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Sunday, October 14, 2007

Construction took off in building an Army airfield

Sabine Goerke-Shrode


Area dirt flew at what was later Travis Air Force Base

My recent columns on the wartime housing boom in response to the incoming personnel for the Fairfield-Suisun Army Air Field led me to look a bit closer at the early years of Travis Air Force Base.

The attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, spurred the need for a military installation somewhere along the West Coast. The location selected was a windy stretch of open sheep farming land near the small towns of Fairfield, Suisun and Vacaville.

On April 22, 1942, Washington D.C. allocated $998,000 to construct an airfield with two runways and a handful of temporary buildings. The government bought land from local farmers such as Joseph and Mary Rose Enos, who sold 42 acres to the Army Air Force for roughly $50 an acre.

While building an airfield would prove to be one of the key moments in local history, local newspapers actually did not mention it until mid-summer.

The first official article on the efforts occurred in the Solano Republican on July 2, 1942, four days before bulldozers moved in to break ground for the new airstrip. “Contract to Build Airport Near Fairfield Let Tuesday,” read the headline. “A confirmed report that the Government is to build a large airfield in this vicinity, costing less than one million dollars was given today by office attaches of the Frederickson & Watson and Watson Bros. Construction Company of Oakland, successful bidders for the work.  It is reliably stated that over a thousand acres of land is involved in the transaction, the property having been acquired by the Government sometime ago from the Frank Peterson Estate, Annie Larson Estate, Carl Torp, Moiseff, Mary Silveria, and other besides the present airport property which is about in the center of the area.”

Work was supposed to start within a week. Due to security concerns, details were scant.

“The physical description of the airfield cannot be given, but it includes runways, taxiways, hard standing roadways and appurtenant facilities. How many men will be employed in the construction work cannot be disclosed but judging from like jobs by the same company there will be many and some will live on the property pending its completion, it is understood.”

“Much of the rock for the construction purposes will come from the J. M. Nelson quarry at Cordelia, it is believed.”

The following week, the Solano Republican was able to report that work had indeed begun on the new airfield and that the “Scandia Section is Buzzing with Activity as Govt. Prepares Port.”

“The great 1,600 acre area six miles east of Fairfield in the Scandia section is today teaming with activity as men and machines move in to prepare the foundations for a great flying field, and no time will be lost in the preparation, as good authority has it that two months will be sufficient time to complete the work.”

Excavations were under way for both anorth-south and an east-west oriented runway, angled to take advantage of the prevailing strong winds, or, as the Republican phrased it on July 16, “Dirt Is Flying On Local Airport.”

“What was a quiet prairie three weeks ago is now a swarming, sweating, dusty mass of humanity and machines, as the new Government Airport is quickly growing into being. Mammoth machines are pushing off the top soil preparatory to paving for the 3,000 foot runways.”

Workers busied themselves with erecting several office buildings in one small eucalyptus grove, while others worked in a second grove, “carpenters are today erecting dwellings and other buildings for the men and all machines that will be employed in creating the huge field.”

One of the groves belonged to the Enos family who quickly became friendly with the workers. “We helped each other,” recalled Mary Enos in a 1965 interview. “When they wanted to cross our land with the pipelines and the power lines, we let them.”

“Being so close, they let us connect on so our place had electricity before the others around here…  The airmen even helped drive our sheep through the middle of the, base so we could get them to market.”

In return, the Enos family supplied the work camps with home grown vegetables and fresh eggs.

While work on the airfield continued throughout the year, no further information was published in the newspaper until March 25, 1943.

At that point, United States Engineer Forrest Varney was the guest speaker for a Lion’s Club luncheon, bringing with him a set of plans and illustrations. Although many of the Lions Club members had been out to observe the construction during winter and early spring, all guests were impressed by the vast scope of the installation.

Mr. Varney also emphasized the need for additional housing that would be necessary once the airfieid was operational.  “While this is a small air field compared to others in the State, Mr. Varney is of the opinion that when in full operation the project will require the services of many air corps soldiers as well as many civilians. It will be a small city, he stated.”

I will continue this story in my next column.