Whitesburg KY

How Travis Air Force Base got its name

Travis Air Force Base covers 6,250 acres, ample room for its two 11,000-foot runways, and employs over 10,000 military and civilian personnel.

This base traces its roots to an isolated airstrip with a few tarpaper barracks and maintenance hangers established on a windswept California prairie in the midst of World War II. Much has happened at Travis since its appearance in 1973, approaching its 70th anniversary.

Shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Fourth Air Force was charged with improving air defense along the Pacific Coast. The Army Corps of Engineers investigated the area and approved it early in 1942.

Inexpensive flat land, usually good flying weather, favorable drainage, and nearby rail and water transportation contributed to the favorable recommendation. Nine hundred and ninetyeight thousand dollars was authorized for construction of two runways and a few temporary buildings. Land was purchased from local ranchers at $50 per acre. By September 1942, runways and operations buildings were completed.

On 13 Oct. 1942, the War Department assigned the new facility to the Air Transport Command in recognition of the base’s potential to become a major aerial port and supply transfer point for the Pacific war zone.

(I was assigned to this command 15 years overseas and stateside, 11 of those years at Travis as non-commissioned officer in charge of of its printing department.)

The base was named Fairfield-Suisum City Army Air Base at that time. Fairfi eld-Suisum AAB became the largest air freight terminal on the West Coast. It handled 75 percent of all air cargo shipments and mail to the South Pacific Theater.

Statistics for February 1945 indicate that in one month the traffic department moved 323 tons of freight and 302 tons of mail overseas. A survey of base hospital records revealed that during the same month, 300 wounded servicemen were evacuated by air from the Pacific, and 57 patients from the base crowded the limited facility, already expanded to 200 beds.

“A thousand heartaches, ten thousand headaches, paced the labor pains, the birth, and the development of Fairfield-Suisun AAB.” This quotation was written in the first official base history during the war years.

The first mission of the base was to prepare tactical bombers of the Army Air Force and their crews for the battles of the South Pacific. The base soon became the major jumpingoff point on the West Coast for thousands of aircraft, not only bombers but also fighters and transports that had been prepared for the long, arduous flight across the Pacific to the war zone.

Between July 1943 and January 1945, the men and women of the base prepared more than 2,000 military aircraft of various types for movement overseas. Nearly half, 980, were B-24 Liberator Bombers, while 544 were B-25 Mitchell Bombers and 348 were C-47 Skytrain Transports, better known as ‘Gooney Birds.’ Significant numbers of B-29, B-26, B-17, C-54, A-20 and A-26 aircraft, among others, were processed along with their crews.

Important milestones in this heroic effort were the complete pre-flight processing, with the installation of secret IFF (Identifi- cation Friend or Foe) equipment, on the first three B-24s to depart in just 72 hours after their arrival on 4 July, 1943 and the handling of 274 aircraft and crews during the peak production month of June 1944.

During the first year and a half of the history of the base, wartime necessity transformed this sleepy corner of Solano County ranchland into one of the nation’s largest and most important military air trans-shipment points.

The Berlin Airlift and the Korean War strengthened this importance of the base as one of the main West Coast facilities.

Then, General Travis was killed when his B-29 Bomber crashed near the end of the runway while taking off on a special nighttime training mission. The explosion of the aircraft’s full bomb bay lit up the Fairfield sky and “. . . sounded as if the base were under atomic attack.”

Sixteen Air Force personnel perished in the crash and resulting explosion. It was the worst disaster in the history of the base.

General Travis’s popularity and the shock of his death in such a terrible accident led base officials and civilian leaders to sponsor renaming the base in his honor, and on 2 Oct., 1950, an Air Force special order officially redesignated Fairfield-Suisum AFB as Travis AFB.

Contributing writer Everett Vanover lives in Fairfield, Calif.

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