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Mural at former site of Santa Ana Army Air Base could be first artistic nod to O.C. history

Bruce Bear in front of a freshly painted mural of a B-24 Liberator on a Quonset hut built for the Santa Ana Air Base in WWII.
Bruce Bear stands in front of a freshly painted mural of a B-24 Liberator on a Quonset hut built for the Santa Ana Air Base in WWII.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Rows of Quonset huts off Costa Mesa’s 17th Street have always seemed to hint at a storied past, but now a recently painted mural and the man who commissioned it aim to bring that story into clearer focus.

Last week, local muralist Nancy Hadley signed off on an outdoor painting of a Consolidated B-24 Liberator bomber, whose wingspan stretches an impressive 65 feet from tip to tip, on the exterior wall of a Quonset hut at Pacific Mesa Properties, on a portion of the erstwhile Santa Ana Army Air Base.

That’s where, for a crucial period during World War II, the U.S. Army housed and trained the pilots, engineers, bombardiers and navigators who would work with and operate the craft in combat.

Bruce Bear hopes to use Quonset huts on the former site of the Santa Ana Army Air Base in Costa Mesa as canvasses for murals.
Property manager Bruce Bear hopes to use Quonset huts on the former site of the Santa Ana Army Air Base in as canvasses for murals that speak to the county’s history.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

The Quonset huts served as barracks before the base was deactivated in 1946 and a portion of the land was later annexed by the city of Costa Mesa, according to property manager Bruce Bear.

“These are historic landmarks, and there’s only a few of them left in Southern California,” said Bear, who commissioned Hadley to do the work.

He hopes the mural will be the first of many iconic images that not only dress up the huts — occupied by artists, craftsman and tradespeople who signed up for a one-year lease a decade or two ago and never left — but speak to Orange County’s historical roots.

“There’s a lot of history like that here, and what I wanted to do was capture some of those places,” the property manager said Friday, describing scenes of the Huntington Beach Pier, Balboa Point and Laguna Beach. “My plan is to [have images painted on] the outer-walled Quonset huts along the main thoroughfare going to the property.”

Nancy Hadley works on a mural of a Consolidated B-24 Liberator bomber at the former site of the Santa Ana Army Air Base.
Local artist Nancy Hadley works on a mural of a Consolidated B-24 Liberator bomber on a Quonset hut in Costa Mesa, the former site of the Santa Ana Army Air Base.
(Courtesy of Bruce Bear)

In preparation for her work Hadley, who runs an art studio in one of the former military barracks, researched the history of the B-24 using online historical images as reference. Though the craft looms large on the corrugated arched roof building, it represents just about 59% of the plane’s actual 110-foot wingspan.

Hadley added a personal detail to the work. A tiny pin-up girl gracing the craft’s nose cone was inspired by her own mother, Shirley Walker, who died in 2019 but who grew up as a girl during the 1940s and often recounted tales from the era.

A former ad exec, Bear hopes that if the mural project he’s got rolling around in his head takes flight, the area could become a sort-of unofficial “art row.”

“I’m happy as a lark being a property manager here,” the 67-year-old retiree said. “It’s a stress-free environment, but I have a creative streak.”

Artist Nancy Hadley, who painted a B-24 Liberator on the side of a Quonset hut, put her mom, Shirley Walker, in the mural.
Local artist Nancy Hadley, who painted a B-24 Liberator on the side of a Quonset hut, put her mom, Shirley Walker, in the mural as a pin-up girl.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

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