History of Orange County

“Catch 22” gift to the county

A gate entrance to Santa Ana Army Air Force Base during World War II

A gate entrance to Santa Ana Army Air Force Base during World War II (Orange County Archives)

By Jim Tortolano

It was once one of the largest air force training bases in the world, and yet it had no airplanes, hangars or runways.

It was a major setting in World War II’s best-known novel, “Catch 22.”

To a county where the “interference” of the federal government has been a rallying cry to some for decades, it represented a gift worth billions of dollars.

Unlike Orange County’s still-extant military facilities such as the Joint Forces Training Base in Los Alamitos and the Naval Weapons Station in Seal Beach, the Santa Ana Army Air Force Base is gone now, expect for its exceptional influence on Costa Mesa and the county.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, a somewhat underprepared United States was thrust into the greatest conflict in human history. In typical American fashion, Uncle Sam responded in a big way with massive expenditures and effort.

To serve as a pre-flight training center for the Army Air Force (the separate Air Force was not established until 1947), the federal government leased over 1.3 million acres of land between Santa Ana and what would later become Costa Mesa. It was activated on Jan. 1, 1942.

The Santa Ana Army Air Force base was huge, with over 800 buildings, including four chapels, four theaters and 17 warehouses. During the war it served as a location for classification (testing recruits for aptitude as pilots, navigators or bombardiers) and pre-flight training. Later, it also functioned as a redistribution center and separation (discharge) center for returning combat and other veterans.

With up to 26,000 AAF personnel (not counting civilian personnel on the base) at any time, the facility at Newport Boulevard was one of the largest “cities” in Orange County. The impact on the county was instant and substantial. The presence of the G.I.s and the base construction was a tremendous boon to the economy, and the base’s proximity to Hollywood meant that many celebrities traveled south to put on shows to entertain the troops.

Joseph Heller's classic novel

Joseph Heller’s classic novel

Additionally, it introduced Orange County to many thousands of soldiers and airmen who were so impressed with the beauty of the area they longed to return after the war, helping to fuel O.C.’s postwar building boom.

The end of the war in September 1945 led to the eventual deactivation of the base in March 1946. The base became the property of the War Assets Administration, which had the job of returning military property to civilian uses. The land upon which the base once sat was quickly converted to public uses.

Orange Coast College, Costa Mesa High School, Orange County Fairgrounds, Vanguard University and the Costa Mesa Civic Center (Costa Mesa incorporated in 1953 and annexed the land) have all been built on the base site. The base’s boundaries represented one-fifth of all the land in Costa Mesa.

Some of the buildings of the original SAAAB survive on the OCC campus and the fairgrounds. The sole remaining military use there is an Air National Guard station, which is the site of a plaque dedicated to “all pilots, bombardiers and navigators who trained here that contributed to an early victory in World War II.”

And for fans of Joseph Heller, the base was where he first trained as a bombardier and began gathering material for the famous wartime tale originally called “Catch 18.”

Sources: California Military Museum, Costa Mesa Historical Society, Wikipedia.

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