two prototype B-17s did not bode well for the heavy bomber’s production when both crashed in flight tests. Travis was asked to fly a third one from Seattle to the Presidio in San Francisco and he completed the flight.
A procession of commands led him to take command of the 72nd Bombardment Squadron at Hickam Field in Hawaii in July 1939, where he stayed for a year before moving on to serve as material officer for the 5th Bombardment Group. In July 1943, he assumed command of the First Bomber Command at El Paso, Texas.
Travis soon joined the 8h Air Force, heading up the 41st Combat Bombardment Wing, personally leading his air crews in 35 missions over Nazi-occupied Europe.
“Gen. Travis distinguished himself by personally choosing to lead bombardment elements on combat missions in which it was known that heavy and extremely hazardous opposition would be met,” his Distinguished Service Cross citation stated. “This officer exhibited great courage, coolness and determination in carrying out operations as planned.”
In England, Travis was considered a hard driver who felt the nature of combat command was to achieve victory. He sacked any squadron commander who didn’t live up to his standards.
Retired Maj. Gen. Dame Smith, a B-17 group commander under Travis who later wrote the memoir “Screaming Eagle,” described Travis as a man “who never liked to finish second at anything.”
Few subordinates wanted to cross their exacting commander, but Smith had to do so on an April 1944 mission over Germany.
Travis made it a point to take the lead formation on missions he flew. Inadequate planning, reinforced by several turns the multi-group formation took to the target, forced Smith’s bomber to cut off Travis’ lead formation as it closed on target, Smith wrote.
Turning off the radio saved Smith from Travis’ irate airborne tirade, which was loud enough to cut through German radio jamming but it could not save Smith from the inevitable showdown after both landed back in England.
“Gen. Travis was steaming with anger when I reported and saluted, but he was compassionate enough to direct me toward a chair,” Smith wrote.
Smith silently endured Travis’ verbal barrage and then took advantage of the silence that followed to explain the reason for his insubordination.
“Bob Travis listened to it all,” Smith wrote. “I have to hand it to him; he was fair and reasonable and didn’t hold a grudge. He evidently decided it wasn’t my fault and I took the only reasonable action.”
Travis’ expression softened “and for a long moment, he regarded the pencil with which he was taking notes,” Smith wrote.
Travis then told Smith to put himself in for a Silver Star. Smith replied that was Travis’ responsibility, only to have Travis thunder back, “Do it!”
Smith quietly let the award drop, but not Travis. Shortly after, Smith’s command received a Presidential Unit Citation.
Travis’ sterling combat performance not only earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal, the French Croix de Guerre, and the Legion d’honneur, but also a brigadier general’s star in September 1944.
After the war’s end, Travis returned to Hickam Air Force Base as the 7th Air Force chief of staff and then commander. In September 1948, he was appointed commanding general of the Pacific Air Command.
On June 17, 1949, Travis arrived in Solano County to take command of both the Fairfield-Suisun Air Force Base and Strategic Air Command’s 9th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing, which was activated a month before he arrived.
Tailor Phil Zumpano, who ran a shop at the base altering and repairing uniforms, remembered Travis “as a prince of a guy.”
When the Air Force tried to move Zumpano from his shop in the passenger terminal, Travis stepped in and stopped the move.
“He said since the terminal was built with MATS funds and I did work for MATS, I could stay,” Zumpano said.
The next year, the 9th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing became the 9th Bombardment Wing. With the start of the Korean War, it undertook increased practice bombing runs to be ready for deployment to Korea.
On the night of Aug. 5, 1950, Travis got on a B-29 Superfortress bomber as an observer to accompany the aircraft on its mission to carry an atomic bomb casing to the Pacific.
A propeller malfunction after liftoff, combined with the failure of the landing gear to retract, forced the pilot to try to attempt to make a crash landing near the end of the base’s runway. He didn’t make it.
One of those aboard the B-29 at the time was 1st Lt. William Braz, the last known surviving member of the B-29 crew who was interviewed for a 2013 Travis Heritage Center story.
Braz said in the interview that the B-29 was halfway down the runway when the No. 2 engine propeller started running away. The pilot, Capt. Eugene Steffes, turned the aircraft back toward the base to put it back down. The B-29 lost airspeed and Steffes told the co-pilot to tell everyone to prepare for a crash landing. Braz was almost out of his seat when someone said something was wrong with the No. 3 engine.
“It looked like things were getting difficult,” Braz said in the interview. “I ran toward the back to get into a crash landing position and started to pull down the crash crossbar. Just then, Gen. Travis told me, ‘Get back, get ready. There’s no time for that’.” Travis then pulled Braz down just before the plane hit.
At the base’s bakery, Sgt. Lewis Sequeria and four others heard the aircraft’s agony and looked up to see it pass over, then plow into the ground near the base’s present Main Gate, according to a Solano Republican article.
Sequeria and his men took off after it.
“We saw it coming down, hit and start skidding,” Sequeria said later. “It was skidding and we were actually chasing the plane.”
Sgt. Paul Ramoneda reached the aircraft first, followed by Sequeria and the others. They skirted the rear of the burning B-29 to get to the cockpit. Hearing cries, they helped Steffes out. The co-pilot got stuck, but Braz gave him a push and followed after.
“He (the pilot) told us to get away before the tanks blew. About that time, .50-caliber ammo and flares started going off and help started arriving,” Sequeria said.
Travis was still alive when rescuers pulled him from the wreckage, but the general died on the way to the base hospital. Eight of the 18 people on the bomber survived.
Flaming aviation fuel quickly engulfed the aircraft despite the best efforts of base firefighters. Sequeria ordered his men back and all but Ramoneda followed. Ramoneda turned back, yelling that he intended to save more men trapped in the bomber.
“The last time I saw him, he had wrapped his apron around his head and face, and was starting into the airplane,” Sequeria said.
Then the 8,000 gallons of aviation fuel and the explosives in the bomb casing went up “in a blanket of flame,” the Solano Republican article said.
It engulfed the base’s firefighting equipment, killing Ramoneda and five other airmen, injuring 60 airmen and local firefighters, and setting fire to the base trailer park. The death toll would have been higher if not for an unknown lieutenant who cleared out the trailers before the explosion.
Ray Hosley, commander of the 9th Bomb Wing, said in a later statement on the crash that the aircraft “made a kind of crackling sound and that’s when she went.”
“We, old Dan (Smith) and I, we hit the ground, and I remember just seeing lights, the fire and seeing this stuff flying,” said Hosley, who escaped without a scratch but was deaf for six weeks from the blast.
The blast dug a 6-foot-deep, 30-foot-wide crater, damaged almost every building on base, shattered glass windows as far away as downtown Fairfield, and was heard in Vallejo.
It also destroyed the base fire department and the call went out to nearby fire departments to bring in more men and equipment to put out the burning wreckage and stop a blaze that fanned out of control into nearby grasslands.
Robert Dittmer, then the base fire chief, said in a later Daily Republic interview that he was the closest person to the blast to survive. It picked him up and threw him through the air.
“I came to lying in a hole and kept trying to crawl out,” Dittmer said.
Fairfield resident Warren Levy said in a 2000 interview that his first warning of the disaster was a flicker in his car’s rear view mirror seconds before, “the concussion shoved me up against the car and it looked like the entire base had gone up.”
The 19 bodies were taken to the McCune Garden Chapel in Vacaville and Travis was later buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Even as cleanup was underway, the combination of Travis’ local popularity and his sudden death prompted base officers and local community leaders to lobby to rename the base in his honor.
Officials at the Pentagon agreed and on Oct. 20, 1950, an Air Force special order renamed the base. A formal dedication ceremony took place on April 20, 1950.