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Best Places to Explore the Hidden WWII History of SoCal

santa anita park

Because of its proximity to the Pacific Coast, Southern California – as well as the Central Coast – was a hotbed of activity during wartime.

But beyond our famed warships, forts, lighthouses, and NIKE missile bases that are known for their rich military history, there are other sites that were key to the war effort.

And they’re hiding in plain view.

So even if you’re not old enough to remember World War II yourself – and maybe your parents aren’t, either – here are five of the best ways to explore the hidden histories of the Second World War along our coast, upon our peaks, and at our border.

1. Naval Surface Warfare Center Corona Division/Lake Norconian Club, Norco

The Lake Norconian Club resort opened in February 1929 in the newly created community of Norco (so named because it was North of the city of Corona) as a 638-acre playground for the rich and famous (sometimes referred to as "Norconian Resort Supreme"). In addition to a 60-acre lake, it also boasted a golf course, airstrip, swimming pool, and natural mineral springs – making it incredibly popular with Hollywood film stars. But as the country prepared to go to war, the resort's popularity had waned, which allowed the Navy to buy it for significantly less than it cost to build. The official transfer of ownership was made on the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor: December 8, 1941.

The Navy used Lake Norconian as a Naval hospital throughout World War II and kept many of its original features intact, including the pavilion and boathouse. Spanish Colonial Revival vestiges from the original resort, designed by L.A. architect Dwight Gibbs, were also kept. And at the center of it all was the 800-square-foot hotel of the original resort, with its ballroom, casino, dining hall and lots of rooms.

Much of what was built in the World War II era was designed by architect Claud Beelman to match the hotel. But in favoring function over form, those buildings – including the old "Corpsmen's Quarters," where the medical unit staff members resided – are less flashy than the architect's other landmark works (e.g. The Culver Hotel, Eastern Columbia Building, Park Plaza Hotel).

The hospital officially closed for business on October 15, 1957, and patients were transferred to Long Beach or Balboa Park, San Diego. One local group of preservationists, the Lake Norconian Club Foundation, has been trying to get into that old hotel to fix the water damage and seal the leaks – for years. Follow the non-profit for opportunities to visit the site. Or sign up for the annual 5K run/walk through the grounds on the still-active military site.

Lake Norconian Club
Lake Norconian Club |  Sandi Hemmerlein 
Lake Norconian Club
Lake Norconian Club |  Sandi Hemmerlein 
Lake Norconian Club
Lake Norconian Club |  Sandi Hemmerlein 

Bonus: Irvine Regional Park, Irvine

The former Orange County Park in Irvine was commandeered by the military during World War II as a military training facility called Camp Rathkey, as well as a tuberculosis camp.

2. Cal-Aero Flying Academy at Chino Airport, Chino

Today's Chino Airport is located on the grounds of the former Cal-Aero Academy, one of the first civilian flight schools in the U.S. While it most certainly was not the last, it was the largest in the U.S. at the time. Such flight training became commonplace after World War II started – and, in the case of Cal-Aero, it had become contracted by the U.S. Army Air Forces from 1942 to 1944. Not to be confused with the present-day Cal Aero Preserve Academy school for grades K through 12, this is where young guys who aspired to be fighter pilots once learned how to fly B-44s, B-17s, B-24s and Stearman PT-17s. Decorated war hero Colonel Robert Lee Scott Jr. had been training a total of 110 young pilots at Cal-Aero when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

In total, more than 12,000 fighter and bomber pilots trained here during the war effort. Army Air Cadets would go through 10 weeks of primary training and 10 weeks of basic pilot training – both of which included flight instruction and ground school. Unlike at other military bases and academies, these cadets didn't sleep in barracks – but, rather, motel-style rooms. Because it started out as a private facility, it was practically like a country club, compared to other defense units. The Academy could accommodate up to 500 men – but once they're training was done, they would move on to more advanced training at another base farther up north.

Many of the buildings on the western end of the present-day airport are vacant, but a main hall is currently being used as an active U.S. Postal Service office. Now owned by the County of San Bernardino, Chino Airport actually does have a relatively thriving business, despite appearances. In addition to its two plane museums (Planes of Fame and Yanks Air Museum) and Flo’s Airport Cafe, it leases space to various fixed-base operators so civilians can continue to learn to fly there.

Cal-Aero Flying Academy
Cal-Aero Flying Academy  |  Sandi Hemmerlein 
Cal-Aero Flying Academy
Cal-Aero Flying Academy |  Sandi Hemmerlein 

Bonus: Morton Air Academy at Gary Field, Blythe

The former Morton Air Academy at Gary Field (named after the son of the Morton Academy's general manager) is where some cadets for the U.S. Army Air Forces (a predecessor to the U.S. Air Force) learned how to fly – planes like the Ryan PT-22 Recruit and the Piper J-3 Cub – also from 1942 to 1944. By 1945, it had been decommissioned and designated surplus. Now called the W.R. Byron Airport after its most recent owner, Willard R. Byron, the abandoned site in Blythe is so decrepit that you can see straight through the skeletons of buildings that have been stripped down to their bare-bones blueprints.

Morton Air Academy
Morton Air Academy |  Sandi Hemmerlein 

3. Barstow-Daggett Airport, Daggett

Barstow-Daggett Airport was officially built in 1933, but its beginnings date back to 1930 – when air flight wasn't so common, so it was outfitted with a radio beacon and used as a Desert Airways Communication Station to help pilots navigate. The next year, a 40-foot tower followed; and in 1932, three runways were built as flight activity began to increase. In the late 1930s, it operated as a municipal airport and civil airfield, a "designated landing area" for civilians, and expanded greatly through the end of the decade, thanks to funds supplied by the WPA as part of FDR's New Deal.

In 1942, the War Department chose it as a Modification Center, which Douglas Aircraft Company established as the Daggett Army Air Field later that year. As a tenant, Douglas continued to operate it – and modify as many as 4,300 existing aircraft for special military needs (mainly Douglas A-20 Havoc light bombers and C-47 Skytrain transport airplanes) – until 1944. Fighter pilots received advanced training here in 1944. The flying weather was reportedly excellent. Between headquarters and flight operations buildings, hangars, barracks, utilities, storage, and fuel operations, there were about 65 buildings and 20 other structures at one time in what became known as "Douglas Town." You can still admire Hangar Shed No. 4, its three sides made out of and built to accommodate up to 36 aircraft at any given time.

Nearly 1,000 people could have been housed in those barracks and family cottages – though since being declared surplus in 1945, only a few derelict ones remain. In 1958-9, San Bernardino County took over jurisdiction, and it continues to oversee it today. But the Army presence didn't disappear completely from Daggett Airport. Its proximity to Barstow (only a dozen or so miles west of the airport) and the Fort Irwin installation makes it a likely candidate for Army-owned UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and LUH-72 Lakota helicopters to operate out of the airport.

Barstow-Daggett Airport
Barstow-Daggett Airport |  Sandi Hemmerlein ​
Barstow-Daggett Airport
Barstow-Daggett Airport |  Sandi Hemmerlein 
Barstow-Daggett Airport
Barstow-Daggett Airport |  Sandi Hemmerlein 

Bonus: Daggett Garage, Daggett

Head into center of the ghost town of Daggett to find the Daggett Garage (circa 1880s), which was moved to this spot in 1912 from Waterloo Mill and Mine, where it was used as a locomotive repair roundhouse for a narrow gauge railroad that served the local silver mine. In the advent of World War II, the garage went from being a Route 66 auto repair shop to a mess hall for Army troops who were guarding the nearby railroad tracks.

Daggett Garage
Daggett Garage  |  Sandi Hemmerlein 

4. Desert View Tower, Jacumba

A little less than halfway between San Diego and Yuma, along a stretch that's allowed travelers to cross the Colorado Desert in Kumeyaay territory (either by stagecoach, railroad, toll road or otherwise), you'll find the aptly named Desert View Tower. It’s a lookout point that was built in the 1920s by a local real estate developer who wanted to commemorate the pioneers who paved the way for other travelers to come through such a remote, sandy area. The gesture was somewhat in hopes of Jacumba, a town he ended up buying, becoming a border crossing – but instead, that designation went to Tecate and El Centro.

Built of local rock, quartz, wood salvaged from the Old Plank Road, and other native materials, it's considered its own folk art environment. The rock walls are four feet thick. Perhaps more important is its location – so close to a former wagon road, stage station, and mail route from 1862 to 1870, located just north of the tower and just across the border into Imperial County (though its historical marker is at the tower).

The very top of Desert View Tower is known as the "Hurricane Deck," used during WWII to look for Nazis who might be crossing the border from Mexico. Now, the top of the fortress is an observation deck with 360-degree views of the Jacumba and In-Ko-Pah Mountain ranges, Mountain Springs, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, and even the local border patrol station. Stop in the gift shop and buy your ticket to climb 57 steps to the top of the tower, whose view is enough to beckon anyone with a pair of working eyeballs up there. You're only 70 feet up off the ground while you're up there, but you're actually looming 3,000 feet above the Imperial Valley floor. The expanse of the desert below is staggering. You can also attend a session of In-Ko-Pah yoga held there. Or, spend the night by booking the entire “lighthouse” on Airbnb.

Desert View Tower
Desert View Tower  |  Sandi Hemmerlein 
Desert View Tower
Desert View Tower  |  Sandi Hemmerlein 
Desert View Tower
Desert View Tower  |  Sandi Hemmerlein 

Bonus: Morro Bay Harbor, Morro Bay

The "Gibraltar of the Central Coast" – Morro Rock, a volcanic plug that's one of the Nine Sisters of San Luis Obispo County – was once the site of a WWII-era lookout after the U.S. Navy took over the Morro Bay harbor and operated the Amphibious Training Base where the power plant “stacks” are now. Considered a “giant solid fortification” at the time, its rough shore provided the perfect training ground for sailors getting ready for battle in the Pacific. You can see a historic WWII-era vessel – the Tug Boat Alma, which rescued survivors of the Union Oil tanker Montebello, attacked and sunk by the Japanese – on display as part of the Morro Bay Maritime Museum collection at the Embarcadero.

Morro Bay Harbor
Morro Bay Harbor  |  Sandi Hemmerlein 

5. Santa Anita Racetrack, Arcadia

Santa Anita Park used to attract all the top movie stars. Cary Grant, Al Jolson, and Lana Turner all invested in it, and investor Bing Crosby also owned a horse that raced there. But the history of California's first thoroughbred racetrack isn't entirely glamorous: in 1942, racing was suspended at Santa Anita, and its facilities (including its horse stables) were used as a Japanese internment camp, per Executive Order 9066 signed by FDR. 

The historical timeline on Santa Anita's website conveniently leaves the years after 1940 blank, but there is one historical marker near the paddock that explains how as many as 20,000 Japanese-Americans lived at the racetrack's "Assembly Center" in military-style barracks. More than 100,000 soldiers were also trained at “Camp Santa Anita,” one of the largest Army ordnance training centers on the West Coast at the time.

Racing resumed in 1945, and has been more or less continuous since. Now known as "The Great Race Place,” its historic grandstand and clubhouse buildings were designed by architect Gordon B. Kaufmann in a Colonial Revival architectural style, mixed with elements of Moderne. During live racing seasons, you can take the “Seabiscuit Tour” of the facility via a free tram. Tours depart Clockers’ Corner at 9:45 a.m. every Saturday and Sunday.

Santa Anita Racetrack
Santa Anita Racetrack |  Sandi Hemmerlein 
Santa Anita Racetrack
Santa Anita Racetrack  |  Sandi Hemmerlein 

Bonus: Fairplex, Pomona

Fairplex – home of the Los Angeles County Fair – is the former site of the Pomona Assembly Center, a detention camp for Japanese-Californians during the first few months of World War II in 1942. Over 5,500 people of Japanese ancestry were confined there – even those who were American citizens. From 1942 to 1947, the military had taken over the entire fairgrounds – not just for the Japanese war relocation effort, but also to house German and Italian prisoners of war and to train soldiers to fight in desert conditions. You can find a historical marker near the administration office at Gate 1.

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