Past, Present, Future Converge at Point

Richard Bangert   Department of Veterans Affairs representative Laura Kelly spoke about the VA’s future medical facility and columbarium at Alameda during the April 2 Doolittle tour at Alameda Point.

Past, Present, Future Converge at Point

Military history, protection of endangered birds and support for military veterans shared an Alameda Point runway on Saturday, April 2, during a lecture tour sponsored by the Naval Air Museum.  The occasion was the 74th anniversary of the departure of the USS Hornet to carry out the bombing raid on Japan led by Lt. Colonel Jimmy Doolittle. 

“The Naval Air Station was a place of unique importance during World War II,” said military historian Marshall Davis, who led the tour, “and it started with this Doolittle mission, which was only three months after the war started with Japan.” In December of 1941, Japan attacked the U.S. Navy base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, resulting in U.S. entry into the war.

“The Naval Air Station here went on to service the fleet during World War II in a very big way,” said Davis, “and that is all here, one way or another, in the museum that remains. The story is left mostly untold and it gets transferred to the Hornet, which is such a demanding presence at the site.”

Davis led the tour group of about 25 people in cars through a gate onto the old airfield and over to the stop on the east-west runway near the Air Traffic Control Tower, escorted by two East Bay Regional Park District police vehicles. Davis described the arrival of the B-25 bombers on this same runway 74 years ago and the preparations that led up to that day.  

Gazing toward the Bay Bridge over the vast landscape largely unchanged from a bygone era with aircraft hangars in the background, it was easy to travel back in time through the narrator’s lens. At 84 years of age, wearing a dress military cap and aviator glasses, Davis was the consummate link to the past.

A day after landing, 16 specially outfitted planes were hoisted onto the aircraft carrier USS Hornet bound for the waters off Japan for the surprise attack.  

The mission was immortalized in the book Thirty Seconds over Tokyo, written by one of the pilots, Captain Ted Lawson, and in the movie of the same name.

Laura Kelly, a planner with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), told about the VA’s plans for a clinic and columbarium on the north side of the airfield. Due to the pressing need for new burial space in the Bay Area, Kelly explained, the columbarium will be completed first, and then construction will begin on the medical services building and conservation management building.  

The VA received $70 million in the 2016 budget, and work is expected to begin soon on laying infrastructure to the site. Kelly said that the current projected completion date for the $240 million project is 2021. An initial $17 million was budgeted in 2011 for design and other work. Budget allocations will come in phases.

The group also heard a presentation by Susan Euing with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Euing is the biologist in charge of managing the endangered California least tern bird colony, which nests on the old airfield between April and August each year. It is one of the most important nesting sites in the statewide effort to foster a sustainable population of terns at diverse locations. The VA funds the least tern management program at Alameda Point.  

Euing told about the annual Return of the Terns bus tour on June 18 to view nesting in progress. Reservations are handled through the Crab Cove Visitor Center, the tour departure point, or the park district website.

Davis continued the event back at the museum during lunch. In addition to his slideshow, he played a telephone interview that he conducted last November with one of the two crew members from the Doolittle mission still living. Davis located 94-year-old David Thatcher at his home in Montana. Thatcher was the gunner on plane #7 piloted by Lawson, author of the book.

As a child living in Oakland, Davis often visited the base with his friend, whose father was the chief of staff, and got to play around the Navy planes. Today a resident of Petaluma, Davis became involved with the Air Museum to lend a hand in creating “a bigger profile to the community and to those interested in military history,” he said. “The fact that the Doolittle mission started because there was a Naval Air Station here capable of doing these things ought to be known.”


File photo Alameda-born Jimmy Doolittle (standing, left) and his Raiders add much to Alameda’s historic significance.

Richard Bangert posts stories and photos about Alameda Point on his blog Alameda Point Environmental Report.