Bill Greenhouse spent nine months at El Toro Marine Corps Air Station in 1943. Now 95, the former Marine master sergeant remembers the area well — it was full of eucalyptus trees and orange groves.
Today, the planes are long gone. All that's left of the station is a hangar. The property has become the sprawling Orange County Great Park.
But Greenhouse and about 80 other veterans and their families celebrated their memories of the station Saturday afternoon as part of a yearly El Toro Homecoming. The event is part of the El Toro Marine Air Station Oral History Project, a collaboration between the park and the Center for Oral and Public History at Cal State Fullerton.
"A lot of people say that El Toro made Orange County," said Kira Gentry, a project manager with the university.
More than 300 interviews have been conducted for the project, which aims to document the role that the station played in the transformation of the county since World War II.
Much has changed. The base was opened on a former lima bean field on St. Patrick's Day of 1943, when the county population was less than 150,000. But the station brought people to the area from around the country and many of them — including Greenhouse, a Fallbrook resident from West Texas — stayed in Southern California.
"This was a beautiful place," said Greenhouse, sitting outside the hangar. On Saturday morning, he rode the park's signature orange hot air balloon to survey the rambling suburbs, the skyscrapers and the freeways buzzing with traffic.
"It's really been built up," said the former airplane mechanic and line chief who survived the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Samuel Romero, a 75-year-old Southern California native, said the base was where he matured into an adult. . He was promoted to sergeant during his time at El Toro.
The Santa Ana resident joined the Marines as a 19-year-old who weighed 126 pounds. Back then, everywhere he went on the base, he seemed to know someone from the area, whether it was a civilian driver, supplier or gardener.
"As a young man, to earn school money, I would pick oranges around the base," Romero said.
The base was also a site for romance a half-century in the making.
Clarence and Vera Nelson, of Oceanside, served at the station together in 1944.
"When I met him, I thought, 'Wow, he's so tall and skinny and he has a nice smile,'" Vera Nelson recalled. Though the two remained good friends, they went their separate ways and married other people. But in 1997, as a widow and widower, the two reunited. Clarence took Vera to dinner and they talked until 2 a.m. They married that year.
Natalie Fousekis, the director of the history center, said the project plans to interview more than 1,000 people who have ties to the base.
"If you didn't have the Marine Corps here, you wouldn't have the open space for people to use," she said.