“Yesterday, December 7th 1941” began President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s address to a joint session of the Congress. By the time the speech ended America would be at war with the Axis Powers. Japan, Germany, and Italy now faced a juggernaut the likes they and the world had ever seen. California would be the place of many major military air fields of World War 2, dozens of auxiliary fields and airstrips. Most of these fields were generally built to provide more room for basic flight training. Some even were designated as “fall back” fields to launch defensive operations against Japan.  Army Air Field runways were mostly a triangle configuration and Navy fields were two runways. One military air field served the Army Air Corp and the Navy. While not serving simultaneously, Thermal Army Air Field and Naval Facility–Thermal was used by both the Army and Navy. Back in those days Thermal Army Air Field, now known as Jackie Cochran Regional Airport, was located on 2500 plus acres. The War Department, now the Department of Defense, acquired the property in February of 1943.

The U.S. Army Air Corp-4th Air Force out of San Francisco had the base under its jurisdiction. The two, 5,000-foot runways were built to train pilots and support General Patton’s training center near Chiriaco Summit for Operation Torch better known as the invasion of North Africa. The army posts tactical and recon aircraft to the field. Operation Torch training and operations were a success so the Army mothballed the field. Never known to pass up a great deal the Navy asked the Army if it could have the field. Unlike nowadays the deal was done in just five total days.

Today something similar would take year today. On February 1, 1945 the Navy officially commissioned Naval Air Base Detachment Thermal and the rest is history. Navy aircraft of numerous types were assigned to its newest field.

The Army left behind some accommodations for the Navy. Seems the Army spread facilities over a 4 mile area around the airport. The Navy inherited 254 buildings, 237 of them built by the war Department, and 17 “nonmilitary buildings”. Water, sewer, heating, lighting, telephone and power systems were all installed.  All of these buildings and utilities were built without a permit, environmental impact report, or planners and building officials from local government reviewing them. Total cost for all of the above was $ 109,000.

The Thermal Air Field accommodated 2400 enlisted team members, and just 264 officers. A hospital was also present that had a complement of 68 nurses, 13 officers, and 16 enlisted members.  The hospital had a capacity to serve 119 patients. Note that no air conditioning was available and the Navy had some issues with the heat on flight operations.  They also leased a pool and rec center facility for the sailors. Seems the Army was not worried about a swimming pool for its soldiers.

At wars end Army and Navy aviation units or squadrons, their officers and enlisted personnel, had served our nation with honor, valor, and distinction. Since the war was now over the base was closed. The Thermal site was declared surplus and later convey by quitclaim deed to the County of Riverside. Other parties also got a piece of the field. Other than runways, taxiways, and one old wooden hanger, little exists of the original base that sent our Army and Navy off to train, fight and win.

Today, Thermal Field bears the name of Aviation Legend Jackie Cochran. The Board of Supervisors, at the request of Dr. S. Roy Wilson, Fourth District Supervisor and a Naval Reserve Veteran, honored the great aviator by affixing her name to this airport.

Image Sources

  • Boeing Stearman PT 17-: m.georgiaencyclopedia.org