In the beginning, the pilots hated it. It was purgatory with a whiff of petroleum in the air and dust in the mouth. It tantalized students with the promise of pilot's wings and humbled them with the threat of failure.
In early 1941, with a world war on America's horizon, the Army Air Corps poured into the town of Taft, more than 100 miles north of Los Angeles, to build an airfield and one of the country's top flight-training schools, Gardner Field. Although the Army base lasted just five years, it put the oil and agricultural town on the map and trained some of the nation's most famous flyboys, including Chuck Yeager, "the fastest man alive''; Richard Bong, "Ace of Aces"; Tom Harmon, all American football star and future television sportscaster; and Lt. Richard E. Miller, who would become one of Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle's Tokyo Raiders.
Despite the dust and heat, many pilots looked back fondly on Gardner Field as the place where they became not just men, but airmen. The first group of Army personnel -- only the best men from preflight training -- arrived by train from Kelly Field, Texas, in June 1941, expecting a California dreamscape of palm trees, balmy breezes and a lake. Instead, they found "dust ankle deep," a marshy duck-hunters' paradise known as Lake Buena Vista, and the churning sound of distant oil derricks that lulled them to sleep. "The dust invaded the soldiers' tents in the night. Some reported that they 'woke to the taste of dust and rose to find their silhouettes outlined on their pillows,'" wrote Henrietta Mosley, a retired attorney who has researched the airfield.
But "the people of Taft welcomed us with open arms," remembered Wayne Hall, a part-time Taft resident who graduated from basic pilot training at Gardner Field in February 1942. Hall flew training exercises in a BT-13, which tended to "shake, rattle and roll" and which cadets referred to as "Vultee Vibrators."
On Oct. 26, 1941, Gardner Field -- named for Maj. John H. Gardner, a World War I aviator hero -- was officially dedicated with a gala affair attended by more than 10,000 people. Eventually, with 2,000 Air Corps personnel in residence, the base had its own hospital, 40-acre sewage plant, nine administration buildings, four mess halls, supply rooms, officers' quarters, a guardhouse, a chapel, 37 barracks and a landing field. There was even a swimming pool paid for by Hollywood celebrities such as Joel McCrea, who enjoyed driving up to Taft and hanging out with the hotshot pilots. Swimming star Johnny Weissmuller enlivened the pool's dedication with his Tarzan jungle call. It was an event that not only remolded Taft's economy for the duration of the war -- it also permanently altered the town's social fabric.
Taft families invited many of the cadets into their houses for home-cooked meals. Women volunteered to sew and alter cadets' clothes and uniforms, while others collected costume jewelry that pilots used on Pacific islands to barter for native labor. Taft's women were pressed into work. During the day, they labored in the oil fields tending the pumps, at steel factories building anchor chains for the Navy, or at the base as mechanics. At night, when the single and married women weren't hosting a USO dance in town, they were bused to dances held at the base and chaperoned by the local high school home economics teacher.
The town's attention and energy were devoted to the war effort, which included scrap drives collecting aluminum, paper and rubber. Local resident Sina Dunne headed war bond drives, raising more than $250,000 to build a hospital plane called 'Taft California'. The Kiwanis Club set up carpooling ride stations for soldiers who needed a lift, with slogans such as "Give 'em a Ride" and "Help Them to Go Places."
Gardner Field cadets benefited not only from the generosity and patriotism of the locals, but also from the base's proximity to Hollywood. Harmon, the football star, arrived as a cadet in 1942 with a new Mercury convertible. He would fill it with fellow cadets and take off on the 120-mile ride to Los Angeles. On such weekend excursions, the cadets often visited the Hollywood Canteen, where movie stars waited on the Gls who came in for coffee, doughnuts and a chance to dance with the likes of Rita Hayworth or Marlene Dietrich. For soldiers with money in their pockets, Earl Carroll's Theater, Florentine Gardens and the Brown Derby topped their to-do list.
But the cadets didn't always have to travel to be entertained; big names also came to them. The big bands of Tommy Dorsey and Duke Ellington played at the base, as did Kay Kyser and his Kollege of Musical Knowledge, which featured music and gags with Mary Martin, Joan Blondell and Lucille Ball. Bob Hope, Edgar Bergen. Jack Benny and Eddie Cantor did live radio broadcasts from the base theater. During one of Benny's broadcasts, he joked about the base being "on the shores of beautiful Lake Buena [he pronounced it 'Byoona'] Vista . . . a lake so shallow the fish are sunburned on one side."
On weekends, if they didn't head for the bright lights of Los Angeles and Hollywood, the flyboys were drawn to home-style dinners at the Mug Cafe or Taft's USO at 3rd and Main streets. Girls oohed and aahed as dapper pilots in leather flight jackets and aviator sunglasses strutted down Center Avenue.
In July 1942, former aircraft mechanic Chuck Yeager arrived at Gardner after being enrolled in pilot training in Hemet, where he reported experiencing "queasiness" the first couple of times he went up. After the war, Yeager went to Edwards Air Force Base, where he became the world's first pilot to break the sound barrier.
Gardner Field graduates amassed impressive World War II combat records. Yeager shot down five German planes in a single day flying a P-51. Maj. Richard Bong, who graduated from Gardner in June 1941, was the leading American ace of the war, downing 40 Japanese planes in the Pacific -- a record that still stands.
His future wife, Marge, was the pretty redhead who became "the most 'shot-at' girl in the South Pacific" when she was immortalized as nose art on Bong's P-38. He had her photograph blown up and plastered on the nose of his plane, with "MARGE" in blue and red script. Wire services sent out photos of Bong and his plane, and Marge became a reluctant celebrity. Bong wrote to his mother: "I hope I haven't gotten Marge into too much trouble . . . but it sure is a hell of a lot better than a lot of these naked women we see on the planes
After his 40th victory, he was sent home with a pocketful of decorations, including the Medal of Honor. No more combat. He went into test-piloting experimental aircraft but that wasn't much safer than dodging enemy guns. In August 1945, the same day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, his Lockheed P-80 [the first operational USAAF jet fighter] malfunctioned over North Hollywood, California. He ejected too late and was killed.
As the war wore on, many highly decorated pilots returned to Gardner Field to tell new cadets of their exploits.
Harmon, who survived two bailouts, credited the physical stress training he received at Gardner as a major factor in his surviving swamps and jungles. When he married actress Elyse Knox in 1944, she wore a wedding gown made from the nylon parachute that saved his life. Lt. Richard E. Miller was one of the 41 pilots to survive Doolittle's "30 Seconds Over Tokyo" raid, out of the 80 who flew the mission that was launched just four months after Pearl Harbor.
The 37th and last class at Gardner graduated in January 1945; the facility had graduated a total of 8,916 cadets who became pilots. Twenty-six cadets died in training flights, as did 11 of the training officers sharing cockpits with them. In two cases, the training officer saw to it that the cadet bailed out before going down himself with the plane. Still, the number of crashes in relation to the hours flown out of Gardner Field was low.
Gradually, the planes left. The buildings were removed. At the base's former entrance, the intersection of Cadet and Basic School roads, a plaque is a reminder of the important role the site played during World War II.