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Santa Maria Army Air Field
 
Santa Maria Army Air Field History
By Justin M. Ruhge
Goleta Valley Historical Society

In Santa Barbara County near Camp Cooke was located one of the largest World War II bases on the west coast. The Santa Maria Army Air Base covered approximately 3,600 acres of land located about four miles south of the City of Santa Maria. The main gate was located about one mile west of Highway 101. Land for the base was acquired some time before 1942.

The Santa Maria Army Air Field was commissioned by the Fourth Air Force for a bomber base on May 1, 1942. Colonel Robin A. Day was the first Commander.
As was the case with most U. S. bases during World War II, a historian was assigned to prepare a history of the facility. In this case First Lieutenant Edward E. Reed was the historian. The original record of the Base is at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama.

Due to its strategic coastal location, the Santa Maria Air Base was considered ideal for training of bombardment groups prior to overseas duty. However, the base was transferred to the Fourth Air Service Command in December 1942. Instead the field was used for service and support training with little emphasis on flying. The field personnel grew monthly with the assignment of more recruits. New groups of trainees were rotated every month. As at Goleta, many amenities were provided, such as theater, bowling, laundry, restaurant, church, etc. Base activities were publicized in the field newspaper, The Bombsiqhter, first published on April 7, 1944.

It became apparent that the field was being wasted as an air service command, as there were only eight aircraft assigned, and aircraft maintenance instruction was the only aircraft-specific program underway. Therefore, the field was transferred to the Fourth Air Force on September 15, 1943, and most service groups were rotated to other organizations.

As the Fourth Air Force prepared to turn the field over to the IV Bomber Command, a dispute developed as to whether or not the field could be used as a bomber base. Earlier experience indicated that the runways would not stand up under constant use by heavy bombers because the runways were constructed on loamy, sandy earth with only a thin layer of hardpan on top. This view prevailed, so again command was transferred, this time to the IV Fighter Command on September 16, 1943 for final training of fighter groups. So arrived the P-38 Lightnings.

This move again changed the complexion of the field. Seasoned pilots were being given final tactical training and moving on. The standing service army was not needed. Air-toground ranges and small arms training ranges were installed for the pilots. These pilots were putting the final touches on combat maneuvers prior to shipment overseas.
Early in October 1943, the anti-aircraft units appeared on the field. In December 1943 Oxnard Flight Strip, Oxnard and Estrella Army Air Field, Paso Robles, were assigned as auxiliary fields to the Santa Maria Field. This was the organization of the field until the close of hostilities in 1945.

The Santa Maria Army Air Field would probably have had a lackluster history if it had not been for the arrival of the P-38 Lightnings. Designed by Kelley Johnson at Lockheed, Burbank, California, the P-38 fighter was one of the premier aircraft of World War II. Used in both theaters of the War, the P-38 was referred to by the Germans as "the fork-tailed devil" and by the Japanese as "two planes with one pilot." Many a bomber pilot on his way to Frankfurt or Berlin saw his chances of returning increase to nearly 100% with an escort of these powerful aircraft, which were designed to fly as high as the bombers and with the same range.

Many a Zero or Messerschmitt pilot saw his luck run out after an encounter with a P-38. Thousands of kills were scored by the P-38 due to its greater firepower and accuracy with its four 50-caliber machine guns and one 20-mm cannon clustered at the center of the aircraft fuselage. Over the war years 10,000 P-38s were built, primarily by Lockheed. Consolidated-Vultee built about 200 of them. Today very few of these "wild ones" are in existence.

On January 28, 1989, a 50th anniversary celebration marking the first flight of the Lockheed P-38 was held at the field in Santa Maria. At that event Lefty Garner demonstrated for veterans and novices alike his "No. 13 White Lightning" P-38, which he had completely restored. Colonel Ralph Garman, one of the first pilots to fly the P-38, presented a history of the P-38 and commented on his experiences with it in combat. That anniversary celebration was also the occasion for a reunion of the World War II pilots who received their wings at Hancock Field in Santa Maria.

As with most other bases in California, when World War II came to an end, a slow phase-out of the field began. It was placed on the surplus property list in 1946. In 1948, the City of Santa Maria and the County of Santa Barbara formed a district for joint management of the field and its red tarpaper-and-batten buildings. In 1964 a special district was formed and the field became the Santa Maria Municipal Airport. Today most evidences of the World War II look have been removed. The primary structures left are one of the original hangars and the P-38 bore sight and test stand at one corner of the airport. Many pilots learned to "fly" the P-38 in an aircraft securely tethered to this concrete stand.

Today, the Santa Maria Airport is a modern municipal facility and growing commercial area. But in one corner of the field is located the Santa Maria Museum of Flight dedicated to recalling and presenting the past history of the Field and aviation in general.



Corps of Engineers Site History

LOCATION: The former Santa Maria Army Air Field is situated in Santa Maria, California. It is located on Skyway Drive, approximately three miles south of downtown Santa Maria.

SITE HISTORY: From 1942 to 1945, the former Santa Maria Army Air Field was utilized by the 4th Air Force as an air support command base. Originally, the airfield was intended to be used as a training facility for B-24 bomber crews. However, it was found that the runways and taxiways could not support the weight of the B 24 bombers. Because of this, the airfield was instead used as a training facility for P-38 fighter crews.

During its use by the 4th Air Force, approximately 110 buildings were constructed on the airfield, consisting of aircraft hangars, officer quarters, barracks, maintenance facilities, ordnance storage buildings, warehouses, and miscellaneous structures. In addition, approximately 220 underground storage tanks of various sizes and contents were constructed on the airfield.

After the war, the airfield was turned over to the County of Santa Barbara through two grant deeds. In turn, the County of Santa Barbara transferred to the City of Santa Maria through a grant deed an undivided one half interest of the total acreage and improvements. Currently known as the Santa Maria Public Airport, the airport handles domestic flights, especially commuter services.

Source: US Army Corps of Engineers


Known Units at Santa Maria AAF

440th Army Air Forces Base Unit (Combat Crew Training Station-Fighter)

 

Updated 20 April 2008


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