Does Anyone Remember Orange County’s Last War?

First the Pentagon closed the Marine air station at Tustin, then the one at El Toro. And 25 years later, the sound of U.S. combat is just a faint and distant thunder.
Officers tennis courts, Marine Corps Air Station, El Toro, 2007

Photograph by Tom Lamb

Flying into John Wayne Airport still makes me feel like I’m passing above the ruins of a lost civilization. A lot of something—something big—was down there, but now it’s gone. Out one side of my airplane are two Paul Bunyan-sized blimp hangars. In the distance, a bulbous orange balloon rises into the smoggy skies above Interstate 5. The inexplicable rows of what looked like oil-on-concrete alien crop circles have finally been jackhammered to dust. The massive “X” near the balloon that could be seen for miles has been bulldozed away.

See a gallery of photographer Tom Lamb’s aerial photos of the county’s lost military bases here.

A quarter century has passed since 1991, when these ruins were a pair of Marine air stations, roaring with Hornet Jets and humming with Sea Stallion helicopters returning from Operation Desert Storm. The Orange County-based 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing had flown 18,000 missions in the 43-day war in January and February to turn Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s promised “Mother of All Battles” into the most decisive American-led victory since World War II.

“We kicked his ass big-time,” Marine Maj. Gen. Royal Moore, the top Marine air commander in Operation Desert Storm, shouted to a cheering crowd of 500,000 at the El Toro Air Show in late April 1991.

As military reporter for The Orange County Register, I covered the long buildup, the nerve-rattling Christmas lull, the miraculously short war, and the ecstatic homecomings. I also was there for the crescendo and the kiss-off to come.

In March of that year, Orange County residents came to El Toro to welcome the first 300 local Marines returning home from the war, just a month after combat had stopped.

In April, more than a million residents flocked to the two-day El Toro Air Show.

In May, the Desert Storm veterans marched in the official Orange County “Victory Parade.”

By summer, the Marines were told to start packing to leave—permanently. Orange County had become too crowded for the bases, the land too valuable to developers, the aircraft too noisy for the neighbors. By the end of that decade, the bases were shuttered and the Marines scattered. I moved on, too.

There would be bigger, bloodier wars in the future—all too soon. The thousands of Orange County combatants in Afghanistan and Iraq would experience tearful departures and giddy returns, or be buried with honors in diffuse personal events. But there’d be no parades, no air shows.

It didn’t seem like it at the time, but Operation Desert Storm would be Orange County’s last war, the final time military and civilian life would bond amid the anxiety, fear, awe, and, in this war, triumph. It was a shared moment. But that Orange County is gone and will never be back.

During the second half of the 20th century, Orange County politics and commerce were dominated by the “Marine Mafia,” a nickname given to the many politicians, business leaders, and others who had served in the Corps. Its godfather was Tom Riley, the Virginia transplant who served 29 years in the Corps and 29 years on the Orange County Board of Supervisors. He was pleased Orange County was a place where Marines hired Marines and Marines voted for Marines. When I once used the term “ex-Marine” in an interview, he stopped me.

“Once a Marine, always a Marine,” he barked. “The only ex-Marine is Lee Harvey Oswald.” (Oswald, President John F. Kennedy’s assassin, served two stints at El Toro.)

Robert “B-1 Bob” Dornan was a rabidly pro-military congressman from Orange County for more than a decade. But as an Air Force veteran, he only half-jokingly said he was still an outsider to some of the Marine politicians and business leaders. “Orange County is Semper Fi Land,” Dornan would quip.

Credit for the Marines’ dominance in Orange County can be traced to Emperor Hirohito of Japan. The god-king in horn-rimmed spectacles approved the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. Orange County then was home to 130,000 people and hundreds of thousands of acres of berries, beans, and bovines. But with the battleships of the Pacific Fleet decimated in Hawaii, the War Department went on a base-building binge to defend against a Japanese invasion or to prepare troops to take the fight to Tokyo.

Orange County was picked for four air bases and a huge ammunition depot. Just south of the county line, the Marines bought the entire Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores for $4 million, turning it into Camp Pendleton, the nation’s largest Marine base. The two largest free-standing wooden buildings in the world rose outside of Santa Ana to shelter Navy blimps patrolling the Pacific Coast for Japanese submarines.

By the fall of 1942, the bases started opening. But by late summer of 1945, they were surplus. The paint was still drying when the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Hirohito went on the radio to tell his subjects the war was over, and Orange County was whipsawed by Pentagon whims—and not for the last time. The Army pilot training base closed, eventually becoming the Orange County fairgrounds. Blimps? Relics of another age, so the millions of feet of Oregon Douglas fir in those hangars were decommissioned and used by civilians to shelter private aircraft, which looked like tiny toys inside the expanse of “Hangar City.”

Then the Pentagon did an about-face. The Soviets had gone from ally to enemy with the Berlin Blockade in 1948. The Cold War turned hot in June 1950 when communist North Korea invaded U.S.-backed South Korea. Bases expanded again. Troops were called up. Even the Navy blimp base reopened as a Marine air station for the new cavalry of war: helicopters.

See a gallery of photographer Tom Lamb’s aerial photos of the county’s lost military bases here.

What eventually would be known as the El Toro and Tustin Marine air stations became fixtures in central Orange County for the next half-century. The squadrons there had numbers, but it’s the names that stick most in my memory. During the Vietnam War, Tustin’s lineup included the Greyhawks, White Knights, Ridge Runners, Red Lions, Flying Tigers, and Heavy Haulers flying troops into battle. A small airfield at the north end of Camp Pendleton was home to the Stingers, Vipers, and Gunfighters, flying attack helicopters. Those crews often lived or at least caroused in San Clemente, close to the base’s north gate.

At El Toro, the Red Devils, Black Knights, Vikings, and Death Rattlers did the fighting, the Raiders the refueling, and the Sharpshooters trained the new pilots who occasionally strayed too low and triggered noise complaints from the neighbors.

Through war and peace, though, the rest of Orange County continued to expand. By the end of the 1980s, the once-distant bases were hemmed in by homes and businesses. Many of the newcomers were military veterans who stayed after their enlistments were up. It was sunny year-round. Plus there were jobs in the booming defense industry, and for a while, inexpensive housing.

“In 1962, I walked out the front gate of El Toro on a Friday and walked in the front gate at North American in Anaheim on Monday,” Marine veteran David A. Marshall of Santa Ana told me in 2011.

Marines were everywhere—police chiefs, judges, pastors, and throughout the political ranks, from city councils to the delegations in Sacramento and Washington. Minnie Street in Santa Ana by the 1980s would become synonymous with violent gangs and drugs, but Marshall remembered a different time, 30 years earlier: “There were so many Marines living on Minnie Street, we called it Air Station No. 3.”

Through much of the 1970s and 1980s, the Orange County Marines practiced for wars that never came. Then the Berlin Wall fell, and the Soviet bloc collapsed. China was more interested in exporting cheap goods to Walmart in America than revolution to the rest of Asia.

The land around the bases filled up with houses, stores, and strip malls. Some real estate agents were said to only show homes on Sundays, when the Marines usually weren’t roaring overhead in 36,970-pound triangles of metal, their red-hot jet engines screaming “Howdy, neighbor!” An F/A-18 Hornet fly-by was the official “Unwelcome Wagon” for prospective buyers and new residents.

The Marine bases sat on some of the most expensive real estate in the country, their jets and helicopters flying over millions of residents. Noise complaints rose, and every accident brought fears of a catastrophic crash into a crowded city. Even some conservatives began to say, “We need the Marines, but do we need them here?”

When the Pentagon began looking to close bases, most communities scratched and clawed to keep their installations. But Orange County politicians, including some of the Marine Mafia, let it be known they were open to the idea—as long as the land was handed over to local governments to be redeveloped and used for housing and businesses.

Then came August 1990. Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, President George Herbert Walker Bush drew his line in the sand, and all talk about the Marines leaving evaporated. Operation Desert Shield was on. Now densely populated Orange County had a front-row seat, day and night, as Marine convoys rumbled up Interstate 5 with troops from Camp Pendleton coming to El Toro to be airlifted to the Middle East. Massive double-decked, four-engine C-5A Galaxy transports flew in and out of El Toro around the clock with helicopters and other equipment headed to Saudi Arabia. Marine attack jets flew off to aircraft carriers making their way to Bahrain. The Pentagon’s buildup was so fast, it leased 747s and other jumbo jets from World Airways, Delta Air Lines, and others to ferry troops overseas.

If a noise complaint made it to a squadron hangar, the popular retort was a curt, “That’s the sound of freedom.” The more diplomatic response from public affairs was equally short: “There’s a war going on.” But by mid-fall there was little noise to complain about. El Toro was like a “ghost town,” recalled Betsy Judge, then a Marine captain assigned to the base in the fall of 1990. So many Tustin Marines left, one officer called it “The Red Hill Rapture,” after the main street running by the base.

Local businesses counted on the bases for more than customers. Many hired off-duty Marines and their wives as employees—in department stores, boutiques, beauty parlors, pizza joints, bars, mall security—and suddenly found themselves desperate for fill-ins. Fearing a long war, many wives (at first, deployment of married female Marines was extremely rare) took their children back to their hometowns to be with family when the fighting started.

The in-your-face reality of the convoys and departing troop planes and jet fighters struck a nerve in Orange County. Locals wanted to help but often brought things the Marines and their families didn’t need—as if the bases were Goodwill drop-off spots. Well-intentioned “To Any Marine” letter-writing campaigns clogged the delivery system, making it harder for a Marine’s family mail to get through. The cast of “Major Dad,” a TV show featuring a Marine father, came to El Toro for events supporting Marines’ families, with TV news trucks from L.A. in tow.

There was almost a sense of relief when the air war started. It went on for five weeks with no ground troops moving. When they did, the American-led coalition pushed the Iraqis out of Kuwait and chased them a third of the way up Iraq. Then they stopped. The United Nations mandate was to free Kuwait, not topple Saddam.
Four days. It was over. Within a month, El Toro and Tustin troops were returning home, though the last stayed in the Middle East until summer. A crushing victory with few casualties had the county cheering.

The Orange County Board of Supervisors organized the victory parade in May 1991, a month after the El Toro Air Show. But instead of Pacific Coast Highway, Katella Avenue, or Beach Boulevard, the Marines and a British unit representing the coalition were to march along a suburban stretch of Alton Parkway.

A crowd of perhaps 200,000 showed up—far less than the half-million the organizers had promised. Some within the ranks groused that not disturbing traffic on the busier thoroughfares was a more important concern than honoring the troops. Still, they marched with pride. The Marines were showered with welcome-home gifts, including free tickets to Disneyland. Five hundred were chosen for a swanky dress uniform party at the Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel.

Two months later, Congress approved a new round of closures. The Tustin Marine Corps Air Station was on the list, though at least one of the historic blimp hangars would be saved for posterity. It made sense; the rotors could fly out of nearby Camp Pendleton or one of the San Diego Navy bases. In Orange County, the helicopters eventually would be replaced by houses.

The sucker punch came two years later, in 1993, when Congress put El Toro on the closure list. How? It took the equivalent of a three-card monte trick to make the closure work: The Marines would take over Miramar Naval Air Station in San Diego County, while the Navy would move to Fallon, Nevada. Both El Toro and Tustin would close, and on July 2, 1999, the flag at El Toro came down for the last time.

After that, the related industries shrank, and a combination of age, demographics, term limits, and scandals forced the Marine Mafia and its allies out of office. The khaki color of politics faded.

Quang Pham is painfully aware of the change. He fled the fall of Saigon in 1975 when he was 10. Raised in Ventura County, he went to UCLA, joined the Marines, and flew a Vietnam-vintage Sea Knight helicopter in Operation Desert Storm. After a stint as a top aide to an El Toro general, he left the Marines but stayed in Orange County, becoming a successful businessman.

In 2010, he decided to see if Orange County might still elect a Marine combat veteran. Pham ran as a Republican for the congressional seat held then—and now—by Democrat Loretta Sanchez, who had defeated Dornan. Pham went to public forums and told the story of his life, his Marine combat experience, and business success. He said he’d bring Marine discipline and business smarts to the county’s problems. He didn’t get out of the Republican primary.

By then local politics was being driven more by ethnic and hot-button issues. Pham was pro-business and pro-life, but he allowed in public forums that he didn’t believe it was his role to dictate other’s personal choices. “I was booed,” he recalls. “The diehard right-wing groups just wanted to know where I stood on gay marriage and abortion. I guess being a Marine and fighting for your country didn’t have the pull it once had.”

When opportunities came up, he moved his family to Florida. Pham returns to Orange County a few times a year on business. He sees his former bases chopped up and bulldozed, with the orange balloon bobbing where jets and assault helicopters once flew. “What a mess. What a waste,” he says.

Today, none of the members of the Board of Supervisors or Orange County delegation to Sacramento is a military veteran. The lone veteran in Congress is Republican Rep. Darrell Issa of San Diego, who was given a sliver of south Orange County in a 2010 redistricting. Issa served stateside during the Vietnam War, in the Army, and later joined the reserves. But Semper Fi Land? It’s gone.

As the Register’s military beat devolved into reports of groundwater contamination, debate over a new airport at El Toro, and which big-box stores might move into a new Tustin mall, I took a new assignment as the paper’s travel editor in 1994. It was my version of a peace dividend.

When 9/11 hit, the decision to close the bases looked like less of a good idea than it had two years before. Orange County residents signed up at recruiting stations and were called up as reservists. An estimated 50 county residents have been killed in the war zones in the past 15 years of on-again, off-again, on-again fighting. The wars unfold mostly on TV and online. Reports of heroism or death trickle in as distant, individual events because the military here is virtually invisible.
The aerospace giants that for so long could be counted on to hire veterans into high-paying jobs have closed, downsized, or moved away. In Long Beach, the last C-17 Globemaster III military transport rolled off the line late last year at the historic Douglas plant now run by Boeing. When it flew away, there was nowhere left in Southern California where airplanes were being built.

True, Orange County has two bases left—the Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station and the Los Alamitos Joint Forces Training Center. Both have small contingents of full-time uniformed personnel. And while giant Camp Pendleton still sits just across the county’s southern border, the Navy base and shipyard in Long Beach have closed, and Air Force bases in Riverside and San Bernardino counties have shut or downsized. All of that contributes to the feeling of a lost civilization.

In early 2015, my family visited my parents’ ranch-style house in east Long Beach where I grew up. Mom chose it in 1966 in part because it was well off the Long Beach Airport flight path. You could see the planes landing, but rarely hear them.

The kids and I were eating lunch when the house shook and an ear-splitting roar passed over the wood shingle roof. Definitely not a JetBlue airliner. I ran to the porch just in time to see a familiar pair of red-hot jet exhausts disappear past the tree line. An F/A-18 Hornet.

The kids came out as another Hornet screamed about 1,000 feet overhead, its landing gear down. I could make out the markings on the fuselage: VMFAT-101. The Sharpshooters, the old El Toro training squadron, had come for a visit. With El Toro closed, the Marines at Miramar now sometimes use Long Beach Airport for touch-and-go training. A new generation of trainee pilots sometimes flies too low, too fast, or off course.

My son was born the year it was announced El Toro would close; my daughter, two years after the flag came down for the last time. They grew up in an Orange County where the Marines were just a recruiting station storefront at the local strip mall. I’m happy they could see and feel the Sharpshooters—for so long such an important part of Orange County life, and mine.

I thought about phoning in a noise complaint, just for fun. But there’s a war on—for nearly 15 years. So I just watched “the sound of freedom” fly away.

See a gallery of photographer Tom Lamb’s aerial photos of the county’s lost military bases here.

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