Historic California Posts, Camps,
Stations and Airfields
Naval Air Base,
Air Station, Salton Sea; Naval Air Facility, Salton Sea
(Seaplane), above, and NAAS Salton Sea, below, circa 1944
by Richard E. Osborne
The Navy first used the northeast corner
of the Salton Sea in 1939 as a seaplane operational area with
bombing targets and for emergency landings.
After the start of World War II, a larger
facility was needed, and the Navy constructed a seaplane base
on the southwest shore of the sea, commissioned as Naval Air
Facility in 1942.
The base was initially equipped with PBY
Catalina twin-engine seaplanes, and was used for seaplane training
& as a seaplane ferry stop. The
seaplane base had a 2,100' long asphalt parking apron, a seaplane
ramp leading down into the water, and a small group of buildings.
As the parking apron resembled a runway, it
was painted with a large "DO NOT LANDING HERE" warning.
In an odd choice to portray a south-Pacific
island, in late 1942 Paramount Studios chose Salton Sea NAF to
be the set for location shots for the movie Wake Island. They
constructed a 4,000' clay airstrip in the desert, one mile west
of the seaplane base.
In 1944, to support a new mission of conducting
air-to-ground rocket training for carrier-based aircraft, a landplane
airfield was built one mile to the south of the seaplane base.
The airfield consisted of two clay runways (4,900' & 4,000'
long), a parking apron, and a taxiway connecting to the seaplane
base. Torpedo Squadron (VT) 20 was the first of 57 squadrons
to deployed to Salton Sea for air-to-ground rocket training.
Along with this new mission, Salton Sea was upgraded to a Naval
Auxiliary Air Station in 1944. Barracks were present for a total
of 638 personnel.
Tests were also conducted of Jet Assisted
Takeoff rockets (JATO) in 1944. In that same year, the 509th
Composite Squadron from Wendover Army Air Field, Utah made over
150 drops of prototype atomic bomb shapes at Salton Sea.
NAAS Salton Sea was disestablished in
1946. However, it was maintained & manned at a lower level
as a emergency seaplane facility until 1967, when seaplanes left
the naval inventory.
The Salton Sea facility was then taken
over by NAF El Centro, which conducted parachute drop tests for
the manned space program & other military systems until 1979.
In the postwar period, the continuing rise of the waters of the
Salton Sea were a perpetual problem, and a series of dikes were
built to prevent the Test Base from being flooded.
The Marines & Navy SEALs have also
used the isolated location for exercises.
Source: World War II Sites
in the United States: A Tour Guide and Directory by Richard
by M.L. Shettle
The Salton Sink was a depression in the
Imperial Valley of California, 280 ft. below sea level, containing
salt marshes and seasonal shallow lakes. In 1905, during the
construction of irrigation canals, the Colorado River broke through
dikes flooding the Sink. By the time the Colorado was returned
to its original course two years later, a lake 42 miles long,
10 to 16 miles wide, with a maximum depth of 93 feet, had been
created. The lake, known as the Salton Sea, receded until 1920,
when it stabilized to the size of 30 miles long, 8 to 10 miles
wide, with a maxi mum depth of 37 ft.
The Navy first came to the Sea in 1939, when the northeast corner
of the lake was used as a seaplane operational area with bombing
targets and for emergency landings. Navy crews utilized Eiler's
Salton Sea Resort, near Mecca, California for overnight lodging.
Eiler's employees provided a boat to bring the Navy crews ashore
from the moored seaplanes. In 1940, the Navy and the Coast Guard
agreed to share the cost of constructing a facility at a better
location. After the outbreak of war, the Navy constructed a seaplane
base on the southwest shore commissioning an NAF there on October
8, 1942. Planned as a training base for 12 seaplanes, the first
four PBYs arrived three weeks later. The Navy also used the facility
as a seaplane ferry stop and as a weather alternate for seaplanes
when San Diego became fogged in. Later that year, Paramount Studios
built a 4,000-ft. clay airstrip at the site for the filming of
the motion picture Wake Island.
A change of mission occurred in March 1944, when VT-20 deployed
to the base for rocket training. An additional 56 squadrons received
rocket training. Along with the carrier squadrons came a detachment
of CASU 53 from Holtville in support. Meanwhile, the station
upgraded to an NAAS and added another runway. In July 1944, the
Navy conducted the testing of rocket assisted takeoffs (JATO)
at the base. Rocket training continued to the end of the war.
In December 1944, B-29s of the 509th Composite Squadron from
Wendover AAF, Utah made over 150 drops at the facility, testing
the prototype atomic bomb shapes. The Navy finally disestablished
NAAS Salton Sea on November 13, 1946; however, an emergency seaplane
facility consisting of a radio - beacon, a light beacon, a boat
house, and a lighted 10,000-ft. seadrome was manned and maintained.
The facility was active until 1967 -- as long as sea planes remained
in the Naval inventory.
With a field elevation of 245 ft. below sea level, Salton Sea
was the second lowest elevation airfield in the U.S. with a 4,000
by 200-ft. and a 4,900 by 300-ft. clay runway. In March 1944,
base personnel numbered 85 officers and 465 enlisted men with
bar racks for 72 officers and 566 men. The station operated a
Piper AE ambulance plane, a GH Howard transport, a Grumman J2F
Duck rescue amphibian, and 12 crash boats. CASU 53 used one SBD
and up to 13 TBMs in its rocket training support role.
Following the Navy's departure, the base was taken over by the
Atomic Energy Commission and used to test inert nuclear weapons
drops from 1946 to 1961. NAF El Centro then took over the facility
using it for parachute tests of the manned space program and
other military systems until 1979. In the meantime, the Marines
and Navy Seals also conducted training exercises at the location.
Today, the former base is abandoned and will probably become
a wildlife refuge in the future.
TBF Avenger parked
at NAAS Salton Sea awaiting air to ground rocket training circa
US Army Corps
of Engineers History (1992)
Sacramento District, US Army Corps of
In 1942, the Navy acquired property at
the Salton Sea in Imperial County, California, to establish a
seaplane base. Eleventh Naval District reports, dated 1943 and
1945, indicate that the base occupied 2780 acres; however, various
other information (e.g., pertaining to the proposed transfer
of this property to the War Department in 1946) indicate that
the base encompassed 3520 to 4800 acres. It is fairly well documented
that 3520 acres (S17, S20, S21, S28, S29, and N1/2 S33; T11S,
R11E) were acquired as follows: 1600 acres in fee, 640 acres
by lease, 1200 acres by transfer from the Department of Interior,
and 80 acres by condemnation of public domain land that was subject
to a desert land entry. It is possible that an additional 1280
acres (S16 and S18, T11S, R11E) were occupied through some form
of agreement with the Department of Interior.
In addition, the Navy acquired rights-of-ways south of the main
base to construct canals, pipelines, and other structures associated
with a water treatment plant. Letters dated 24 August 1942 indicate
that apprpximately 23 and 19 acres were granted for rights-of-way
in S4 aqd S9 (T12S, R11E), respectively. Presumably limited acreage
was also acquired for rights-of-way (for road, pipeline, etc.)
in S32, T11S, R11E and S5, T12S, R11E.
The Navy acquired the above-referenced property to establish
NAAS Salton Sea, which was reportedly renamed "NAB Salton
Sea" in August 1944 and "NAF Salton Sea" in December
1944. The function of this base was operational training for
Naval fleet units. In January 1945, the Eleventh Naval District
listed the base's improvements as follows: "barracks, BOQ,
mess halls and galleys, assembly and repair shops, nose hangars,
storehouse, marine railway, seaplane ramp, dispensary, water
treatment plant, utilities, services and necessary appurtenances
accommodate 520 enlisted men, 37 officers (men); 2 clay surfaced
runways 4000' x 200', clay surfaced taxiways and parking area,
aircraft parking area, magazine area, type B-2 field lighting
and flare pots for emergency night landings, floating and under-water
targets." One of the runways was reportedly built by Paramount
Pictures (prior to the Navy's occupancy) for a movie set.
The Navy's fee and certain leasehold interests (1600 and 280
acres, respectively) in the seaplane base were transferred to
the War Department 13 November 1946, and subsequently ransferred
to the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) by Executive Order dated
31 December 1946. The AEC also acquired the remaining acreage
that constituted NAF Salton Sea, and established the Salton Sea
Test Base (a bombing range) at this location. The AEC's Test
Base eventually occupied 51,113.67 acres. In various actions
from approximately 1963 to 1966, the AEC Test Base was acquired
by the Department of the Navy and is now referred to as the Navy's
Salton Sea Test Range. A significant portion of this property
was reported excess in the mid-1970s, and currently, the boundaries
of the Navy's Salton Sea Test Range encompass 20,730.75 acres.
Specifically, the N1/2 of S33 (T11S, R11E), which formally belonged
to NAF Salton Sea, was reported excess 4 March 1974. Conflicting
information exists concerning the current ownership of this property;
however, the Naval real estate offices at both San Diego and
San Bruno claim that this property is no longer under the control
of the Navy. It is thus assumed that the property was disposed
of. The remaining portions of the former seaplane base are within
the current boundaries of the Test Range (although the lease
on a 280-acre portion of S16, T11S, R11E was allowed to terminate
in approximately 1985). The Test Range was used a few years ago
by the Marine Corps and Navy Seal Team, but currently is not
being used and has been proposed for reassignment from the Naval
Weapons Center, China Lake to the Naval Special War Command,