It’s been sitting on the floor near my desk for several weeks – my father’s flag.
When he died in 2001, the VA gave me his flag and we displayed it at his memorial service. Then we bought one of those triangular display cases to put it in, along with his dog tags. Mostly the flag sits on top of my memorabilia shelves, but with the remodeling the shelves got taken down and everything on it boxed up. A few weeks ago we un-boxed the flag and put it on the floor next to my desk awaiting the return of the shelves.
Heather and I have been making an extra effort in our life to go out and do something fun once in a while. Having the flag underfoot somehow reminded me of a place we’ve been wanting to see for some years – Castle Air Museum in Atwater California, just down the road from Modesto, where my father grew up and where he was drafted into the Army after the outbreak of WWII.
The museum is an outdoor display of 56 aircraft from WWII and the cold war. Most of the year you only get to walk around the outside of the airplanes but a couple of times a year they host an “open cockpit day” where they open up many of the planes for tours and have a lot of special activities. Turns out it is one of their bigger fundraising events of the year.
On Sunday morning we got up early and started the two and half hour drive to Atwater. The museum is located near the site of the former Castle Air Force Base, a sprawling complex in the San Joaquin Valley that was once the home of SAC (strategic air command air craft) bomber wings and was a base for B-52 and KC-135 aircraft. The air base started as an Army Air Corps flying school in 1941, evolving into the SAC base by the 50s and continued operation until the base closed in 1995. The base itself is now a civilian airport. The museum opened in 1981 and now comprises twenty acres of display area.
The San Joaquin Valley, or Central Valley as we commonly call it, is dry grassland where summer nights are hot and the winters mild. It is also the land of my father’s family. My father was raised in Modesto, just up highway 99 a few miles from Atwater. Our drive took us through country that I’ve traveled since I was a child to visit family, dry, desolate, wind-swept grasslands with nothing to see for miles except barbed wire fence and the occasional cow. If you see anything green, you know that there has to be an irrigation canal or well near by. Farms here need a constant source of water and here it doesn’t come from the sky. For me the drive is full of memories, for Heather it is a reminder of how desolate and barren most of California really is.
We arrived at the museum around 9:30 am and already the crowds were starting to fill the parking lots. First thing we checked out were the tours for the museum’s latest accusation, the VC-9C, tail number 73-1681. If you’re an aviation buff that might get you excited. Well, we got excited when we learned that this is a DC9 aircraft formerly used by the Air Force as one of the, “Air Force One” planes used to fly the president and other VIPs. This plane started service in 1975 and was retired in 2005, serving all the presidents during those years along with other government officials.
The presidential transport is a separate tour and they took us on a bus over to the air field where the plane is parked. One of the highlights of the tour were the tour guides, one of whom had actually worked on this airplane during his time in the air force. He and the other volunteers are the backbone of this museum – this place wouldn’t exist without them. They are dedicated to resorting and preserving the aircraft plus educating everyone on the plane’s histories – and they’re all great story tellers. There is no government funding for this place and it’s the volunteers with fund-raisers like this that keep the place open and the history preserved.
Here’s a picture of me standing by the wing of “Air Force One.”
From there we went back to see the rest of the planes. Many had their cockpits open and some of the larger ones you could actually climb into and walk around. There were a number of WWII planes and a lot from the cold war era but Heather and I were drawn to the WWII ones because of our connection to that war through our parents and our general interest in the history of that war. Here are some pictures of the other aircraft we saw:
One of the things that surprised me about the B-29 was how small it is compared to today’s planes. It’s role as a long-range bomber made me think it would be larger. My father told how his base in the Aleutians was being converted to handle B-29s, a task that was interrupted by the ending of the war.
The B-17 was there. Well it had to be. This was the American bomber that flew out of Britain into occupied Europe and Germany during WWII bringing the war from Heather’s homeland to enemy. This was also the bomber that my father watched fly out of his base in the Aleutians on their way to bomb northern Japan.
The C-47 was one of the air planes we got to board and look around. This plane was used extensively during WWII as a cargo plane and troop transport. It is the plane that dropped airborne troops and towed gliders during the D-Day invasion and on operations such as “Market-Garden” in Holland. Both battles have been of interest to us and we’ve read a lot about the battles the men who jumped out of these planes were in. It might sound odd to some, but getting to walk inside this humble little plane was one of the highlights of the day.
The B-36 was of more interest to me than Heather. I recall the Jimmy Stewart movie, “Strategic Air Command” from the 50’s. I must have seen that film 10 times on Saturday afternoon “at the movies” on TV as a kid. I could never quite believe they’d build a plane with both jet engines and propellers (and ones that point the wrong way). It was open for tour, but one look at the long line to get on board dampened my enthusiasm and I was content with just a walk around this very large flying machine.
We also got to see a B-24 and a B-25 Mitchell. The B-25 was the bomber used by Lt. Colonel Doolittle in the famous Tokyo raids just after the bombing of Perl Harbor (subject of the movie, “30 Seconds over Tokyo” a favorite in our DVD collection). The visitor’s guide said that General Doolittle was on hand to help greet this particular aircraft on it’s arrival at the museum in 1980. At another museum, years ago, we attended a talk by a pilot who had flown the B-25 in combat so we were glad to see one up close. We got to walk in the KC-97 tanker plane, got inside a SA-16 Albatross flying boat, and a couple of other cargo planes. They had a B-52, but the line there was long with of warnings about tight spaces and difficultly moving around inside. Since we got to the B-52 just after eating at the food tent and I’d downed a “double bomber cheese burger, a bag of chips and a drink,” I didn’t think I was in shape for crawling around inside an aircraft and satisfied myself with walking around the plane.
As it goes in the in the great Central Valley, by 1:00 pm it was getting hot and we moved indoors to see the small, but interesting display in their little museum building, followed by a trip to the little gift shop to buy a couple of cold drinks before hitting the road home.
The road home took us past scenes familiar to me from all the times I traveled these roads to visit my father’s family; corn in the field, alfalfa,18 wheelers hauling tomatoes, row after row of grape vines, miles of orchards, irrigation canals, and mile upon mile of dry, windswept hills. One alarming sight was passing the San Louis Reservoir – I’ve never seen it so low, nearly empty. The drought here in California is bad and likely to be as worse than anything I remember.
Once home, we looked at the pictures Heather took – cataloging them and trying to remember which picture was which plane. I spent some time looking up aircraft on the internet. It was a fun day and I am happy we made the trip. It bought back memories and made new ones.
Before going to Castle, we had put the memorabilia shelves back on the wall next to my desk. Today as I sat down to write this blog, it seemed only right to return the flag to its rightful place on top of my stack of memories.
Till next week,