The Second World War Transformed The High Desert

By Mark Gutglueck
With World War II raging in Europe at the beginning of 1941, war clouds were drifting across the Pacific toward the United States. Across the American continent, out in the Mojave Desert in San Bernardino County, cheap land where an Army Air Corps base might be built sat fallow.
In one of those paradoxes of life, because it was so sparsely populated and undeveloped, the government considered it especially suited to be developed. And so the desert town of Victorville, then boasting just a few more than 3,000 residents, was earmarked for a radical change that put it on track to become the city of 123,000 it is today, the fifth largest of San Bernardino County’s 24 incorporated cities.
On April 21, 1941, after Army officials had intimated to state and county officials an interest in spending $1.3 million in constructing an Army Air Corps training base and spending $4 million per year in payroll for 3,500 men, county supervisors passed a resolution authorizing acquisition of 1,440 acres of land between Victorville and Adelanto.
In June Victor High School graduated 47.
That same month, the War Department notified the county of a $3 million spending authorization for the construction of a military airport and bi-motor school between Victorville and Adelanto. Edwin C. Kelton, the army’s district engineer for Southern California telegraphed Chairman Gene Grier on June 7, 1941: “G.F. Grier. Authority received this date to advertise for construction military airport Victorville. Kelton”
Grier was then the chairman of the county board of supervisors.
On June 9, 1941, the board of supervisors acted to immediately exercise options on most of the 1,440 acres to accommodate the air base and approved action to procure a right-of-way for a proposed railroad spur tract, to be built by the government from Victorville to the airport site. Elaborately arranged groundbreaking festivities for the air base were held on Saturday June 12.
Ten days later, the Army upped authorized expenditures to $5,612,186 and imposed a June 28th bid deadline to provide for accommodations for 4,100 airmen, to include 71 barracks, 16 supply rooms, an officers’ club, officers’ quarters, fire station, 170 bed hospital, 18 day rooms, seven mess halls, 17 administration buildings, a chapel, two post exchanges, a guard house, two gasoline storage units, a motor repair shop, a theater and seven warehouses. The original plans called for a 7,000 foot runway into the prevailing wind.
On Saturday June 28 1941 the government granted a $2,126,100 bid to Ford J. Twaits, Los Angeles contractor, for the construction of buildings at the Victorville airport and school site. The San Bernardino contracting firms of George Herz Co. and Bakker and Robinson were given subcontracts totaling $450,000. George Herz Co. was selected to do the paving under a contract of nearly $200,000, involving the blending of some 600,000 square yards of cement mix. The runway was to be composed of a gravel base covered with a soil-cement mixture to be surface prepared at the site with special equipment sent in by the government.
Bressie and Bevanda, a Los Angeles contracting company that built the Sepulveda Dam near Los Angeles, was cut in to do a portion of the work and get part of the $1.3 million allocated for general contract work.
The board of supervisors on June 30, 1941 ordered payment of $10,210 to Taylor M. and Julia Peterson of Ontario, owners of 1,180 acres in the Adelanto district, which formed more than two-thirds of the airport site. Another 260 acres, owned by several people, was condemned by the county and purchased in exchange for $16,400. The deal was completed through the Security Title Insurance & Guarantee Co. of San Bernardino.
On Friday July 18, 1941 a groundbreaking ceremony for the base was held, with Major W.B. Higgins, an army engineer standing in for the ailing Colonel Kelton, turning the first shovel of earth at the project.
By August 7, two million feet of lumber had been delivered and 664 men were at work and engaged in various construction functions on the base.
On August 12, Major William B. Offutt was assigned to serve as the project officer overseeing the 1,047 men at work in various capacities on the base.
On August 22, 1941, there were 918 construction workers employed at the base.
On September 8, pouring on the first of the field’s two 6,600 foot runways was underway. For a time, in August and September, the demand for lumber on the project was not being met, slowing and then temporarily halting the feverish pace of building.
In October 1941, a dispute among the directors of the Adelanto Mutual Water Company threatened to undermine a three-way agreement on guaranteeing water service to the base.
In August or September, a private meeting was held between at least three of the water company’s board members including board president and director Henry Deutschman. Representatives of the Army and the county board of supervisors, who served as the governing board of county water works district No. 2 at Adelanto. During the conference held behind closed doors, a “gentlemen’s agreement’ had been reached, pledging the Adelanto Mutual Water Company would provide 50 inches of water to the army for use at the base and at the same time would extend for 25 years the lease of the waterworks district on a similar amount of water.
The agreement included a clause giving the county an option to purchase the mutual water company. In return, the supervisors, as a governing board of the water works district, would submit an application for a $100,000 Reconstruction Finance Corporation loan. If this loan were granted, the district would purchase the Mutual Company, improve the distribution system and retire $30,000 in bonds.
On October 6, 1941 H.H. Scofield, one of the Mutual company’s directors who did not attend the conference with the supervisors and the army’s representative, said he refused to approve the gentlemen’s agreement because, according to the company’s by-laws, all five members of the directorate must act unanimously at a special session of the board, in order to act with the full authority of the board of the water works district. Within a week, Scofield’s resistance to the Army’s commandeering of the Mutual Company’s water, which had played out in public up until that time, was taken behind closed doors. His board colleagues, county officials and Army representatives or a combination thereof at some point prevailed upon him to cease his resistance, and the base thereafter was provided with enough water for operations and the domestic purposes of those stationed there.
In October Major Offut was uprated from project officer at the air base to commanding officer.
As of October 30, all barracks, supply rooms, three 1,000-men capacity mess halls and one 750 cadet capacity mess hall were completed. The first 6,600-foot runway was two thirds done, with four of its six lanes poured. At the end of October there were 1,529 workers employed at the base with 10,79 employed by Ford J. Twaits Company, 285 signed on with Bressie & Brevenda, 91 working for Bakker & Robinson, ten men with Chicago Bridge & Iron Company, and 56 men with the Army Corps of Engineers.
In the first week of November 1941 the Army upped its capacity requirements, increasing the length of the runways and the base’s housing capacity, raising the cap on the project cost to $10 million and preparing to support 12,000 personnel in both permanent quarters and cantonments.
San Bernardino County supervisors on November 3 ordered the purchase of additional land for runways as requested by Colonel E.C Kelton in his capacity as head of the army engineering staff for Southern California. Army instructors wanted a radio range-finding site. The board condemned 9.7 acres one mile south of the field. The value of the condemned tract, according to the November 7 edition of the Valley Press, was “approximately $100.”
On November 14, 1941, the original orders for the paving of two 6600-foot and one 5400-foot runway were half filled. On November 17, 96 soldiers arrived at the base and 250 more arrived for duty on November 24.
Just days before the attack on Pearl Harbor, George Herz & Company of San Bernardino underbid Bressie & Bevanda of Los Angeles by $76,000 to capture a $138,991.50 contract to pave the air base streets.
On December 18, Lt. Colonel Donald B. Phillips relieved Major Offut as base commander.
On December 20, the base’s USO building was dedicated as Miss Priscilla Lane, the screen star, danced with 75 enlisted men, signed autographs and furnished the recorded music on her own amplifying machine.
In the final week of January 1942, the War Board gave a priority rating to building materials, ending material shortages that had retarded the accelerated construction schedule at what was identified as the Victor Army Air Force Base.
In not-too-distant Hesperia on February 18 that community’s first PTA was organized.
On April 24 1942 the flight school at Victor Army Air Force Base graduated its first class of pilots, with 83 cadets receiving their twin engine wings in ceremonies at the Post Theater. All 83 were commissioned second lieutenants in the Air Corps Reserve with the aeronautical rating of “pilot.”
Among the Victor Valley’s more successful merchants were the Army Navy Store, Turner’s Insurance Company, Charles Pool Hall, City Cleaners, Lee’s Authorized Chevrolet Service, the Bachelor Shop, The Desert Den, Bennett’s Chapel of the Desert, Scott’s Café the Green Spot Desert Inn, the Green Spot Café, the Green Spot Motel, the Green Spot Bowling Academy, Charles Super Service, Bank of America, Parker’s Department Store, Desert Maid Bakery, the California Electric Power Company, the Log Cabin Café, Snyder’s Department Store, Hotel Smith, Safeway Store, Gift & Gown Shop, The Varsity Shop, the Shell Station, McCoy Cleaners, and Victor Valley Insurance Agency.
As of Friday May 15, 1942, the Victorville branch of the Bank of America’s deposits stood at $800,000, a $350,000 increase in five years. The Victorville branch was originally opened in on March 25, 1935.
On May 21, 1942 the second class from the training base graduated, consisting this time of 71 bombardiers and 82 more twin engine pilots.
On June 4, Victor High graduated 40.
On June 22 Lt. Col. Roy D. Butler relieved Colonel Phillips as base commander.
In July 1942, 73 aviation mechanics graduated from the Victor Army Air School.
Thereon, the Victorville Air Station was an intrinsic part of the war effort, graduating native son, Kemper Campbell, Junior.
On the first anniversary of Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1942, the school graduated its first class of advanced glider pilots.
A deluge in January 1943 washed away the Adelanto Waterworks well at the river, which had been Adelanto’s main water supply, leaving the town without a source of water other than a single well located in Adelanto.
The Adelanto Mutual Water Company’s board resolved to drill another well in Adelanto and initiated drilling on April 29, 1943 and the well was completed on July 6 1943. A pump was installed and a new line laid from the new well to the reservoirs so that the well was in service on August 3, 1943, supplying 179 gallons per minute at an operating cost of about half of that of bringing the water from the river, according to John C. Berry of the Victor Press.
On July 14, 1943, Col A.S. McVea began a five-day stint as base commander. On July 19, he was replaced by Colonel Earl C. Robbins.
By December 1943 the local economy was booming in both Victorville and Adelanto. Businesses that were flourishing included Lew Parrish Signs, Victorville Drug Co., Schotte & Wadleigh Welding, the Krieger Gas Station, Madeleine’s Dress Shop, the Shell Station, Mesa Theatre, The Town Taxi Co., Richardson’s Barber and Beauty Shop, Gerry’s Chicken Shack, the Log Cabin Café, the Desert Den, the Beverage Exchange, Western Auto Supply, Snyder’s Federated Store, the Texaco Service Station, the Green Spot Motel, Standard Service-Goodyear Tires, Homestead Bakery, the Jackrabbit Café, the Wagon Wheel Café, Don Burbank Maintenance Service, Valley Auto Supply, the Army & Navy Store, Turner’s Insurance, the Gift and Gown Shop, the Victorville-Barstow Truck Line, Hayward Lumber Company, Desert Maid Bakery, the Red & White Store, Pontiac Sales, Victorville Auto Body Works, the Smith Hotel, the Smith Hotel Barber Shop, Kal’s Shoe Service Shop, Ewing’s Trading Post, Desert Dome, Nu Way Laundry and Cleaners, the Standard Station, McKinney’s Market, Parker’s Department Store, Union Oil Service Station, Valentine’s Service Station, the Bank of America, Victorville Limerock, Standard Oil Wholesale Distributors, National Garage, Bill Merrill’s Butane Service, Victor Valley Insurance Agency, Scott’s Café, Brooks’ Central Pharmacy, Peterson Feed Store, Stewart Hotel, Victor Jewelry, Jane’s Gift Shop, and Mr. Todd Strafelda Optometry.
Throughout the war years, San Bernardino County was dogged with black market trading in beef. Ranchers and farmers who did not closely watch their herds would fall victim to men willing to poach steers or cows, slaughter them and then dress them for sale illicit sale to those weary of the government-imposed rations on beef.
In March 1944, the civilian population of Victorville had climbed to 5,455, calculated upon the state of California’s tally of 5,455 ration book holders in the city. At the same time, Phelan had 142 ration book holders, Oro Grande had 538, Lucerne Valley 345, Hesperia 144, Apple Valley 249, Adelanto 513, and Las Flores 150.
In March, 1944, the Army Air Corps activated the 36th Flight Training Wing as a school for P-39 single-engine pursuit pilots at Victor Army Air Field. The wing also included training crew members in the B-24 and B-25.
In 1944, the Victor High graduating class numbered 35
All debt for construction of the Adelanto water works project undertaken in 1943 was paid off as of October 1944.
In November, the War Department began stationing B-24s at Victorville Army AAir Field. As of December 1, 1944, there were 702 student enrolled at Victor schools, including elementary schools and the high school.
The Victor Press edition of Friday January 5, 1945 reported that the Victorville Bank of America transacted $38,149,468.59 in business in the entire year of 1944, which included outgoing clearings which totaled $23,581,603.31.
As of January 1945, the population of San Bernardino County had reached 221,400.
At the end of January 1945 the California Electric Power Co. began erecting in Hesperia poles with cross arms to meet 53 applications for electric power there.
In April 1945, the Victor Chamber of Commerce undertook to incorporate. Also that month Clyde Tatum planted 100 acres of “white rose” potatoes three miles south of Hesperia.
During the third week of May the California Electric Power Company began delivering electricity to customers, with the first meter installed being that for service to Clyde Tatum’s Appleton Land Company in Hesperia. Sixty other applicants for power were in line behind Tatum.
In June there were 43 graduates from Victor High.
On July 13, 1945, the first of 1,500 members of the 8th Army Air Force began arriving at Victor Army Air Field. The Eighth, including 300 officers and 1,200 enlisted men who had engaged in combat against the Nazis and Italy, was being sent to VAAF for orientation, training and instructions preparatory to operations against Japan, and included all personnel from the 482nd Bombardment Group,
In the weeks just prior to the atomic bombings in Hiroshima on August 6 and Nagasaki on August 9, the 812th, 813th, and 814th bombardment squadrons had assembled at Victor Army Air Field in anticipation of their imminent deployment in the Pacific.
With the beginning of the school year in September, there were 721 students enrolled in three Victor schools
In October, with the Japanese instrument of surrender having been signed on September 2, the Victor radar school was deactivated.

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