Alameda: The Airport City

Two airports served Alameda and one the Army Air Force before the United States Navy arrived in 1940. (From left to right): Alameda Airport opened in 1929 on a strip of land along the Oakland Estuary. Benton Field opened in 1927. This Army Air Force field was bounded roughly by today’s Pan Am Way, West Red Line Avenue, Monarch Street and West Tower Avenue. In 1930, planes began landing at the San Francisco Airdrome, which stood on the site of today’s College of Alameda. The light blue on the map defines the
Alameda Naval Air Museum

Alameda: The Airport City

Dennis Evanosky

The Alameda Naval Air Station opened on November 1, 1940. However, the Navy arrived in a city with an aviation history that stretched back more than 30 years to 1909 and Sunset Aviation Field.

The first mention of Sunset Field, which was located near today’s Jean Sweeney Open Space where Sherman Street meets Atlantic Avenue, says that pilot Joseph L. Cato and others were building Curtiss-type airplanes there. Aerofiles.com says that Cato and William Darwin Caswell both built planes and operated the Sunset School of Aviation.

A 1912 San Francisco Call article about Sunset says that the field had “its hangars and flying machines at the old race track at the north end of Sherman Street.” The September 1913 issue of Aircraft magazine said that Sunset had to close because of dredging going on in the Oakland Estuary.

The magazine called Sunset “one of the finest aerodromes in the state.” The article explained that the mud dredged from the estuary was being poured onto the “best portion of the field, and has rendered it absolutely worthless for flying purposes.” Sunset was not the only airfield to predate the Navy’s arrival in Alameda. Benton Field opened in 1927. This Army Air Force operation stood north of today’s West Tower Avenue and east of Monarch Street.

The Army Air Force honored Lt. John W. Benton with the airport’s name. Benton was an Army Air Corps pilot who called Shasta County home. He died in an airplane crash in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the same year his name-sake field opened. A second airport in Shasta also bears Benton’s name.

The Army awarded Benton a posthumous Distinguished Flying Cross for “extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight.”

Planes began landing at Alameda Airport on March 2, 1929. The airport was located on a strip of land west of Benton Field along the Oakland Estuary. Pan Amercan World Airways (Pan Am) flew its first Clippers from a yacht harbor at Alameda Airport.

In 1930, planes began landing at Alameda’s fourth airport, the San Francisco Airdrome, which stood on the site of today’s College of Alameda.

Things began to change in the mid-1930s. On June 1, 1936, the city of Alameda ceded the Benton Field property to the federal government for the nominal fee of $1.

The Army Air Force discontinued operations there the following October. In 1938, Congress appropriated the money to build facilities for two aircraft carrier air wings, five seaplane squadrons and two utility squadrons in Alameda.

The Navy’s arrival spelled the end not only for Benton Field, but for Alameda Airport as well. Pan Ame shifted its terminal from the Alameda Airport to Treasure Island in 1939 for the Golden Gate International Exposition, a move that closed Alameda Airport.

The following year Congress increased appropriations so the Navy could build two seaplane hangars and an aircraft carrier berthing pier at its Alameda station.

The Navy flexed its muscles, claiming that the nearby airdrome would interfere with its operations and the last of Alameda’s early airports closed.

Operations at the air station began on Nov. 1, 1940, some 13 months before the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor.

The Navy was still building its Alameda facility when word reached California of the Japanese airstrike. The new air station quickly went on war footing playing host to air patrols both out in the Pacific and inland. Planes flying out of the new air station also provided air cover for convoys plying the Pacific. The station also became a “ferry point” for fleet air units heading out into the Pacific. The air station’s 2,327 acres had five 500-foot-wide asphalt runways. The Navy painted the entire airfield in a camouflage pattern to guard against a possible airstrike

On March 31, 1942 the aircraft carrier Hornet arrived at the Alameda Naval Air Station. Two days later, the Hornet departed with General Jimmy Doolittle, his 79 Raiders and their 16 B-25 bombers aboard. On April 18, Doolittle and his Raiders bombed Tokyo and other Japanese cities.

Alameda Naval Air Station remained one of World War II’s busiest carrier groups, supplies, along with Navy and Army Air Force personnel passed through Alameda on their way to the eastern Pacific. Military historian Melvin L. Shettle Jr. tells us that in late 1943 the Army Air Force began establishing an air depot in Alameda to handle the movement of personnel, planes and equipment from Europe to the Pacific in preparation for the final assault on Japan.

At war’s end, the Alameda Naval Air Station was a huge facility with 3,600 officers and 29,000 enlisted personnel. The naval air station continued in full operation after the war and became home to many Navy commands and service units.

“Following the war, Alameda continued to provide services and support to the aviation activities of the Pacific Fleet,” Shettle writes. “With the arrival of jet aircraft, one of the base’s runways was extended to 7,200 feet.” The Navy also added a 8,000-foot-long runway, Shettle tells us.

In 1994, Alameda was home-port to a pair of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, USS Carl Vinson and USS Abraham Lincoln. Two guided missile cruisers and a destroyer tender also called Alameda Naval Air Station home.

The base remained open for just three years after the aircraft carriers arrived. Historian Justin Ruhge tells us that the Base Realignment and Closure Commission closed Alameda Naval Air Station to the roar of a 21-gun salute on April 25, 1997.

“After more than 56 years of writing naval aviation history, the venerable facilities were turned over to the Alameda Reuse and Redevelopment Authority,” Ruhge writes.

Dennis Evanosky is the publisher of the Alameda Sun newspaper.