Merced County Times Newspaper
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Auxiliary Airfields, and the Origins of Castle AFB

 

By Jim Cunningham and Flip Hassett

In 1940, the U.S. Army was looking for a location to build a 30,000 per year basic pilot training base.

A group of Merced citizens got together to encourage the Army to build in the Merced area. The citizens were able to gather some money to purchase a site for the base and lease the land back to the Army for $1 per year.

The Merced Municipal Airport was also offered as a site as they had recently resurfaced the runway and taxi strips and provided a new control tower. The location chosen for the airfield was close to the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway and the former city of Cuba, Merced County, for the main base near Atwater.

Besides Cuba Station, the Army also examined Athlone and El Nido, but curiously not the Merced Municipal Airport. At that time the municipal airport was located near the intersection of what is now Santa Fe and Beachwood Drive.

The US Army Air Corps decided to lease the Cuba location on June 16, 1941. Building the air base school was started July 8 1941 and opened on Sept. 20, 1941 as a sub base of the Army Air Forces Western Flying Training Command at Moffett Field. It was first called the Air Corps Basic Flying School, Merced and renamed The Merced Army Flying School on April 7, 1942. In order to support the training, several auxiliary buldings near the Merced Flying School were built to help with the flight training program.

The Air Corps also authorized the district engineer to construct three auxiliary base locations near the basic flying school to support the flight training program. Several adjacent sections of farm lands were examined and three undeveloped sites were chosen. One at Howard Ranch, Stevinson (13 miles northwest of Merced), another at Athlone (16 miles southeast) and one at Planada. The engineers disapproved of the Planada site and they decided to secure two more fields, one at Ballico, Turlock Airport (9 miles northwest) and one at Potter, El Nido (16 miles south). In 1942, the Mariposa Airport was also leased as an auxiliary base. The Army also built a radio beacon nearby on Mt. Bullion. The airfield was used as an emergency landing base at an elevation of 2,254 feet it was above the valley fog

In October, Merced leased its municipal airport to the Air Corp for $10 per acre. This gave the Basic Flying School its first usable auxiliary field. In early October 1941 the first cadre of men from Moffett Field were sent to set up the temporary headquarters in Merced at the Hotel Tioga. (A plaque is still mounted at the front door of The Tioga).

The bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 caused an urgent broadcast to go out to military personnel. In the next few days 300+ men assembled at the rain soaked and unfinished base for training. The Merced Auxiliary Field was the main training base while the Merced Army Airfield was fighting through bad weather to be completed. The designated area for the flying school was a 1,500 square mile area extended from Modesto in the north, to Exchequer Reservoir in the east, to Chowchilla in the south and to the San Joaquin River on the west. When the Army Airfield was completed and operations moved to the new base, the Merced Auxiliary Field was use for landing and takeoff training and an emergency landing strip. When the war ended, the Merced Flying School was turned back over to the city of Merced and is now farmland, warehouses and storage buildings.

Also, the Merced Fairgrounds was turned over to the 4th Air Service Area Command for supplies and training until 1945, during this time it was known as Camp Merced. For three years Camp Merced was used as the headquarters for and to support the Merced Army Airfield and its auxiliary fields while training the new pilots needed for the war effort.

In January of 1943, the 35th Flying Training Wing was activated at the Merced Field. The 35th took control over the primary flying schools at Dos Palos, King City, Santa Maria, Tulare and Visalia. The basic flying schools at Minter, Lemoore, Gardner and Chico. Also, the advanced flying schools at Stockton and Mather Field. While the military organization adjusted to the increased training demands Merced Field received the first of 156 Women Army Service Pilots (WASP) in November of 1943. The WASP took over more and more training activities as the base reached a monthly peak of 950 students in training. There was a constant increase in the number of students into 1945. With the Allied victory in Europe many of the training bases faced closure. There were many changes in the operation through 1945 and 1946. The name of the Merced Airfield changed to Castle Field on Jan. 1, 1946. Castle was placed in minimum operating status in October. In November, the Army Air Force discontinued and inactivated all units at Castle Field. As 1947 began, Castle Field lay abandoned.

However, two months later, the Strategic Air Command gave the base new life by activating the 51st Combat Bombardment Wing.

This story was really to talk about the auxiliary fields but they were hard to explain without telling the story of the Merced Airfield (Castle Field). This story just barely touches on what the military has meant to the Merced area, and the many caring and involved citizens of our area that are current or past military veterans.

THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE.

 

Jim Cunningham and Flip Hassett are both retired, but they remain active in Merced County as community advocates, local history buffs and photographers.

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