An Accommodating Neighbor for Aviator Cadets
In 1938, the United States Army Air Corps was training about 500 combat pilots a year. As it became more and more clear America was going to
be entering World War II, the military leaders realized more pilots were going to be needed, but they also knew the limitations of their training staff and facilities. Something had to be done quickly to get more pilots trained. In 1939, Four Star General Henry “Hap” Arnold, the head of the Army Air Forces, had devised a plan—a bold one that could train over 100,000 pilots per year.
His idea was revolutionary, and at the same time relatively simple. The military would contract-out pilot training to civilian airfields and civilian pilots. The plan was not universally accepted. To many, the thought of training military personnel using civilian instructors was going too far. But the military brass argued that the urgency of the times warranted the unorthodox measure, so the general’s plan moved forward. As it was implemented, dozens of civilian airfields sprang up all over the country and hundreds of civilian pilots, many with prior military aviation experience, were hired as trainers. To mitigate the concern over too much civilian involvement, General Arnold ordered that all of the civilian airfields and training be overseen by the military.
Eventually, 62 airfields were established across the country, and Tulare County got two. The first one was Rankin Aeronautical Academy (or Rankin Field for short), and it was located a few miles east of the city of Tulare. The second was Visalia-Dinuba School of Aeronautics or Sequoia Field, and was north of Visalia about eight miles, midway between the two towns. Rankin was dedicated in May 1941, and Sequoia Field opened its doors a few months later. But before the army opened Sequoia Field, the city and military agreed that all of Visalia’s houses of prostitution needed to be shut down. Everyone was concerned about widespread sexually transmitted diseases.
Because of Sequoia Field’s proximity to Visalia, both military and city officials recognized the special connection and the importance of establishing a good working relationship. Meetings were held and understandings were reached. So in 1940, Visalia, a town of about 9,000 people, was on its way to becoming a military town.
Although the cadets were kept very busy with flying, ground school, drills, tests and physical fitness, they were given occasional weekend passes and many of them spent time in town. The cadets were well received by Visalians. In-season fruits and vegetables were shared with them, and families would take the boys on sightseeing trips up to Sequoia National Park to see the big trees. But not everyone was happy with the influx of more young men. Local boys didn’t appreciate the added competition for the attention of young ladies who seemed to have a special fondness for the uniformed flyboys.
Sequoia Field also had an impact on the local employment situation. Not only did local civilian pilots find employment as part of the training staff, there was also a push to get women to ll jobs usually held by men. In October 1942, for example, the Visalia Times-Delta spoke to the women of Visalia and challenged them to become airplane mechanics. The newspaper wrote, “You have always had a desire to shelve the makeup and frills and putter around with mechanics, if you only had someone to give you a little help. Well, lady, your answer is right here in Visalia under the program being advanced by the Visalia-Dinuba School of Aeronautics, where a group of women are embarking upon a training and at a regular hourly rate of pay, too, to qualify them to step up and take a front line place in the war when the men are called to bear arms. More women are needed.” The women’s group spearheading the effort was the local chapter of the Business & Professional Women’s organization.
Services in Visalia were also used by the Sequoia Field cadets. Even though the base had a small hospital, serious illnesses and injuries were treated in Visalia. When Cadet Foster Anderson of Chicago was flying solo in April 1943, he crashed his plane near Stone Corral School. The Sequoia Field ambulance responded and took him to the Visalia Municipal Hospital where he was given a blood transfusion, but later died from his injuries.
Visalia had parades and numerous patriotic events during the war and the cadets of Sequoia Field were well represented. Bond drives were especially popular and participation by the military men was encouraged. Their presence helped to elevate a patriotic spirit, and therefore helped sell much needed war bonds. In July 1944, for example, they participated in a parade to boost war bond sales. Thanks to the cadets, and especially the hard work of the large number of volunteer bond salespeople, Visalia met its quota and actually “went over the top.”
The relationship between Sequoia Field and Visalia was mutually beneficial, but August 11, 1944, marked the beginning of the end for the airfield. The military sent a letter announcing that as of October 16, 1944, no more cadets would be coming for training. The letter acknowledged that “the training of thousands of aviation cadets at the Visalia-Dinuba School is a significant accomplishment which is regarded as an outstanding contribution to the war effort.”
For three years the base served as a primary flight training facility and graduated 8,000 cadets. Many graduates became accomplished pilots and distinguished themselves in many ways. A significant number also gave their lives. Captain Darrell Lindsey was one of them, and he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his acts of bravery as a pilot.
Visalia played a significant part in the history of this important training field. Even though cadets spent only nine weeks in training in Tulare County, many of them had fond memories of Visalia. For that, Visalians should be proud.
Sequoia Field as a military training base is obviously gone, but thanks to Bruce Baird, a Sequoia Field graduate, the training field site is on the National Register of Historic Places.