Imagine that the biggest war in history is raging, and the Marines have decided to use the Santa Barbara Airport as an airbase.
As commercial airplanes filled with families and business executives continue to taxi up and down the runways for routine flights, fighter pilots buzz over the ocean, strafing a nearby island with bullets, bombs and torpedoes to hone their skills before being shipped off to battle.
It’s difficult to believe, but all this really happened during World War II, shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Many men who trained at the Santa Barbara Airport sacrificed their lives doing battle in the South Pacific.
Next month, construction crews will begin building a monument at the airport to honor them, as well as the roughly 50 aviators from Santa Barbara who died in the war.
Expenditures for the project were approved last week by the Santa Barbara City Council. The total cost is expected to be about $269,000.
“It’s kind of a history that a lot of people have forgotten about,” said assistant airport director Jeff McKee. “We just wanted to make sure recognition wasn’t lost.”
The monument, which by optimistic estimates is expected to be completed in December, will be located at the airfield overlook vista point, where people have long been able to park their vehicles to watch planes take off and land. When construction is complete, the plaza will reopen for that purpose, but with the addition of the memorial, as well as a presentation on the history of this airport’s use as a Marine base.
The monument itself will be eight feet tall and made of granite. It is officially referred to as an obelisk, meaning its shape calls to mind a kind of Washington Monument in miniature.
Enshrined on the monument will be the names of 47 local aviators who were killed in the line of fire. The names of the nonlocals who trained in Santa Barbara and died in battle will not be included on the memorial, but the title of all those squadrons will be.
The base was located at the airport from 1942 to 1946.
At the time of the war, the landscape of the area was quite different. For one thing, UCSB was on the Riviera in Santa Barbara, not near Goleta. Also, what is now Hollister Avenue was Highway 101. During the war, the military would often stop traffic on 101 so it could ferry fighter and bomber planes across the highway.
Although the history of this military airbase is largely forgotten, physical remnants of it remain.
For example, some of the 103 buildings that were quickly erected by the military are still standing, such as the wood-paneled airport administration building across the street from the Elephant Bar Restaurant on Firestone Road, the barracks-style buildings at UCSB, and even a few hangars still in use at the airport.
For years, the Santa Barbara Airport has paid tribute to local aviators who died in World War II by dedicating streets in their name. For instance, Firestone Road leading to the main airport administration building and nearby Elephant Bar is named after the local aviator Norman Firestone.
The airport at one time laid claim to 27 or so such streets, but the number has dwindled as the times have changed and various pieces of airport property have gone unused. Forgotten streets include Rex Eckles Road and Fred C. McCloskey Place, which existed near the now-abandoned drive-in move theater on Hollister west of North Fairview Road.
The Santa Barbara Airport started the project about three years ago, when officials decided to do something about the fading history, said McKee.
The famous “Black Sheep Squadron” is among those that trained off the shores of Santa Barbara, and a surviving member still lives in Carpinteria.
Ken Linder, who is now in 90s, cheated death out in the ocean, 50 miles from Japan. His plane was the last one to leave the famous USS Franklin before the aircraft carrier was cratered by a Japanese bomber, killing 770 Americans. Linder shot down the offending aircraft.
“He’s lucky, and he’s also heroic,” said McKee.
(Linder couldn’t be reached for comment.)
Local historian Adam Lewis of Goleta has spent 10 years compiling hundreds of old photos and individual stories about the forgotten service men who trained in Santa Barbara. The result is his exhaustive Web site.
Lewis said the base marked a pivotal turning point for the Marine pilots, whose primary mission was to provide aerial support for troops on the ground. Until then, Marine pilots had always trained to take off and land from the ground. But the South Pacific theater was composed of islands that were too far away from land and from each other to allow for this tactic. Marine pilots thus had to learn how to fly from aircraft carriers. The ones who came to Santa Barbara were the first to do it.
The pilots did the actual aircraft carrier training in San Diego, and then came to Santa Barbara to refine their shooting skills just before heading off to war.
Lewis said the Marines used an island off the coast for target practice. He said he doesn’t know which island, but added that he doesn’t believe it was one of the Channel Islands.
“It’s a wonder it didn’t sink for all the lead in it,” he said.
Lewis, too, has an uncanny connection to the USS Franklin. His daughter’s grandfather-in-law was on the carrier when it was bombed, and earned the Silver Star for averting further catastrophe by tossing crates of ammunition overboard as the ship burned.
Like a true historian, Lewis has unearthed materials the hard way: by interviewing people one at a time.
Among the stories of downed aviators who trained in Santa Barbara was that of a man named James Crawford.
The day he died, Crawford was among a squadron of fighter pilots providing low-flying support for Australian ground troops on the island of Borneo near the Philippines. While attacking a long column of armored Japanese vehicles beating a hasty retreat on a highway, Crawford’s plane was shot down by anti-aircraft fire. He crashed and was killed.
“If you get shot at a low level, you have no chance to bail out,” Lewis said.
Like countless others killed in the war, Crawford’s body remained where it was in the wreckage for three years. It was retrieved in 1948, as part of a massive post-war recovery effort.
One day, Lewis was contacted by a woman who said she was Crawford’s sister. She had found Lewis’ Web site by Googling her brother’s name. Lewis’ Web site was the only record she found.
The woman agreed to send Lewis more photos of her brother, one of which depicts a cocksure-looking young man holding a puppy while standing in front of his plane.
“She said, ‘I was only 4 when he was shot down and killed in the South Pacific, and we never knew what happened to him,’” Lewis remembers her saying. “I never knew what happened to my big brother, Jimmy.’”
Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at email@example.com.