Itinerary: World War II
Seen any good epic films depicting attacks on U.S. fleets lately? Even if you’ve avoided the thousands of screens showing Disney’s “Pearl Harbor,” chances are the hoopla has put you in an Axis-and-Allies, greatest-generation, Pacific-theater kind of mood.
Although the only shooting at these sites has been for the movies--including “Pearl Harbor"--these locations offer a sense of the Southland’s connection to the previous century’s defining conflict.
Start your tour at the Costa Mesa Historical Society and Santa Ana Army Air Base Museum (1870 Anaheim St., Costa Mesa,  631-5918). The 2,000-square-foot museum displays books, uniforms, medals and photos from the former base’s brief life (1942-46) as a preflight training center for pilots, navigators and bombardiers. More than 125,000 troops passed through the base, and if traffic on the 405 Freeway is any indication, every one of them returned to put down roots when the war was over.
Next head to the Albert E. Schwab American Legion Post (14582 Beach Blvd., Midway City,  893-9525). The club’s four walls are draped with 40-foot-wide murals commemorating the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Battle of Midway and the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, among other World War II scenes. The murals were painted by Huntington Beach native Pete Carolan, an artist and former Navy SEAL who was inspired to take on the project by a small part in “Pearl Harbor.”
The massive scale of the war effort becomes clearer once you get a look at the twin dirigible hangars at the former Tustin Marine Corps Air Facility, between the Costa Mesa (55) and Santa Ana (5) freeways. The public isn’t allowed on the base, which closed two years ago. But exit the 5 at Red Hill Avenue or the 55 at Edinger and you’ll get close enough to be dwarfed by the 170-foot-tall, 1,000-foot-long structures. Built in 1942, the hangars housed blimps that patrolled the Southern California coast in search of enemy submarines. Today the cavernous buildings sometimes are used as movie sets, including for “Pearl Harbor.”
A short drive away, Greg Kelly will let you get closer to the hangars he built two years ago at Kelly’s Hobby Shop (330 El Camino Real, Tustin,  832-0038). Kelly, owner of the 30-year-old shop, built the 5-foot scale model from wood to mark the base closure. There are even three blimps inside, each covered in cheesecloth. He also has on display a 41/2-foot model of the aircraft carrier Yorktown, complete with tiny planes on deck. Kelly’s grandfather, Denis A. Kelly, served on the Yorktown, which was sunk during the Battle of Midway.
Most people visit the Queen Mary (1126 Queens Highway, Long Beach,  435-3511) to bask in her luxuries. But after the war started in Europe, she was transformed into a troop-transport ship. For $8 (on top of the regular $17 admission), a World War II tour will explain life aboard the Grey Ghost (as the ship was known during her repainted period) when as many as 15,000 troops crowded into quarters built for 3,000. Among her passengers was Winston Churchill, who is said to have worked through D-day strategy using toy ships in the bathtub of his stateroom. After the tour, stay aboard to have a drink in the Observation Bar (in which cots were once stacked five deep) or dine in the Chelsea restaurant (a surgical ward during the war).
Conclude the trip at the U.S. Naval Weapons Station at Seal Beach (800 Seal Beach Blvd., open during daylight hours.  626-7215). A memorial there honors the 3,600 American submariners killed during World War II. The quarter-acre site features a WWII torpedo replica and 52 plaques, one for each sub lost.