Historic California Posts, Camps, Stations and Airfields
Castle Air Force Base
(Air Corps Basic Flying School-Merced, Merced Army Air Field, Castle Field)
 
Main Gate, circa 1950
 
History

Located 7 miles northwest of Merced in the town of Atwater, Castle AFB, was first known as Air Corps Basic Flying School, Merced. In Sept. 1941 it became one of the fields utilized to meet the needs of the 30,000 Pilot Training Program. As the original name indicated, it provided basic air training for beginning pilots and crewmen. In April 1942 it was renamed Merced Army Air Field. Many pilots and crews were trained here during the war including a number of Women's Air Service Pilots (WASP). During the summer of 1945, when most other air fields were winding down, Merced was expanded to accommodate the large air tankers then coming into service. When the war ended Merced was home to several air tanker squadrons and remained a training center for pilots and air crews.

Auxiliary air fields used by Merced Army Air Field during the war were:

On Christmas Eve 1944, Brig. Gen. Frederick Castle rode his flaming B-17 to his death while leading the biggest bombing mission of World War II during the Battle of the Bulge. He was air commander and leader of more than 2,000 heavy bombers in a strike against German airfields on 24 December 1944. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroic action. The former Merced Army Air Field was renamed to Castle Field in his honor on 17 January 1946. With the establishment of the US Air Force, the field was renamed Castle Air Force Base effective 13 January 1948.

Merced AAF, November 1942

The first flight of a B-52B model was on 25 January 1955 and initial delivery to the 93rd Bomb Wing (H) at Castle AFB, CA occurred in the summer of 1955. Although the 93rd BW was considered an operational unit, its primary mission was transition training for new B-52 crews. Eventually, the -B models (RB-52Bs included) were used by the 95th, 99th and 22nd Bomb Wings in addition to the 93rd.

Trouble began on 16 February 1956, when a B-52 exploded in midair near Tracy, California, while on a flight from nearby Castle AFB. The crash made national headlines, in part because of the B-52's then unprecedented cost of $8 million. Several months later an in-flight explosion claimed a second Castle B-52 and the lives of five crew members. On 16 January 1957, five B-52s thundered down Castle's runway. Their mission was simple: show the world that the B-52 had the capability of becoming the first jet aircraft to circle the world nonstop. Supported by nearly 100 KC-97 tankers flying from Canada, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, and Guam, the three B-52s--led by Lucky Lady III--finished their mission at March AFB, California, on the morning of 18 January. Their flight time--45 hours, 19 minutes--was less than half that required by the B-50 Lucky Lady II just eight years before.

The base consists of 2,777 acres. The main base contains an airfield, aviation support buildings, warehouses, 1,707 dormitory beds, and a 52 bed hospital. Two housing areas, separated from the main base, include 933 family housing units. Most of the base lies within the unincorporated part of Merced County. Part, however, lies within the City of Atwater.

The 11,800' runway which is 300' wide, is the 4th longest civilian runway in the state. The nearest airport is in Merced with a 5,900 foot runway. The airport opened in January 1996 as an uncontrolled day-use airport. Castle Airport is designated as a General Aviation Airport, with fueling and pilot services provided by Trajen Flight Support. Primary use of the airport has been general aviation, however, large commercial aircraft companies have showed significant interest. The airport is being positioned for use as a heavy cargo/maintenance/training/manufacturing facility. General aviation activity has been amply provided for with the premier terminal in the area and community hangar and tie down facilities.

The Castle Air Museum Foundation has been in existence since the Air Force established the base museum in 1981. It is supported by nearly 600 individuals, many of whom are military retirees. When Castle Air Force Base closed in 1995, the Foundation assumed all responsibility for managing and displaying the museum''s collection of 44 planes which are on loan from the Air Force, among them a B-24, a B-36 and a SR-71. Just before closure, the Air Force conveyed two buildings and about 20 acres to the Foundation under a public benefit conveyance sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education. Visitation to the museum, currently at 80,000, is expected to increase as the newly opened Challenger Learning Center attracts visitors. In addition, the U.S. Space Camp Foundation in Huntsville, Alabama has opened an Aviation Challenge Program at Castle.

In mid-1998, the Federal Bureau of Prisons began construction of a new $70-$80 million, 1,000-bed high security federal penitentiary at Castle. Also included in the Castle plan is a 150 inmate minimum-security satellite camp. The initial Bureau plan at Castle included a 1,600 inmate medium-security federal correctional institution. However, federal needs changed and there now is a more urgent need for high-security capacity.

Sources: World War II Sites in the United States: A Tour Guide and Directory by Richard E. Osbourne; www.globalsecurity.com

 
 
Merced Field
by Justin Ruhge
 
Located six miles NW of Merced, the Army Air Corps Basic Flying School was established September 20, 1941 on a 740-acre site. $4 million was spent in developing the site. It became the Merced Army Flying School April 7, 1942, the Merced Army Airfield on May 8, 1943, Castle Field on January 17, 1946 and the Castle Air Force Base on January 13, 1948. It was named in honor of Brigadier General Frederick Walker Castle who was killed piloting his B-17 over Liege, Belgium in December 1944.
Construction of two hangars began on July 8, 1941. The first unit to occupy the field was the 89th Air Base Group on November 3, 1941. The first commander was Lieutenant Colonel Joseph P. Bailey on October 14, 1941. The Field was used for basic training beginning December 20,1941. Women's Air Service Pilots (WASP) Advanced Training was also conducted at the Field.
At the peak of the cadet program, the school graduated one thousand cadets every five weeks, with a total of approximately 13,000 cadets receiving training at Merced Army Flying School. The school had 600 aircraft assigned, of which 525 flew daily. The first aircraft to arrive were BT-13As and BT-15s trainers from the Vultee Plant in Southern California.
Auxiliary fields for Merced: Mariposa Mount Bullion, Merced Municipal Airport Auxiliary Field No. 1, Ballico Auxiliary Field No. 2, Livingston Howard Auxiliary Field No. 3, Athlone Auxiliary Field No. 4, Potter Auxiliary Field No. 5, New Municipal Auxiliary Field No. 6, Merced Japanese Reception Center.
Construction of new runways, taxiways, warm-up pads and hangars began on July 2, 1945. Additional facilities enabled Castle to convert from KC-97 to KC-135 operations starting April 13, 1957. The base became the crew-training center for the B-52 and KC-135 in August 1964. The Waring Academic Center to train students for B-52 and KC-135s was completed July 1, 1975. Aircraft maintenance buildings were completed in 1975 and 1978. In October 1979 the base was occupied by the 93rd Servicing Squadron.
Castle Air Force Base was closed in 1995 as a result of the Base Closure and Realignment Commission actions. The airport is used today as the Atwater Airport and an industrial park.
 
References: Air Force Bases by Robert Mueller, 1989, United States Air Force Historical Center, Washington D.C.; Castle Air Force Base by Harold P. Myers, 1984, Aerospace Historian Magazine.
 
 
Army Units Assigned to Merced Army Air Field/Castle Field during World War II
 

 Data Source

Date(s)

 Unit(s)
 Army of the United States Station List  7 December 1941
Hq, Air Corps Basic Flying School
539th School Squadron
540th School Squadron
541st School Squadron
Hq and Hq Sq, 89th Air Base Group (Special):
304th Material Squadron (Special)
90th Air Base Squadron (Special)
Air Force Band
Sub Depot
Det, 1st Communications Squadron
Det, 1st Weather Squadron
Det, 853rd Ordnance Service Company (Aviation)
Det Co M, 32nd Quartermaster Regiment (Truck)
Det, 858th Signal Service Company (Aviation)
 Army of the United States Station List  1 June 1943
Army Air Forces Basic Flying School (AAF)
Army Air Forces Weather Station (Type B) (AAF)
Finance Detachment (AAF)
Medical Detachment (AAF)
Veterinary Detachment (AAF)
Detachment, 1st Weather Squadron, Regional (AAF)
Headquarters 35th Flying Training Wing (AAF)
38 Army Air Forces Band (AAF)
72nd Sub-Depot (AAF)
90th Headquarters and Air Base Squadron (AAF)
301st Basic Flying Trainng Group (AAF)
Headquarters and Headquarters Squadron
406th Aviation Squadron (AAF)
539th Basic Flying Training Squadron (AAF)
540th Basic Flying Training Squadron (AAF)
541st Basic Flying Training Squadron (AAF)
753rd Basic Flying Training Squadron (AAF)
Detachment 5, 858th Signal Service Company, Aviation (AAF)
Detachment 5, 909th Quartermaster Service Company, Aviation (AAF)
991st Guard Squadron (AAF)
Detachment 6, 2053rd Ordnance Company, Aviation (Service) (AAF)
 Army of the United States Station List  1 April 1945
Army Air Forces Basic Flying School (AAF)
Third Echelon Repair Shop (AAF)
Section, 68th Army Air Forces Base Unit (1st Weather Region) (AAF)
3026th Army Air Forces Base Unit (Pilot School, Basic) (AAF)
Women's Army Corps Detachment
 Army of the United States Station List  1 May 1946
Army Air Forces Staging Area (AAF)
28th Air Service Group (AAF)
Headquarters and Base Services Squadron
39th Air Engineering Squadron (Air Service Group)
585th Air Materiel Squadron (Air Service Group)
59th Reconnasince Squadron, Very Long Range, Weather (AAF)
Section, 68th Army Air Forces Base Unit (1st Weather Region) (AAF)
444th Bombardment Group, Very Heavy (AAF)
Headquarters and Headquaerters Squadron
676th Bombardment Squadron, Very Heavy
677th Bombardment Squadron, Very Heavy
502nd Army Air Forces Base Unit (Headquarters, Air Force Air Transport Command [AFATC] Field Authotization) --
Operating Location No. 20 (AAF)
Staging Area Office (AFATC Liaison Office)
699th Army Air Forces Band (AAF)
AAF = Army Air Forces | AGF = Army Ground Forces | ASF = Army Service Forces Units | WDC = Western Defense Command
 
 
Air Force Units Assigned to Castle AFB
 
 
Extract, 31 December 1945 Airfield Directory
 
 
 

Extract, War Department Inventory of Owned, Sponsored and Leased Facilities, December 1945

 
 
 
 
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Updated 8 February 2016