In late 1942, the Navy started work on two auxiliary stations in the San Joaquin Valley near the small and isolated communities of Vernalis and Crows Landing. At Vernalis, 16 miles west of Modesto, 700 acres were purchased for $33,300 to build a base to support two multi-engine patrol squadrons. The Navy commissioned NAAF Vernalis on June 8, 1943, as an auxiliary of Alameda with one 4,000 x 500-ft. tarmac runway.
In November, a project began to extend the existing runway to 7000 ft., as well as add buildings and gasoline storage capacity. In the meantime, Vernalis's designation changed to an NAAS. During this time, VB-148 and VB-150 were aboard. In the spring of 1944, the Navy realized that Crows Landing, 18 miles to the southeast with concrete runways, would be better suited for the heavier multiengined types. The two stations swapped missions. Thereafter, Vernalis hosted carrier squadrons. With the arrival of carrier units, Vernalis added a 160 acre dive bombing range and commissioned CASU 63 in support. Due to the limited crosswind landing capability of Navy carrier aircraft, $240,000 was spent on the addition of a 4000 x 150-ft. crosswind runway. Further improvements included $16,000 in permanent runway lighting and a Seabee installed catapult and arresting gear. At a strafing range on the Diablo Mountain Range to the west, a silhouette of a submarine was painted on rocks for strafing practice.
Vernalis proper consisted of a single country store that also served as a Post Office. One local resident remembers that a visitor once walked out of the store and asked: "How do you get out of town?" -- the supreme insult! To keep the sailors entertained, Vernalis ran a liberty bus service to Modesto. German POWs arrived late in the war, constructed an Olympic-sized swimming pool, and worked on local farms. The base had a quarter-mile field track and an ice hockey team that played in Modesto.
Vernalis had daily afternoon logistic aircraft service from Alameda that brought mail, personnel, and aircraft parts. One morning, the passenger manifest for the afternoon flight, received by teletype, listed Admiral Dewey Bluitt as a passenger. The C.O. alerted the troops, who policed the base, neatly parked the aircraft in one direction, and decked out in dress uniform for the occasion. The C.O. and an honor guard met the flight when it arrived. Off the PBY stepped Admiral Dewey Bluitt -- a black Seaman First Class! Presumably, Bluitt's father had been a Navy man who named his son after the famous Admiral Dewey.
After the war, Vernalis initially was chosen to remain open; however, Crows Landing received the nod due to its concrete runways. On October 15, 1945, Vernalis was placed on caretaker status and abandoned three months later. In the 1950's, the Air Force used the airfield to launch 300-ft. diameter balloons that carried electronic equipment for experiments in the stratosphere. In recent years, the property has been used for sun-drying of agricultural products and the storage of cannery waste that is subject to spontaneous combustion. Locals claim the former base is haunted by a ghost, known as "the Colonel." The ghost is alleged to be a former military man who was murdered and dismembered on the base. Another explanation might be a tragic accident that occurred during the war. A cable broke on the catapult and arresting gear system killing two men -- decapitating one. The decapitated man was working in place of another man who had a date. Could this man be the ghost in question?
Copied with the permission of the author from United States Naval Air Stations of World War II.
The Navy purchased 700 acres in 1942 to build a base to support two multi-engine patrol squadrons. It was commissioned as Naval Auxiliary Air Facility Vernalis in 1943. It would serve as an auxiliary of Alameda NAS, and initially had a single 4,000' x 500' tarmac runway.
Later that same year, the runway was extended to 7,000', and the field was redesignated as a Naval Auxiliary Air Station. In 1944, the patrol aircraft were shifted to Crows Landing, and Vernalis became host to carrier squadrons. A 160 acre dive bombing range was added to support the carrier squadrons. Due to the limited crosswind capability of the smaller carrier aircraft, a 4,000' crosswind runway was added. Runway lighting was installed, as well as carrier catapult & arresting gear.
According to Michael Guerin (whose father was at Vernalis & Crows Landing during World War II), at one point early steam catapults were tested at Vernalis,
and there were some bad accidents/explosions, in which there were injuries & deaths.
At a strafing range on the Diablo Mountains to the west, a silhouette of a submarine was painted on the rocks to be used as a target. German POWs were housed at the base late in the war, and assisted in construction projects.
After the end of World War II, Crows Landing was chosen to remain open (due to its more substantial concrete runways), and Vernalis was closed in 1945. It was still labeled as "Vernalis (Navy)" on the 1955 & 1956 San Francisco Sectional Charts (according to Chris Kennedy), but the Aerodromes table on the chart included the remarks, "Closed. Emergency only."
Vernalis was used by the Air Force in the 1950s to launch 300' diameter balloons that performed "experiments" in the stratosphere. According to Scott Murdock, it was listed as the "Vernalis Geophysics Annex".
The Vernalis airfield was no longer depicted at all on the 1965 San Francisco Sectional Chart (courtesy of Chris Kennedy). However, it was still depicted as "Auxiliary #2" on the 1969 USGS topographic map.
In recent years, the property has been used for various agricultural purposes. The Delta Mendota Canal has been built over the western portion of the former airfield, running through the middle of the crosswind runway. The street grid, some buildings, the ramp area & portions of taxiways still exist. The outline of a portion of the primary runway is still visible, as well as the outline of the crosswind runway, extending south from the canal.
Jack Daley reported in 2003 that "There is a large gravel washer & loading operation on the northern area of the former base, and a wood recycling operation located on the former ramp area. The old POW camp - which was both on the base itself & out along Highway 33 near the village - has finally had the last of it's guard towers torn down. The asphalt runways - what's left of them - occasionally have a trainer shoot touch & go's. But since NASA closed nearby Crows Landing those concrete runways are more attractive. Such as they are."
The Vernalis site was also visited by Tim Tyler & John 'Boss' Voss in 2003. Tim's report:
"The former NAAS is now approximately 5 different separate businesses sharing the former airfield - scrap metal, scrap wood processing, and fertilizer manufacturing businesses, all with large piles of their material along the old runway & ramp areas. Numerous farm & construction heavy machinery seemed to be stored on the grounds as well, and there were numerous 18-wheelers driving all over the place, loading & unloading material. There are several concrete foundations probably remaining from the World War 2-era, one or two small concrete buildings (which probably dated back to the USAF use of the site in the 1950s), and runway/ramp area remaining, but none of the old barracks, admin buildings, etc. There are numerous newer (but still old) buildings on site. The flagpole is intact along the access road, with nothing else around it.
We didn't see any structures that looked to be of World War 2 vintage, however there were two concrete buildings. Other than numerous concrete foundations and the runway/ramp area, the sole (as far as we could see) remaining structure from the WW2 NAAS days was the wooden flag pole along the entrance road to the site. There was nothing around it, nor was a flag flying."
"We had spoken with a man on the site who was hosing off a bulldozer and his understanding was that the businesses had been located on the site for approximately 10 years. He knew it had been some sort of old airfield, but wasn't aware at all of the history. He'd never observed any special remains or other items of historical significance in the couple of years he'd worked there. We asked him where the office was, so we could explain ourselves & formally ask for permission to explore the grounds. He pointed to a mobile home located in the center of the site, near some other old (but not military related) buildings, and John & I did plan on stopping there. As it turned out, a few minutes later, a Silver Suburban started following us, and when we stopped & explained our quest, we were told to leave, the reason being that sometime in the past, other people had been poking around the site, collided with one of the numerous 18-wheeler trucks, and then the vehicle's occupants sued!"
Tim commented about how another reader of the web site purported that small planes still occasionally shoot touch & goes there. "Based on what I saw on Wednesday, there's no way any non-suicidal pilots would do that."
The site is located northeast of the intersection of Gaffery Road & Koster Road.