Sunday, March 1, 2015
YOLO COUNTY NEWS
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Yolo at war: Warbirds left their mark at airport

GhostBomberW

Imagine the days during World War II when B-25 bombers like this one were tied up at the Davis Winters Airstrip — what is now known as the Yolo County Airport — which was built in 1941-42 as an emergency landing field for military aircraft and for training flights. The airstrip — which was used for training by Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle and his bomber group as they prepared for their raid on Tokyo — was closed after the war and later turned over to the local government by the War Assets Corporation. Sue Cockrell/Enterprise photo illustration

By
From page A1 | November 07, 2013 |

Take a walk around the grounds of the Yolo County Airport with Ed Beoshanz.

“Look there. These are some of the old concrete pads,” the lifelong local resident points out.

No longer used, these circular turnouts occasionally feature ancient rebar tie-downs and long-ignored approaches.

“Over by that turnout…” the Road 96 farmer calls out, “that’s where the tower was.”

Hmm. All the casual visitor sees is a relatively new hangar …

Glance down. Some of the pavement is crumbling, some of it is hidden by a new foundation for a staging office or parking area. Some of it exposed, trying to tell visitors a story.

Then, near the middle of the facility, there’s a grown-over path, leading east — seemingly to nowhere. But look closer… isn’t that asphalt mixed in with the weeds and gravel? Wonder where that went?

Beoshanz knows: “It led to the barracks. Over there is where they took our house. They needed the land for the barracks, pig pens, fuel storage. Things like that.”

You, see, in its original incarnation, Yolo County Airport was the Davis Winters Airstrip.

This ground is, well, hallowed.

Even before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the United States understood the eastern threat and began preparing to defend the West Coast.

As patrols of the Pacific coastline increased, so did the surge of troops and materiel to the Golden State.

Part of the preparedness, according Yolo County Airport Manager Wes Ervin, was to create “fall-back (air) fields” throughout California. These were to be main staging and training areas if primary facilities were rendered unless.

One such facility was the Davis Winters Airstrip. Construction started in 1941 with the facility officially christened in early 1942. Its proximity to Alameda and Mather Army Airfield cemented its place in history when Lt. Col. James “Jimmy” Doolittle’s Tokyo raiders put the final touches on their training for that famous 1942 attack right here in Yolo County.

From February 1942 until Doolittle’s B-25 squadron of 16 bombers hit Tokyo on April 18, the organization of the mission and training for the crews was whirlwind.

First, the B-25 was chosen as the preferred aircraft and the 17th Bomber Group from Portland, Ore., was called to the East Coast to begin the education.

In South Carolina, Florida and Texas, training continued. In Minnesota, the B-25s were being modified — stripped of nonessential items to reduce weight, given auxiliary gas tanks and customized to fly without belly gunners.

It was decided by Fleet Admiral William Halsey that the mission — carried out by the aircraft carrier USS Hornet — would leave from Alameda in early April. The Hornet would join up with a support convoy (featuring the USS Enterprise) north of Hawaii and travel to 400 miles off the coast of Japan to launch.

To that end, the airstrip that eventually would become the Yolo County Airport put its mark on World War II history.

“The main fear was that the Japanese would next attack the California mainland and bomb the San Francisco harbor, Hamilton and Mather air fields,” says Napa resident Bruce Wiltse, an amateur historian who has charted the beginnings of the county airstrip.

“The airstrip had a tower, maintenance area, fueling area and tower barracks building east of (the main airstrip).”

Because of winds from the north that would simulate takeoff conditions from the Hornet, Bomber Group 17 was assigned to the new practice facility.

It is believed that Doolittle frequently oversaw operations at the airport, but Wiltse says newspaper accounts and military records don’t confirm that accepted piece of lore.

Secrecy was key.

What is known is that the activity at the Davis Winters Airstrip included those B-25 crews in training. Later, P-38 and P-39 squadrons were assigned to practice and the activity kept up through the end of the war.

Starburst-configured pads on which the aircraft were stored were so designed because of the turkey shoot that Japanese planes had against the straight-line-storage airfields in Hawaii four months prior.

The local facility featured a 4,000-foot long airstrip (the military later added another 2,000 feet). But the focus — at least while Doolittle’s Raiders trained there — was on a 467-foot painted outline of the Hornet flight deck (something that has disappeared with the many surfacings of the runway).

“DWA was used because of the strong north winds … (that) closely simulated the airspeed the aircraft carrier could generate heading into the wind at sea,” Wiltse told The Enterprise. “This strip was chosen because it was in an isolated agriculture area where they could practice their mission in secrecy.”

Wind howling in their faces, all 16 bombers would stage for takeoff. Planes with names like the Ruptured Duck, Whiskey Pete, Whirling Dervish and Hari-Kari-er took off over Yolo County farm fields.

Once clearing “the Hornet deck,” they would turn and come back and find fallow land below, where they began unloading live payloads.

An ammunition storage facility sat just a quarter-mile southeast of the runway. Target practice had to be clear of the facility, says Wiltse.

According to Beoshanz, in the 60-plus years since training stopped, at least one landowner in the area has reported discovering a bomb on her property.

Matthew Kinkle of Boy Scout Troop 66 laid a concrete monument at the Yolo County Airport as his Eagle Scout project, identifying the use of the airstrip during World War II, praising its personnel and memorializing the planes that were stationed at the facility.

But back to Beoshanz …

His great-grandfather Maurice Reardon once ran a hotel in Davis (at Second and C streets) before being granted 160 acres of farmland by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872.

The family farms much of that very property today, but in the early 1940s, Beoshanz, his parents, sister and grandmother were forced to leave their homestead. Development of the airstrip was a national security priority.

Beoshanz was an infant in 1942 when the War Assets Corporation came knocking at the family’s door. The WAC wanted almost 14 acres of the farm, land on which the Beoshanz house sat. There was no discussion.

“It’s where they put in the barracks, the mess hall and the other things,” Beoshanz remembers while looking over family pictures and memorabilia with Carol, his wife of 51 years.

Beoshanz understands why eminent domain came into play so widely during the fortification of the West Coast, but the requirement to move was traumatic to the family.

They moved about a mile to the northeast of the airport, but Beoshanz’s grandmother, Elizabeth Braun, died two years later and it wasn’t until several years after the airport was decommissioned that the family was able to buy back their property for $3,600.

All these years later, Beoshanz scratches his head at the transaction.

“They took it from us, no money, had us move,” the 73-year-old farmer explains. “Then we get to buy it back.”

At least the training that was augmented by the purchase of the adjoining property led to victory in the Pacific.

— Reach Bruce Gallaudet at [email protected] or 530-747-8047.

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