Mesa Musings: Air base brought us together

I was privileged to attend the 36th Santa Ana Army Air Base (SAAAB) reunion Feb. 25 at Orange Coast College.

The event, which OCC has hosted annually since the reunion's inception in 1977, celebrated the 70th anniversary of the base's opening in 1942. Fifty World War II veterans attended.

SAAAB, in operation from 1942 through 1946, encompassed 1,336 acres and covered one-fifth of what is today the city of Costa Mesa. The base included OCC's campus, the Orange County Fairgrounds, Costa Mesa High School, Vanguard University, TeWinkle Park and the Civic Center.

Nearly 150,000 pilots, navigators and bombardiers — including my father — trained at the base.

As I entered the reunion's display area I spied a large poster featuring the story of my family's ties to the base. I was deeply moved.

My mom and dad first met at SAAAB in 1943. They were married in 1944 (68 years ago this week), and had their first child — me — in 1945.

Included on the reunion poster was a wedding portrait of Mom and Dad. Pops was smartly bedecked in his U.S. Army Air Corps uniform.

In 1942, my grandfather, William Thomlinson — assistant chef at the Earl Carroll Theater, a Hollywood nightclub at Sunset Boulevard and Vine Street — was recruited to open the new preflight training facility on the bluff overlooking Newport Beach.

He was executive chef for the base's 11 mess halls. He, my grandmother and my 18-year-old mother bought a small home on Balboa Island.

My mother, Betty Jean Thomlinson, a recent Santa Monica High School graduate, was hired as secretary to the manager of the air base's mess halls, Maj. Philip Caldwell.

My father, Bill Carnett, who didn't yet know my mom, completed cadet training at SAAAB, but washed out of flight school in Texas due to an inner-ear problem. He returned to the base as a tech sergeant and ran one of the mess halls.

My mom's first impression of the base was that it was desolate.

"There wasn't a blade of grass anywhere, except for the front of the headquarters building," she recalled. "Most roads were tar, and Jeeps were everywhere."

Her office was near the parade ground, not far from the base's Baker Street entrance. I've lived within a few hundred yards of that hallowed space for the last 37 years.

She met Bill Carnett, the good-looking Mess 11 sergeant, and they began dating.

"He'd hitchhike from the base to Balboa Island," she said. "We'd walk to the ferry and attend movies at the Balboa Theater. We had to catch the 11 p.m. ferry back or we'd be stranded."

Bill would occasionally borrow a friend's car and take Betty to a film at the Lido Theatre. Or, they'd go into Santa Ana.

"We had a favorite upstairs café on Fifth Street. You rarely saw soldiers in Newport at night because it was under blackout. There were concerns about submarine attacks. Santa Ana had no such restrictions, so cadets flocked there."

On a couple of occasions, they drove into L.A. to go dancing.

Bill and Betty were married in Corona del Mar's Chapel by the Sea on March 8, 1944. Bill and Effie Thomlinson –- my grandparents –- were in attendance and hosted the reception at their Balboa Island home. The cake, made by my grandfather, was served with champagne.

The couple honeymooned at the Coast Inn in Laguna Beach. They remained married for 62 years, until my father's death in 2006.

For the first two weeks of their marriage, Bill and Betty lived in a rented room on Broadway in Costa Mesa. They then rented a room on the Grand Canal on Little Island. Finally, they moved into the apartment behind my grandparents' home on Marine Avenue.

My mom continued to work at the air base until late 1944. I was born in January of '45. My parents, my two siblings and I moved to Costa Mesa in 1952.

The war officially ended Sept. 2, 1945.

"With that, we all breathed a sigh of relief," my mom recalled.

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Tuesdays.

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