A Spanish presidio or fortified settlement was founded here in 1782. The Mission Santa Barbara was established four years later by Franciscan monks. Construction of the present day mission buildings began in 1815 and today Santa Barbara is considered the best preserved, as well as the largest, of the California missions. The United States claimed the area in 1846 and the town that grew around the mission was incorporated in 1850. In 1916, Allen and Malcolm Loughead formed a company and began building aircraft here. In 1926, the company moved to Burbank and changed the name to Lockheed.
Located 100 miles north of Los Angeles on a crescent shaped bay of the Pacific Ocean, Santa Barbara's population numbered 35,000 in 1940. The national obsession with aviation, inspired by Charles Lindbergh's flight of 1927, prompted the establishment of a flight school and air strip eight miles up the coast near the small community of Goleta. The airport continued to grow during the 1930's. In 1931, General Western Aero Corp. moved to the airport and built two hangars to manufacture the Meteor monoplane. Two years later, the company went bankrupt. On December 7, 1931, Century Pacific Airlines began serving Santa Barbara on its San Francisco to Los Angeles route. The price of a round-trip ticket to Los Angeles was $9.81. United Air Lines inaugurated service on October 1, 1936. In 1940, the CAA proposed improving the airport in the interest of National Defense and the City floated a $149,000 bond issue to purchase 568 acres. Construction began during 1941 and included a new terminal building for United Airlines. The CAA spent approximately $1million on the project that included filling in the Goleta Slough (tidal marsh) to accommodate three runways. The City tried to interest the Navy in the airport during its improvement, but failed to reach an agreement. Meanwhile, the Army became involved in the airfield.
Following the U. S. entry into the war, the Army stationed P-40 interceptors and twin-engine antisubmarine aircraft at the airport as well as adding revetments. The Navy renewed its interest in Santa Barbara in the person of LCol. William Fox who selected the airport for a Marine Corps Air Station. Santa Barbara was far from an ideal site. Drainage was poor and high tides flooded a portion of the airfield. In addition, Highway 101, the main north/south route from Los Angeles to San Francisco, needed to be relocated to accommodate the base. On the plus side, the runways were in place and the station could be built in a minimum of time. The Interdepartmental Traffic Control Board gave the Navy permission to develop the airport. A leasing agreement was reached with the City in February 1942 and additional property purchased. The price of the lease was $2,600 per year - however, the fee was never paid. Construction commenced in May 1942. The first 139 Marines arrived on June 14 consisting of the forward echelon of MAG 24 with LCol. F. G. Cowie in command, plus VMSB-243, and VMSB 244. The Army was still present, but moved on shortly.
Initially, Santa Barbara was more like an advanced island base than a stateside station. Tents were set up on dry high ground at the northeast end of the airport. Drinking water had to be trucked in from town. The two former General Western hangers were used for a barracks and mess hall. Station headquarters was set up in a United Air Lines building and squadron areas temporarily located on the former Army revetments. The airport's grade only fell six inches in every 1000 ft. High tides and heavy rains flooded the landing field with mud everywhere. Four-wheel drive Jeeps were required to navigate the base. The Marines nicknamed the station "The Swamp." The standing joke among the pilots was to request permission to land on Santa Barbara Lake. On top of all this, certain wind conditions inundated the station with noxious smells and flies from a nearby hog farm and slaughterhouse. On other occasions, the winds brought mosquitoes. Barracks areas were built southwest of the airfield on a high and dry coastal mesa. On the other hand, the citizens of Santa Barbara made the Marines feel right at home. With the memory of the Japanese submarine's shelling of the oil field just north in February, the locals considered the Marines as the community's protectors. Marines were invited into homes for meals and were treated to drinks at the local establishments. Apparently Santa Barbara's single women also welcomed the Marines since the Chaplain of MAG 24 once performed 15 weddings in a single week! Inevitably, as the numbers of Marines increased, the community's relationship with the Marines cooled, but was always cordial.
From the outset, the Marines maintained a high level of alert and defense at Santa Barbara. In 1942, the threat of a Japanese carrier raid on the West Coast was a very good possibility, especially after the Japanese carrier raid in June at Dutch Harbor, Alaska. In addition, Japanese submarines occasionally made an appearance off the coast. When the station received its first two aircraft in July, one J2F Duck and one SNJ, the depth charges were mounted on the Duck. Foxholes, barbed wire, and gun emplacements were spread over the airfield. The station later added a Curtiss SBC. While construction continued, VMSB-243 and VMSB-244 trained at the station. In August, LCol. L. Steadman, the executive officer of MAG 24, was designated as Santa Barbara's prospective C.O., and began to organize the station. When the new United Air Lines terminal reached completion, station headquarters moved in. By November, the first barracks were ready for occupancy. On December 4, 1942, MCAS Santa Barbara officially commissioned.
By the first of 1943 with most of the original construction completed, the base became quite livable. Conditions further improved when the slaughter house burned down and the hog farm abandoned. In January, MAG 24, VMSB-243, and VMSB-244 transferred to Ewa. In their place, MBDAG 42, commissioned on January 1st at San Diego, moved aboard along with the F4F Wildcat equipped VMF 422. Even though Santa Barbara was now able to support its designed complement of 2,000 men, 240 officers, and 80 aircraft, activity did not appreciably increase. This was primarily due to the fact that the training pipeline was not yet turning out pilots in numbers. Another factor was probably Santa Barbara's coastal location that was subject to poor flying conditions during winter months. An additional squadron was not added until May 1st with the commissioning of VMSB-134. The squadron was redesignated as VMTB-134 the next month and operated a mixed bag of SBDs and TBM/TBF Avengers. VMF-115 commissioned on July 1st and Maj. Joe Foss, Medal of Honor recipient, became squadron C.O. two weeks later. Nevertheless, only a total of 21 aircraft were on the station. During August, a 30-man Coast Guard detachment with guard dogs arrived to provide sentry duty. By September, all squadrons had been brought up to strength and over 100 aircraft were on board. VMF 422, after transitioning to Corsairs, departed for duty at Midway during the month, while VMF-112 arrived from combat in the Solomons for re-equip ping and re-organization. VMF-422 later became known as the "Lost Squadron." Launched from an escort carrier to an island base, poor pre-flight planning resulted in the loss of six pilots and 22 aircraft due to weather. The next month, VMTB-134, having completed its training, departed for combat in the South Pacific. The station received an initial complement of 91 women Marines during October. In December, VMF-123 also arrived from the Solomons and a Coast Guard PBY was deployed to Santa Barbara to provide Air-Sea rescue. During 1943, MAG 42 suffered a total of 24 fatalities in training accidents.
Santa Barbara had two unique situations. The first was the highway, US 101. To obtain the required amount of property for the station, it was necessary to purchase land on the opposite side of the highway from the airfield. On this site, the Assembly and Repair Department, storage, and other facilities were located. The Navy and the State reached an agreement to relocate 10 miles of US 101; however, as a result of bureaucratic hassles, the relocation never took place during the war. With an average of 7,000 vehicles daily, the highway traffic had to be stopped constantly by Marine guards to move an estimated million dollars of aircraft, equipment and supplies across the road every day. The second unique situation was air traffic control. The Navy's lease with the City stipulated that United Air Lines could continue to use the airport. Initially, the CAA and the Marines operated separate control towers. Finding this arrangement unworkable, the CAA moved into the Marine tower. Finally, a shortage of military controllers prompted the Navy to allow the CAA to take over all air traffic control.
VMF-221, having had lost 15 aircraft and pilots in the Battle of Midway, arrived for reorganization in January 1944. During the first part of the year, operational activity was quite light with only 50 aircraft on board in February. Nevertheless, a $2.7 million project was begun to provide spaces for an addition al Air Group, locally called "Boomtown," and the paralleling of runways 15 and 21. MBDAG 45 commissioned in February and remained for eight months. VMF-214, Pappy Boyington's old outfit, the Black Sheep Squadron, also arrived, while VMF 115, departed for the South Pacific. By May, activity at the station increased with 76 aircraft present - mostly Corsairs. On July 1, 1944, VMSB-943 commissioned as a replacement training squadron, remaining four months before moving to El Toro.
Marine leaders had been lobbying for some time to provide air support for ground forces from aircraft carriers. By mid-1944, Marine aviation had been relegated to the backwaters of the war - specifically to keep bypass islands still occupied by the Japanese neutralized. Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral King, objected to the fact that Marine aviation was larger than necessary to carry out its mission. General Vandegrift agreed to eliminate one of the Marine's five aircraft wings. In return, Admiral King would allow Marine squadrons on CVEs (escort carriers) with a primary mission of providing ground support. MBDAG 48 commissioned at Santa Barbara on August 3, 1944, as Santa Barbara became the center of training and administering Marine carrier air groups. The composition of the Marine CVE group would be an 18-aircraft fighter squadron and a 12-plane torpedo squadron. Marine Carrier Groups, Aircraft, Fleet Marine Force, Pacific was formed at Santa Barbara on October 21, 1944, and given command of Santa Barbara's MBDAG 48 and Mojave's MBDAG 51. A comprehensive training program was set up that included ground instruction in flight deck procedures and over-water navigation plus many other subjects. The flight-training syllabus involved FCLPs (Field Carrier Landing Practice), gunnery, navigation, night flying, tactics, rocket firing, and bombing. Shortly thereafter MBDAG 48 and 51 designations were changed to MASG (Marine Air Support Group).
Meanwhile, the first Kamikaze attacks in October 1944 sent waves of shock, terror, and anxiety through the U. S. fleet. Although the Naval commanders downplayed the menace at the time, the fact is that the Kamikaze was savagely effective. Over one fifth of the U.S. Navy's ship losses and almost one half of the ships damaged during the entire war were caused by the 10-month Kamikaze rampage. One can only imagine the losses if an invasion of Japan had been necessary. To counter the threat, in November, the fighter complement on Essex class carriers was raised to 73 while the number of torpedo and dive-bomber aircraft was cut to 15 each. Since the Navy did not have this number of fighters or fighter pilots immediately available, the Marines stepped in to fill the gap. These first Marine squadrons received a bare minimum of training and were in for a rude awakening. In the first nine days on board the USS Essex alone, the Marines lost seven pilots and 13 Corsairs - none to enemy action. During the same time, an equal number of Navy Hellcats on the Essex suffered no losses. One Marine noted, "We just can't learn navigation and carrier operations in one week as well as the Navy does in six months." Ten Marine fighter squadrons went aboard Essex class carriers during 1945.
By the first of 1945, MAG 45, VMF-112, 123, 214, and 221 had moved on to the South Pacific. Present were four torpedo squadrons, VMTB-132, 143, 233, and 234, that were training as part of the Marine escort carrier groups. The year got off to a bad start for the torpedo squadrons. On January 2, the worst accident in the history of the station took place when two TBMs had a midair with the loss of four crewmembers. The next month, the C.O. of VMTB 233, Maj. Robert Vaupell, also lost his life in a crash. In March, the first of the escort carrier groups, MCVG-1, went aboard the USS Block Island. Three more groups followed a month apart. The fighter squadrons of these groups were from MASG 51 at Mojave. These squadrons, VMF-511, 512, 513, and 351 began training in January 1944 for Operation Crossbow (Project Danny), the attack of V-1 launch sites in France with Tiny Tim rockets. After the cancellation of the project, these highly trained squadrons moved to Mojave and were able to take the Corsair aboard the small escort carriers. The first four MCVGs were the only Marine escort carrier air groups to reach combat before war's end.
Beginning in February, additional fighter squadrons slated for escort carrier duty arrived at Santa Barbara for training in the F6F Hellcat. Why the Hellcat? One reason could be that eighty-five percent of these squadron's pilots were fresh out of the Training Command and operating a Corsair from an escort carrier was not for the novice. The main reason was the fact that the Corsair had become the fighter of choice for Essex class carriers and were in short supply, leaving the Hellcat as the only fighter available. To conform to the Navy's system, the Marines formed the first CASD (Carrier Aircraft Service Detachment) at Santa Barbara on February 1, 1945. Equivalent to the Navy's CASU (Carrier Aircraft Service Unit), CASDs provided maintenance and other support duties for Marine carrier air groups. A total of 16 CASDs were formed during the war - eight at Santa Barbara.
For the remainder of the war, Santa Barbara concentrated on the training of the CVE air groups. The goal was to have eight air groups ready in time for the expected invasion of Japan late in the year. Additional squadrons that spent time here during 1945 included VMTB-144, 151, 463, 454, 621, 623, and 624, as well as VMF-114, 213, 216, 321, 472 and 481. Maj. Joe Foss returned to the station in March as a flight-training officer. In May, MCVG 6 completed 602 carrier landings during its shake down cruise off San Diego without suffering the slightest accident - the Marines learned well! MASG 48 moved to Hawaii the same month as MASG 51 transferred aboard from Mojave. Unfortunately, the C.O. of MCVG 7, Maj. Robert Frazer, was killed in an accident on June 18, 1945.
Long time residents of the station were Navy utility squadrons. A VJ-18 detachment was on board from June to September 1944, when it was replaced by a detachment of VJ-1. A maximum of five SBDs were normally used by the VJ squadrons for target towing. In June 1945, TBM Avengers had replaced the SBDs. The Navy held its own at Santa Barbara by winning the base softball championship in 1945.
MCAS Santa Barbara was comprised of 568 leased and 900-owned acres including a lemon tree orchard and strawberry patch which earned $2,000 in 1943 that was added to the base recreation fund. The station was designed to support 180 aircraft and this number was reached in September 1945. Barracks existed for 493 officers, 3,109 enlisted men, and 440 women Marines. Civilian employees totaled 323. The station usually operated eight aircraft that included a JRB twin Beechcraft, a Grumman JRF Goose, a Grumman J2F Duck, a GB Staggerwing Beech, a GH Howard, two SNJs, and an NE Piper Cub. The Marines had two crash boat crews stationed at the Navy Section Base at the former Santa Barbara Yacht Club. A total of 101 aircraft accidents occurred at Santa Barbara during the war. A crane was installed on the Goleta pier from which an old torpedo plane fuselage was suspended. Fully equipped crewmembers manned the fuselage that was then dropped 15 ft. into the water. The crew had 60 seconds to inflate the life raft and orderly abandon the ship. Trainees were also dropped from the crane in parachutes. The total investment at Santa Barbara reached nearly $10 million.
Following the war, the Marines contemplated making Santa Barbara a permanent installation; however the City resisted this proposal, since the facility was needed for a municipal airport - no other land in the area was suitable. The station went on caretaker status March 1, 1946, and released to the War Assets Administration for disposal two months later. Highway 101 was finally relocated north of the airport in 1947. In 1952, the University of California at Santa Barbara took over the former barracks area on the coastal plateau.
My wife and I visited Santa Barbara in February 1998 and were immediately impressed by the beautiful town and surrounding area. One could only wonder why the Navy ever let the Marines have the station! Many former World War II buildings are still in existence - as many or more than I had seen at any former base. Several appeared to be on their last legs, but included the original General Western hangars, several Marine built hangars, and the parachute loft. The present airport manager is located in a former MAG headquarters building. After the heavy rains of the previous week, sandbags were in evidence at the doors to keep out the water - some things never change! Also located in the former MAG building is the Goleta/Santa Barbara Air Heritage Museum. The small museum has several displays and memorabilia that celebrate aviation and the former Marine base. The Museum's address is 601 Firestone Road, Goleta, CA 93117 -phone number (805) 683-8936. The museum is open at limited times so if a visit is planned it would be best to call first. The citizens of Santa Barbara have done an outstanding job of preservation in the city and at the airport. The United Air Lines terminal, completed in August 1942, has been restored and serves as the present day airline terminal. A major aircraft maintenance center (a DC-10 was present) is now located in the north east corner of the airport - very near the old General Western hangars. The University of California at Santa Barbara, located on the coastal plateau at the former Marine barracks area, utilizes some former Marine buildings, and is arguably one of the most picturesque college campuses in the country.
Copied with the permission of the author from United States Marine Corps Air Stations of World War II.
Extract, January 1945 US Army Air Forces Directory of Airfields