Historic California Posts, Camps Stations and Airfields
Marine Corps Auxilary Air Facility, Gillespie Field
(Camp Gillespie)
by M.L. Shettle, Jr.
MCAAF Gillespie Field

As early as 1927, 12 Marines parachuted from an aircraft at NAS Anacostia, Washington D.C.; how ever, there were no organized Marine parachute units at that time. German success with airborne forces in the early days of WW 11 prompted every major military in the world to explore the new concept - and that included the U. S. Marine Corps. MGen. Holcomb, Commandant of the Marine Corps, ordered plans for the development of a Marine parachute program in May 1940. Requirements were set for one battalion of parachutists for every Marine regiment. Each battalion was to be equipped with two 75 mm-pack howitzers, three days of rations, hand-drawn vehicles, and light antiaircraft and anti tank weapons. Three tactical scenarios were envisioned for the parachute battalions: as a reconnoitering and raiding force; as a spearhead or advance guard to hold strategic objectives until the arrival of larger forces; and as an independent force operating in the guerrilla role for extended periods.

During the summer of 1940, the Marine parachute program gained impetus after Marine officers observed the Army's airborne training and facilities as well as the receipt of additional reports of the use of airborne troops in Europe. The first class of two officers and 38 enlisted men began training at NAS Lakehurst, New Jersey on October 26, 1940. Tower training was accomplished at the Army's facility at nearby Hightstown, New Jersey. Live jumps were made at Lakehurst. The second class began training on December 30, 1940. A total of 225 Marines completed the Lakehurst course. Due to the inadequacy of the facilities at Lakehurst and the unavailability of the Army's towers at Hightstown, Capt. Marion Dawson and the second class of parachutists were sent to San Diego in February 1941 to set up an additional school. The third class of parachutists was also sent to San Diego and eventually formed the 2nd Parachute Battalion.

Initially, the Marine parachutists were based at the Marine barracks at San Diego - now the recruit training center. The first parachute jump took place on April 27, 1941, at Camp Kearney. Training proceeded at a leisurely pace until the United States entered World War II. The Marines then chose a 688-acre site 12 miles east of San Diego at Santee for a dedicated parachute training facility. In May 1942, the Parachute School, Marine Corps Base, San Diego was temporarily established in tents at Camp Elliot, adjacent to Camp Kearney. The next month, a second parachute school was organized at New River, N. C. By September, the camp at Santee was completed and named in honor of Marine Lt. Archibald Gillespie, who played a prominent role in the effort to separate California from Mexico in the 1840s. Camp Gillespie had accommodation for 600 officers and men plus two runways, a captive parachute training tower, two free towers, and a combat training swimming pool. The administrative and training staff at the school numbered 150 officers and men.

Sometimes referred to as Paramarines, Marine paratrooper was preferred by the men. There was no shortage of volunteers for the parachute program. Part of this was due to the fact the enlisted men received an additional $50 and officers an additional $100 per month when qualified. Physical requirements were high and the men had to be unmarried. The six-week course consisted of three phases. The first consisted of ground instruction in tactics, map reading, demolitions, and weapons. In the second phase, students learned to pack chutes and use floatation gear. The final phase consisted of parachute jumping. First from the captive and free towers and finally six jumps from Marine transports from Camp Kearney. The course was demanding, and parachute wings were awarded to those who survived the 40% washout rate. Parachute qualifiers also included Navy doctors and corpsmen.

Initially, Gillespie graduated 70 paratroopers per month. Early in 1943, the rate increased to 100 per month. The New River school closed in July 1943, thereafter, all training took place at Gillespie. Meanwhile, doubts started to rise as to the need of airborne troops by the Marines. By the fall of 1943, the parachute program had come under close scrutiny. Up to this point in the war, Marine objectives were small, isolated, densely defended islands unsuitable for airborne operations. The Marines also lacked the airlift capacity to transport more than one battalion at a time. Add to this the availability of land-based staging areas and long distances involved. Finally, the Marines were paying $150,000 per month in extra pay to parachute troops that they could not keep jump qualified. The result ing conclusion was that the parachute program was a luxury the Marines neither needed nor could afford. On December 30, 1943, the Commandant ordered the disbandment of the parachute forces.

During the 16 months of Camp Gillespie's existence, a total of 3,000 parachutists graduated without a single fatality. Up to July 1943, 20,000 jumps had been made at Gillespie. Marine parachute battalions fought in several campaigns in the South Pacific including Guadalcanal, but no combat parachute drops were ever made. When the program cancelled, the parachutists present at San Diego joined the 5th Marine Division and eventually took part in the invasion of Iwo Jima. One of the former parachutists was Ira Hayes, the American Indian who raised the flag on Mount Suribachi. Today, the Marines train a small number of parachutists - primarily for reconnaissance operations.

In February 1944, Gillespie commissioned as an MCAAF under the command of El Toro with a Marine captain as the Officer in Charge. The station's complement consisted of six officers and 138 men plus the Navy's medical staff of one doctor, one dentist, and five corpsmen. The station also took over Camp Pendleton OLF from El Toro. In April, VMSB-141 was present at the station with 24 SBDs. The squadron was re-equipped with Corsairs and redesignated VMFB-141 before moving on to El Toro in the fall. Also aboard during this time was Air Warning Squadron (AWS) 10 with 13 officers and 127 men as well as a detachment of AWS 11 with 43 men. Additional AWS squadrons trained at Gillespie during the remainder of the war. On January 5, 1945, a Headquarters and a Service Squadron with 100 men reported aboard.

In addition to hosting various Marine and Navy units, Gillespie also was involved in providing rescue service to several aircraft that crashed nearby. On the night of June 6, a PB4Y crashed on the station while executing an emergency landing - no injuries were incurred. Since Gillespie did not have runway lighting, vehicle headlights were used to illuminate the runway. On July 6, the Navy's Escort Carrier Air Group 37 with a fighter and a torpedo squadron arrived. In September 1945, the air group's fighter squadron moved to NAS San Diego, but VT-37 torpedo squadron was still present with 10 TBM Avengers.

In 1947, the entire facility was turned over to San Diego County. Gillespie Field became a general aviation airport. In a rural area during World War II, today Gillespie Field is surrounded by urban and industrial growth. With over 250,000 aircraft operations per year, it is the busiest airport in San Diego, even though the runways have never been extended. The former drop zone on the airport's southeast quadrant is the location of the El Cajon Speedway. Two Marine World War II buildings are reported to have survived: one is now used by the San Diego County Sheriff's helicopter personnel and the other is a Quonset-type with an addition.

Copied with the permission of the author from United States Naval Air Stations of World War II.

Extract of 1945 US Army and Navy Airfield Directory
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Updated 8 February 2016