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In El Toro’s Shadow, Tustin Managed to Shine

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Tustin Marine Corps Air Facility has sometimes been overshadowed by its military counterpart just seven miles to the south. But it has never been second best to El Toro.

Tustin predates El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. The base played key roles during World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars. And in every conflict and peacekeeping mission during the past 50 years, where there were servicemen and servicewomen from El Toro, there were those from Tustin too.

Tustin’s place in Marine Corps and Orange County lore is, in short, secure. In fact, its world-renowned blimp hangars, or at least one of them, may one day be the only remaining link to the relatively nondescript tracts of land that went on to become one of the centerpieces of U.S. military operations in the world.

On Friday, at a single ceremony to be held at El Toro, the two bases will be officially decommissioned in a service expected to attract some of the military’s highest-ranking officials, and thousands of enlisted men and women and civilians.

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A similar service was held at Tustin in September 1997, when the base’s colors were retired as Tustin was downgraded from an air station to an air facility. It received little fanfare--a sign of how Tustin has sometimes been overlooked. But Tustin’s long history is every bit as rich as El Toro’s.

The “end of an era,” is the way Master Sgt. Mervyn Best describes Tustin’s closing. As the highest ranking noncommissioned officer remaining at the base, Best is taking Tustin through its last days. Ask him what he thinks about the subtle rivalry and you won’t get a modest answer.

“This is a better base,” said Best, as he drove around recently, checking to make sure items were not left behind. “It’s smaller. There’s more of a community.”

Indeed, Tustin’s smaller numbers have long provided Marines stationed there with a feeling of intimacy that escapes large bases like El Toro and Camp Pendleton.

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Tustin’s history dates back to 1942. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, naval officers arrived in Orange County in a panic. The need was for a place to house a dirigible fleet: Helium-filled blimps that were the only means by which the Navy could send observers out to sea in poor weather and low visibility to patrol against Japanese submarines.

They settled on nearly 4,000 acres that would become the heart of the El Toro and Tustin bases.

But Tustin was the priority: “During the war, Tustin was actually the more important facility,” said Maj. Jeff Matthews, who has put together an early history of the base. “There was a definite threat of Japanese submarines.”

Construction on the Tustin site, then called Santa Ana Naval Air Station Lighter-Than-Air, began April 1, 1942, a full four months ahead of El Toro.

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Tustin’s cavernous blimp hangars were finally completed in October 1943. The hangars were so large they have been known to support their own weather patterns, including fog. They could house six blimps at a time.

A wartime shortage of steel forced workers to build the hangars out of wood, paving the way for their eventual designation among the world’s largest wood-framed structures.

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In 1949, with the war over, the facility was retired, only to be pressed into service two years later by the Korean War. By this time, blimps had been phased out of active military use and the base became a training facility for the Marines. It was renamed the Santa Ana Marine Corps Air Facility.

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The rugged, mountainous area to the east and the close proximity to the Pacific Ocean and Camp Pendleton made Tustin an ideal helicopter training site.

The base jumped to the fore during the Vietnam War, when Tustin-trained helicopter squadrons revolutionized the battlefield environment, according to Tom O’Hara, El Toro’s museum curator and a former serviceman at both bases.

“They rewrote the book on how you employ grunts in the battlefield, as well as logistics, medical evacuations and resupply,” he said.

Suddenly, Marines could land not only on the beach but also behind enemy lines and attack in two directions. Troops in need of artillery could make a radio call and 10 minutes later, after bombers cleared a landing area, a helicopter would deliver, O’Hara said.

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Transport helicopters have been part of every Marine Corps operation since, with Tustin becoming the Marine Corps’ largest helicopter station.

In 1978, it became a full-fledged Marine air station, which supports more personnel and aircraft than a facility. There was one more name change: Marine Corps Air Station, Tustin.

As helicopters were becoming more integral to Marine strategy, Orange County was booming, which would eventually spell Tustin’s doom.

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Rapid development made life difficult for pilots as neighbors complained bitterly about the air traffic. One irate rancher near Irvine Lake registered his disapproval by shining a spotlight on helicopters as they flew by at night. A homemaker in Woodbridge once called the base duty officer 30 times in a single day to lodge complaints.

The value of the base property zoomed to an estimated $500 million, making it ideal for commercial development. It all helped to turn Tustin into more of a liability than an asset for the military.

By 1991, closure was all but certain. The move provided a boon for the city of Tustin, which had succeeded in wresting the base away from Santa Ana in 1974. Conversion plans call for mixed residential and commercial use in the area. The current proposal also calls for preserving at least one of the beloved hangars as part of a park.

In recent months, the Tustin facility has limped along in a limbo, becoming a ghost town as it emptied its barracks and hangars and completed its last-minute closure chores. In recent days, just 25 Marines remained on the base.

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Even though the Tustin faithful already have experienced a preview of what is to come, the administering of the official last rites of the facility at El Toro still will be difficult to bear.

“This is historic. If somebody doesn’t show emotion, there’s something wrong with them,” Best said. “When they play ‘Auld Lang Syne,’ I’m going to lose it.”


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