EL TORO, 1943 - 1999
Just after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, in a time when orange groves still stretched alongside dusty farm roads from the Santa Ana Mountains to the sea, the U.S. Marines put their boots down in the heart of Orange County. They wanted a training ground for hotshot pilots destined to do battle in the Pacific Rim. It would change everything.
The site they selected was smack in the middle of James Irvine’s finest 28,000-acre lima bean field, then the world’s largest. We’re taking your land, they told the crusty rancher. Your best land. Irvine, whose father and uncle had fought off Southern Pacific railroad surveyors half a century earlier with shotgun-armed sentries, balked.
But an implacable Marine colonel told him that if he didn’t sell, Japanese occupation forces might come for it. The site was perfect: In a flat valley shielded from the coast, virtually fog-free. Irvine relented and sold two pieces, one for El Toro, the other for what would become the Tustin Marine Corps Air Station. The price: $100,000, the equivalent of about $1 million adjusted for inflation. Today, the land is worth closer to $10 billion, according to one estimate.
Located at the county’s geographic center, the base grew through the years to epitomize for many the soul of Orange County, providing strong military roots and a rock-ribbed Republican, defense-oriented way of life. Along with Tustin, Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station, Los Alamitos Armed Forces Reserve Center and Camp Pendleton, El Toro was one of the country’s most strategically significant military outposts.
El Toro helped put the county on the map. Friday, the map will be redrawn.
After a formal decommissioning that will include the Tustin facility, the sprawling base will be little more than a fenced-in swath of federal land: 4,700 acres of vacated buildings and yawning runways packed full of stories.
It opened so hurriedly that the first leathernecks were put up in Irvine’s ranch-hand bunkhouse.
For years the nation’s largest marine aviation station, El Toro was its own city of sorts, with 50,000 service men and women and civilians alike moving through its gates annually. It boasted everything from its own church and school to a car wash, golf course and stables.
But the core of the base was the air operations. For more than half a century, El Toro played a critical role in dozens of conflicts around the globe, including World War II, Vietnam, Desert Storm and Somalia.
From the first Mainside runway, and later the 10,000-foot-long, razor-straight Fighter runway, hundreds of thousands of young Marines in thundering Corsairs, A-6 Intruders and F/A-18 Hornets shrieked off to battle in Iwo Jima, Da Nang and Iraq.
It was here that some Marines, never all, returned to the outstretched arms of wives and children.
As the base grew older, so did the county and the once-young fighters who first served there. Many never left Orange County after being discharged through the front gate. They found jobs and raised families in Santa Ana and Anaheim, then planned communities such as Mission Viejo and Lake Forest.
Many retired nearby, but they returned often, to take the grandchildren to the spectacular annual air show, use the commissary and the barbershop, or stop by the museum to reminisce about the Grey Ghosts, the Black Sheep and other famed squadrons.
“This base was a major conduit, bringing in a steady stream of revenues, ideas and families,” said El Toro veteran and museum curator Tom O’Hara, author of a base history titled “MCAS El Toro 1943-1999.” “It has been a major factor in the growth of Orange County.”
With a new millennium dawning, Orange County, already in the midst of transforming its identity, will have to decide what to put at its center--more housing, a sports-and-entertainment stadium, maybe a mega-shopping complex or nature preserve.
The most controversial plan calls for building a commercial airport. Sentiments on that are intense. If there is something that bridges the divide though, it is the affection felt by many in Orange County for the old Marine base.
“Whatever you put there, one thing is certain,” said the last commanding officer, Col. Stephen Mugg. “Orange County is never going to have a better neighbor than us.”
Base’s Dedication Marred by Crash
It was a grim beginning.
“This base was christened in blood,” recalls Jim Sleeper, former Irvine Co. historian and author, who was 15 when he attended the March 17, 1943, dedication.
The base was still “pretty raw at that point. They did have some barracks, but it was kind of like an open-faced sandwich,” recalled Sleeper, now 72. After a round of speeches and a parade of troops, nine Marine pilots took off in formation as hundreds of spectators looked on.
“Suddenly, one of the planes spluttered,” Sleeper said. “For reasons never revealed, it then plummeted to Earth at the south end of the field, less than 500 yards from the first busload of civilians. The ship plowed into the ground with tremendous force, sending up a giant dust cloud.”
The pilot was a Guadalcanal veteran, Matthew Kennedy of Terre Haute, Ind.
“He had three Japanese planes to his credit, only to die at home in an aerial parade,” Sleeper said.
The base’s location was perfect for its primary use: advanced training of pilots on their way to war.
“Many of the sophisticated tactics which permitted the Marines to attack, hold and capture the islands in the Pacific had been worked out in advance over the [local] hills and valleys,” wrote Vi Smith in “From Jennies to Jets: The Aviation History of Orange County.”
Some El Toro veterans went on to become famous--or infamous.
Future astronaut and senator John Glenn and baseball great Ted Williams fought in the same squadron during the Korean War. Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, founder of the famed Black Sheep Squadron and the Marine’s all-time ace pilot, passed through. Actors Robert Conrad and Tyrone Powers served there too. So did Lee Harvey Oswald.
Persistent Rumors of Imminent Closure
The base was named after the one-lane community nearby, El Toro--Spanish for “the bull.”
The snorting red namesake icon was a popular--though racy--one. When Walt Disney redesigned it, it kept its wings but lost its tattoo and was rendered “gender neutral.”
During World War II, civilian cars still drove through the base on Trabuco Avenue. Pilots had to wait to take off until traffic signals changed. When the war ended, the future of El Toro, like hundreds of other new bases, was up in the air.
But in 1949, the 1st Marine Air Wing moved in from its former station in China. The unit brought back souvenirs--a huge Taoist bronze-and-silver bell made by Chinese villagers and two pieces of Japanese mountain artillery. The relics graced the entrance to El Toro’s headquarters for the next 50 years.
The 1st Air Wing soon headed out for Korea. When that crisis was over, rumors again swirled that El Toro was closing. But in 1955, the 3rd Marine Air Wing, facing growing pressure from developers in Florida, packed up for Orange County.
Still undeveloped, the area around the base had little in the way of entertainment for young Marines.
“Orange County was a pretty Podunky place,” Sleeper said.
So the entertainment came to them. Through the 1940s and ‘50s, Hollywood big band leaders such as Harry James, and stars including Shirley Temple and Jack Benny, made the drive south to perform outdoors. Or, if noisy planes overhead were too much, they took their acts inside the new theater.
A perimeter road, longer runways and athletic fields also were built. In the early years, housing meant little more than barracks. Later, family housing, spacious officers’ quarters and college-style dorms were added.
The county was growing too. In 1958, the Santa Ana Freeway opened along the western edge of the base, a convenient route to an attraction called Disneyland. It would be another decade before the freeway was linked to the San Diego Freeway, forming the El Toro “Y” and a road to what in 1968 was a new shopping experience: South Coast Plaza.
In the 1960s and early ‘70s, El Toro played a pivotal role in Vietnam. Fighter attack squadrons such as the Death Rattlers, Black Knights and Bats swooped out of the base for combat over Southeast Asia.
In June 1965, more than 80 young servicemen packed into a C-135 transport bound for Vietnam died when it crashed into Loma Ridge. It remains the county’s worst aviation disaster.
“You can still find belt buckles out on the hillside,” Sleeper said.
But pilots loved the region’s near-perfect flying conditions as they took the familiar Browning route toward Irvine Lake or the Window route over the orange groves, mesas and hills of then-undeveloped South County. Best known was the flight home along the Fighter path that took pilots from Dana Point toward two red water towers that signified descent.
When fog blanketed the region, “you’d see the two peaks of old Saddleback sticking up through, and that was real good news,” said O’Hara, the museum curator.
Trees Were Planted for President Nixon
When the country pulled out of Vietnam in 1975, America was gripped by televised images of refugees being airlifted off the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. After transferring into huge transport planes in Guam, many landed at El Toro. Eventually 50,000 immigrants arrived, and another community--Little Saigon--sprang up.
Six privates were forced out of the Corps in 1978 after being caught burning a cross in the picnic area after midnight, some of them clad in Ku Klux Klan-style sheets.
When women’s lib became a national issue, a female Marine from El Toro appeared on the cover of Look magazine--in camouflage. But is was really nothing new. Female Marines had been stationed at the base since it opened, at first limited to maintenance and support duties, but gradually assigned to virtually everything except combat.
As president, Richard M. Nixon often rode Air Force One into El Toro. Beautiful trees were planted to spruce up the base entrance for his trip to the Western White House in San Clemente.
“They were planted for Nixon, but we’ve certainly enjoyed them,” said outgoing base commander Col. Mugg, who said the now mature, lush topiary had been appraised at $500,000. “I hope they don’t just bulldoze it.”
After resigning from office in August 1974, Nixon landed at El Toro to devoted fans. When he died in 1994, his flag-draped casket came home again.
For Marines being discharged, El Toro was also a gateway home. Greyhound buses made regular stops out front. But many veterans who left turned around and came right back as soon as they married, eager to return to a safe place with a good climate, and plenty of work.
O’Hara, discharged in 1978, joined the tide. “Have you ever been to Pittsburgh?” he said laughingly of his hometown.
His best friend urged him to go in on a $30,000 house in Woodbridge, a newly constructed community in Irvine. O’Hara turned him down. Eighteen months later, the house sold for three times as much.
There was no problem finding work with so much construction, and the defense industry and UC Irvine moving in.
“If you could bend a nail you could get a job,” Sleeper said.
Development lapped at the northern edges of the base, then hopped right over it to South County. Civilian jumbo jets, unable to land at Orange County Airport--now John Wayne--tried in vain to win permission to use the base.
As scores of military bases nationwide were shuttered, top military brass insisted again and again that El Toro would not close. They advised neighbors to learn to live with the noise, but did cut back on 24-hour and weekend operations, and fought hard to bar new housing developments too close to flight paths.
“We’ve been here 34 years, and we’ll be here another 34,” insisted Col. Garit Fenenga in a 1977 interview. “Besides, if we did leave, the civilians would take the place over and it would become a 24-hour international airport. And that would be even worse.”
In spite of--or because of--all the high-priced development, affordable housing has always been hard to find. One section of Santa Ana was called Little El Toro because so many young service men and women and their families lived there in cheap rentals.
Air Show Always Drew Big Crowds
The base underwent a multimillion-dollar face-lift in the mid-1980s. Air show attendance also soared, in spite of several crashes that took the lives of daredevil fliers. One crashed into the base chapel in 1985, another in 1993 before 500,000 onlookers.
In 1990, Desert Storm hit. El Toro squadrons were among the first to bomb Iraq. The air show that year was the biggest ever, with more than 1 million turning out to welcome home victorious troops.
The beginning of the end came in 1993. Congress placed El Toro on the list of post-Cold War base closures. It made economic sense, Mugg said, although other top brass and California politicians at the time vehemently disagreed.
“This base sits astride the intersection of two major thoroughfares, on a huge piece of open land,” Mugg said. “It’s just worth more as something else.”
In the six years since, layoffs have been kept to about 125 civilians. Most of the personnel and equipment have been moved 80 miles south to Miramar Marine Corps Air Station in San Diego. The decision was a heartbreaker.
“Aghast,” said O’Hara, speaking of the mood on base the day the news hit. “We all wanted to know who made the deal in a back room . . . because this is the best Marine Corps base there is.”
Maj. Chuck Jay, who is overseeing the El Toro closure, said the Marines aren’t leaving entirely.
“There’s so many of us here in politics, in business, in positions of influence, we’ll be influencing Orange County for a long time to come,” he said.
Vultures, crows and other carrion birds already have replaced the fighter jets. Weeds are sprouting beside jet blast fences.
On Friday, at 1115 hours, give or take a few minutes depending on the speechifying, Mugg and every living former commander are expected to retire the base colors amid solemn pomp.
A World War II vintage Corsair will “touch and go” on the old Mainside runway, and the Marine Hymn will play. Two F-18 fighters will wheel in, bank sharply, then aim for the heavens.
El Toro Marine Corps Air Station will be laid to rest.
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