Historic California Posts, Camps,
Stations and Airfields
Air Station, Vernalis
Air Facility, Vernalis; Vernalis Geophysics
Naval Auxiliary Air Station, Vernalis
by M.L. Shettle, Jr.
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?
US Army Corps of Engineers Sacramento
District History (2005) by Dan Sebby
Portions of the following historical narrative
were summarized from a US Navy Twelfth Naval District memo dated
12 October 1945 concerning the unit history of former NAAS Vernalis
(Appendix B). The Site was constructed to meet demand for additional
training and station facilities in the aeronautical organization
of the 12th Naval District. A need existed to establish small
auxiliary units sufficiently close to Naval Air Station, Alameda
(NAS Alameda) to function smoothly and yet far enough away from
the heavily populated areas of the San Francisco Bay District.
The location of former NAAS Vernalis was chosen because of year-round
flying weather, a flat valley area which simplified airport construction,
and it provided the needed facilities at a distance of approximately
60 air miles from Naval Air Station Alameda.
In 1942 and 1943, 699.44 acres of land were acquired by eminent
domain. Construction of a 500' X 4000' runway began in June 1942.
Contracts were let later that year for construction of essential
buildings, additional runway area, and gasoline storage. NAAS
Vernalis was commissioned 8 June 1943. Construction continued
up until the end of the war in the Pacific.
At the time of its inception, NAAS Vernalis was intended to support
the operations of two heavy bomber squadrons flying PV2 Harpoons
and PB4Y Liberators. The bomber squadrons were moved to NAAS
Crows Landing in 1944 because the runways were more suitable,
and the station function of NAAS Vernalis was changed to support
the operations of carrier-based squadrons which were completing
advanced training and to base such squadrons pending their assignment
and arrival of transportation. During that time, the station
was used as a base by Air Groups, Torpedo, Fighter, Bomber, and
Composite Squadrons. The normal messing and berthing allowance
of former NAAS Vernalis was 333 Commissioned Officers and 2,386
NAAS Vernalis began transition to caretaker status (i.e., a non-operating
condition requiring a minimum strength personnel unity, the mission
of which is to maintain physical US possession of the property
involved and to guard it against deterioration, damage, looting,
and theft) on 15 October 1945, and the transition completed 15
March 1946. The Site was declared surplus 15 March 1946. NAAS
Vernalis was disestablished 15 May 1946, and the WAA assumed
custody on 17 October 1946.
On 9 April 1947, the Navy Department formally withdrew former
NAAS Vernalis from surplus status. It was decided that the disposition
of the Site in accordance with recommendations of the Civil Aeronautics
Administration would materially lesson the value of the facility
from the standpoint of future military requirements.
The Department of the Navy licensed portions of the Site to the
Department of the Air Force for use by the 6580th Missile Test
Wing, Air Research and Development Command. The Air Force used
the facility to launch balloons 300 feet in diameter that carried
electronic equipment for stratospheric experiments. The facility
was known as the Vernalis Geophysics Annex at that time.
Approximately 58.8 acres of land were leased to EP Murphy and
Son for cattle grazing in 1957. In 1958, approximately 300 additional
acres were leased to Keith J. Weisenberger for agriculture and
grazing. On 17 March 1960, land used for the Delta-Mendota Canal
right-of-way was transferred from the Department of the Navy
to the Bureau of Reclamation, Department of the Interior. The
Air Force officially left the Site on 31 January 1962. GSA declared
former NAAS Vernalis surplus to the needs of the Federal Government
on 27 May 1963, and all land covered by road easements were donated
to San Joaquin and Stanislaus Counties later that year. A total
of 321.23 acres were sold to private individuals (Oliver I. Anderson,
Edward R. Pollard, and Mack S. Campbell) in October 1963, and
the remaining 328 acres were sold to Anthony Ruggiero in November
of that year.