California's Salton Sea During World War II
The Navy took interest in this large body of water and in 1939 established a special unit for training seaplane pilots. The base was located at the north end of the sea and training included simulated bombing runs and sea rescues. A nearby tavern owner provided housing and other accommodations to the young airmen including the use of his boat. Those strange flying boats undoubtedly entertained the valley locals circling and dropping their simulated bombs on wooden targets bobbing serenely on surface of the sea.
As war clouds gathered, the Navy, in cooperation with the Coast Guard, relocated the base to the southwest corner of the sea. Completed in 1942, the new base, now fully equipped, continued its training mission with a complement of twelve PBY Catalina seaplanes.
The attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 threatened all U.S. possessions in the Pacific. The American people, particularly those of us on the West Coast, needed assurance that our military forces knew how to fight and protect the county. To bolster moral, Paramount Studios, in partnership with the Navy and the Marine Corps produced the award winning motion picture “Wake Island”.
The film begins with a small U.S. Marine detachment busily improving island fortification, conducting training exercises and engaging in humorous marine-style horse play. A new commander arrives by seaplane and meets with his staff and the enlisted men; followed by more horse play and a visit to the Island by a Japanese diplomat on his way to Washington to meet with the President. These scenes were filmed at the Salton Sea Naval Air Facility.
Props included rows of tents stretching away from the shoreline, a few buildings located near the seaplane ramp, use of the pier for tethering the seaplane and a clay-based runway constructed by the studio. The action scenes -- bombing from the air, shelling from ships at sea and the final assault by landed troops -- were filmed at Camp Pendleton Marine Base.
In spite of overwhelming Japanese military force, the small Marine detachment managed to hold out for over two weeks. The Japanese occupied the island until a naval blockade forced their surrender in the latter months of the war.
The navy continued, through the war years, to use of the Salton Sea facility. New missions were added including testing takeoff rockets and air-to-ground rocket training for carrier based aircraft.
In 1944, the Air Force began a training mission requiring utmost secrecy -- preparing a B-25 bomber crew for the honor of delivering the atom bomb on the Japanese homeland. The mission was assigned to the 509 Composite Group of B-29s assembled for that purpose at Windover Army Air Field, Utah. The program required lots of tests, looping through many rounds of tests -- ballistics and detonators for the bomb; release mechanisms and flying characteristics for the aircraft. The Salton Sea became an important player in the testing program. Between October 1944 and the spring of 1945, one-hundred fifty inert bombs, simulating the shape of the atomic bomb, and called “shapes” were released into a patch of water near the Base; while special instruments and cameras located on shore continuously recorded vital aerodynamic data.
After testing was completed, the operation moved to a base in the Marianna Islands. From there the crew began flying combat mission over Japan. Each plane carried only one large high explosive bomb called a “pumpkin” These missions set the stage for the final act which ended the war and ushered in the atomic age. On August 9, 1945, a second atomic bomb was released over the Japanese city of Nagasaki.
The Atomic Energy Commission took over management of the Salton Sea facility from the Navy and continued testing inert nuclear weapons. A special building housed this operation from the end of the war until 1969.
I visited the base in the mid 70s and noticed that a guard was posted near the pier where a speed boat was tethered. I asked a friend who worked for the navy why they needed security on the base where there has been no activity for years. He told me that a guard had been stationed there 24/7 all that time to protect the “shapes” and make sure that the drop zone remained off limits. Wow.
The camp can be reached from Highway 86 on a partially paved road located 7.5 miles south of Salton City see Google Earth N33 10.569; W115 53.240.
The Navy relinquished the facility to the Department of Interior in 1978.