History of Orange County

The ghosts of military posts in OC

Aerial view of El Toro Marine Corps Air Station in its heyday (Wikipedia photo).

Aerial view of El Toro Marine Corps Air Station in its heyday (Wikipedia photo).

By Jim Tortolano

The pivotal factor in Orange County’s transition from an agricultural region into a sprawling suburban metropolis was the effect of World War II and its aftermath. The great conflict helped transform the area and yet very little of its considerable history remains to be seen by the contemporary residents and visitors.

Beginning in 1942, Uncle Sam built military installations, large and small, all across Orange County. Of those, only two remain, but there’s no question that they played an outsized role in both the county’s history and present-day concerns. The influx of visitors to the area led to a huge post-war housing boom and the shifting of the OC into one of the biggest population centers in the nation.

Los Alamitos is the home to the Joint Forces Training Base and Army Airfield. It opened in 1942 as the Naval Air Station Los Alamitos. It played a key role not only in World War II and the Korean War, but also as in aircraft development. John Glenn – later to become the first American to orbit the earth – set a new transcontinental airspeed record in 1957 by flying from Los Alamitos to New York in 3 hours and 23 minutes.

Disney Studios designed this badge for the El Toro MCAS.

Disney Studios designed this badge for the El Toro MCAS.

In 1973, the station found its function shifted from naval aviation to a new focus of a training facility for all the military branches. The Army Airfield has two runways and has accommodated Air Force One on more than one occasion, but most of the aircraft there are California National Guard helicopters.

Today, the Los Alamitos JFTB hosts units from the National Guard, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force and California State Military Reserve. It is also home to a Little League diamond, a water polo complex, a theater and other uses.

Just south of the JFTB is Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station. Established in 1942, the facility serves the Pacific Ocean ships of the U.S. Navy with armaments and other supplies. The station separates the northern and southern parts of the City of Seal Beach, and is itself bisected by Westminster Avenue.

A vertical launch missile canister is loaded onto a guided missile destroyer at the Naval Weapons Station Seal Beach wharf (U.S. Navy photo)>

A vertical launch missile canister is loaded onto a guided missile destroyer at the Naval Weapons Station Seal Beach wharf (U.S. Navy photo).

The Seal Beach facility is also home to the World War II Submarine Memorial West, paying honors to the estimated 3,000 sailors who died in the “Silent Service,” as well as a 920-acre wildlife preserve.

Those two bases were, years ago, joined by many others. Here’s a partial list.

  • Marine Corps Air Station El Toro: Dating back to 1942, this facility was at one point the West Coast headquarters for Marine Corps Aviation. With four runways, it was the home for the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing. In 1993 the base was slated for closing. A controversy ensued over the re-use: some wanted it for a second major commercial airport, and others advocated for The Great Park and residential construction. The Great Park remains controversial, with critics saying that much more was promised than delivered. The station also a setting for the science fiction film “Independence Day.”
  • Marine Corps Air Station Tustin: From 1942 to 1999, the Marine Corps maintained a Navy and Marine air facility in that city, marked most visibly by two huge hangars housing lighter-than-air craft (blimps) devoted largely to anti-submarine warfare. While much of the former base has been devoted to homes, the ultimate fate of the hangers remains undetermined.
  • Santa Ana Army Air Force Base: It was a huge air training base, but had no runways or airplanes. It was named after Santa Ana, but the site is located in what is today Costa Mesa. Devoted entirely to pre-flight instruction from 1942-1946, the SAAFB has two major distinctions: it served as a setting for much of the famous “Catch 22” novel, and the land on which is sat eventually became the Orange County Fairgrounds, Orange Coast College and Costa Mesa High School.
  • Haster Air Field: Now the site of Garden Grove Park and Bolsa Grande High School, this was a auxiliary landing field for pilots training at the Los Alamitos Naval Air Station from 1944-45.
  • Mile Square Naval Outer Landing Field: Another adjunct to the operations at Los Al this base – opened in 1942 – had three runways and was used to simulate landing on an aircraft carrier. In 1967, the Navy Department leased the other part of the facility for park use; the inner portion was devoted to Marine Corps helicopter activity. In 1974 all military operations were ended and now the 640-acre plot is Mile Square Park, operated by the County of Orange.

Of course, there were many temporary and transient military uses across the county. Huntington Beach’s pier was employed as a submarine watch station, and a prisoner-of-war camp for German soldiers operated in Garden Grove from 1944-46. There were anti-aircraft emplacements and coast watches across the county until the threat (or fear) of a Japanese attack on the West Coast receded. Disappearing also is much of the evidence of an important part of Orange County history.

Sources: City of Irvine, City of Tustin, City of Los Alamitos, City of Fountain Valley, Wikipedia, U.S. Navy, Garden Grove Journal.

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