The story of March Field began at a time when the United States was rushing to build up its military forces in anticipation of an entry into World War I. News from the front in Europe to those at home had not been good. Articles and images depicted the horror and boundless human misery associated with trench warfare and the stalemate it produced. Several European news sources reported significant German efforts at this time to build a fleet of flying machines that could alter the nature of modern warfare and possibly carry the war to the skies.
In response, Congressional appropriations in early 1917, in the neighborhood of $640,000,000, attempted to back the plans of General George O. Squier, the Army's chief signal officer, to "put the Yankee punch into the war by building an army in the air." At the same time, the War Department announced its intentions to build several new military installations. Riverside Chamber of Commerce member, Arthur N. Sweet, convinced friends in the Chamber, at a special meeting called by Dr. C. Van Zwallenburg, President of the Riverside Chamber of Commerce, that the Alessandro Plain, on the outskirts of Riverside, was an ideal site for an Army cantonment camp. The Chamber selected Sweet and Riverside attorney Miguel Estudillo to lead the charge in getting a cantonment base to benefit Riverside and the city’s economy.
After two failed attempts, Los Angeles engineer and Chamber of Commerce member, J.B. Lippincott, learned of Army plans to build an airfield in Southern California. When the Los Angeles Chamber failed to locate an acceptable site for an airfield, the Riverside Chamber of Commerce recognized the potential opportunity. Chamber members formed a permanent aviation committee with the goal of landing an air base. The Riverside Chamber of Commerce also began a letter-writing campaign, urging its members and citizens to educate Congress and military leaders on the potential of the Alessandro Plains site. As autumn of 1917 passed, the campaign intensified as the Chamber learned that General Squier intended to send a commission to survey several Southern California sites for potential aviation centers.
Chamber members, and other dedicated citizens, continued to press Washington, while also working through local land-lease agreements. On February 7, 1918, the Riverside Chamber of Commerce received word that the government approval had been finalized and the lease was secured. Efforts by Frank Miller, then owner of the Mission Inn in Riverside, Congressman Hiram Johnson, William Kettner, and other California notables, also aided in gaining War Department approval to construct an the airfield at Alessandro Field located near Riverside, an airstrip used by aviators from Rockwell Field on cross-country flights from San Diego. A parade in Riverside on February 9, 1918 gave notice that an army flying field would soon be coming to Riverside.
The Army wasted no time in establishing a new airfield. Sergeant Charles E. Garlick, who had landed at Alessandro Field in a "Jenny" in November 1917, was selected to lead the advance contingent of four men to the new base from Rockwell Field. On February 7, 1918, a War Department Telegram declared the official opening of the Alessandro Aviation Field. On February 26, 1918, Garlick and his crew, and a group of muleskinners from nearby Colton, known to be experts in clearing land, began the task of excavating the building foundations at the Alessandro site. On March 1, 1918, aviation cadet Harold Compere became the first cadet to land at the new Army encampment on the Alessandro Plain.
On March 11, 1918, Captain William J. Carruthers reported to the Alessandro Aviation Field from Rockwell Field. Captain Carruthers took command of the 818th Aero Squadron detachment. He relieved Sgt. Garlick and assumed his role has the base’s first commissioned commander. On March 20, 1918, the base was renamed from Alessandro Aviation Field to March Field, in honor of First Lieutenant Peyton C. March, Jr., who had died in an aviation accident five weeks earlier.
General Squier believed that newly opened aviation fields should be named after men who had lost their lives building American military aviation. On March 23, 1918, the War Department published the order officially establishing the installation. By June of that same year, 640 acres of grain stubble had been cleared and leveled.
Capt. Carruthers and the Twohy Brothers, contracted with building the base, had only 90 days to construct a base suitable to train pilots for the air war in Europe. By late April 1918, enough progress had been made in the construction of the new field to allow the arrival of the first troops. The base now consisted of twelve large hangars, six 150 man barracks with mess halls, a machine ship, blacksmith shop, post exchange, aero supply and repair buildings, a quartermaster supply depot, hospital, bachelor officers quarters, and base commander’s residence. For six weeks, trainloads of equipment arrived almost every day. In early June, the 68th Aero Squadron arrived—followed closely by the 289th, 293rd, and 311th Aero Squadrons. Having masterfully completed his duties, Capt. Carruthers passed command to Major John C.P. Bartfolf, who assumed command of the flying school on June 11, 1918.
The school consisted of five aero squadrons, with each having about 250 cadets and 19 JN-4 Jenny aircraft. Initial curriculum saw students attending ground training courses at the University of California Berkeley. Primary flight training then occurred at March Field, followed by more advanced courses at nearby Rockwell Field. The aviation school at March Field graduated its first class on August 3, 1918. Around 500 to 750 aviators would graduate every three months.
The signing of the armistice on November 11, 1918, did not halt training at March Field. Aviation cadets would continue to train, but in ever dwindling numbers. Support personnel also saw their ranks shrink. In May of 1920, the US government purchased the original 640 acre tract of March
Field. On May 21, 1921, the War Department announced its plans to close March Field. From day one of training, to its eventual closure, March Field had, in three years, graduated over 700 pilots from its flying school, and countless support crew had received superior training in their respective fields. The gates of March closed on April 4, 1923, to be manned by its caretaker, Master Sergeant William J. Anderes and his mother. Three years later it would take an act of Congress to re-open the gates.
March Field remained quiet for only a short time. On July 2, 1926, an act of Congress, the Air Corps Act, redesignated the Army Air Service to the Army Air Corps. March Field re-opened on March 6, 1926, with a new lease on life and a legacy to re-establish. Two months earlier, Congress had appropriated $1.3 million for the refurbishment of March Field. Much of the new construction mirrored the Mission Revival style of the famous Mission Inn--the same place where the first cadets of March Field courted their young ladies. Colonel William C. Gardenhire arrived in March of 1927 to oversee the construction, while Major Millard F. Harmon, who arrived in August of that same year, commanded the flying school and the post. In the months ahead, Air Force leaders such as Generals Hoyt Vandenberg, Nathan Twining, Thomas Power, Bernard Schriever and Curtis LeMay completed their initial flight training at March Field. The base, however, was about to enter a new era.
As March Field began to take on the appearance of a permanent military installation, the base's basic mission changed. When Randolph Field began to function as a training site in 1931, March Field became an operational base. Before the end of the year, the 7th Bomb Group, commanded by Maj. Carl A. Spaatz, brought its Condor B-2 and Keystone B-4 bombers to the picturesque field. The activation of the 17th Pursuit Group and several subordinate units, along with the arrival of the 1st Bombardment Wing, initiated a period where March Field became associated with the Air Corps' heaviest aircraft as well as an assortment of fighters.
In the decade before World War II, March Field took on much of its current appearance. The base also became more than a place hard to find on aerial maps of Southern California. Lieutenant Colonel Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, base commander from 1931 to 1936, changed this. Through well-publicized maneuvers to Yosemite, Death Valley and other sites in California, a visit by Governor James Rolph in March 1932, numerous visits by Hollywood celebrities, including Bebe Daniels, Wallace Berry, Rochelle Hudson and others, and visits by famous aviators including Amelia Earhart, March Field gained in prominence. Articles in Los Angeles newspapers kept March Field in the news and brought the installation considerable public attention. The completion of the first phase of permanent buildings in 1934 added to the scenic quality of the base. This was also a period of outstanding achievements in test flights and other contributions to the new science of aviation. Dusty March Field had come a long way in one decade.
The attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941 brought March Field back into the business of training aircrews. Throughout the war, many soon-to-be-famous bombardment groups performed their final training at March before embarking for duty in the Pacific. During this period, the base’s area doubled, supporting approximately 75,000 troops. At the same time, the government procured a similar-sized tract west of the San Diego highway that bordered the base and established Camp Hahn as an anti-aircraft artillery training facility. It supported 85,000 troops at the height of its activity. In 1946, Camp Hahn became a part of March's real estate holdings when operations at the base returned to a more normal setting.
On April 24, 1943, two companies of Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, or WAAC, arrived at March Field. The new members of Team March occupied five barracks and operated their own mess hall, orderly room, and supply room—making them self-sufficient. In January of 1944, Patty M. Canada became the first Women’s Army Service Pilot, or WASP, to arrive at March Field for training. Eventually, 26 such pilots would be permanently assigned and many more would cycle through for training. These female aviators towed targets, performed daylight and nighttime tracking missions, carried out radio control work, and practiced laying smoke. March Field WASPs also performed ferry missions, moving cargo and aircraft.
A post-war March would also find itself aligned under the newly activated Tactical Air Command. On August 15, 1947, the famed 1st Fighter Wing assumed the role of host tactical unit at March Field. In an odd sequence of events, the wing was discontinued on August 24, 1948, and then reactivated on August 22, 1948. The 1 FW stayed at March until July of 1950.
The National Security Act of 1947 created the Department of the Air Force on September 18, 1947. The Army Air Corps was now the United States Air Force. That meant that March Field was, in 1948, redesignated, March Air Force Base. From December 1948 to April 1949,
March AFB fell under the Continental Air Command. This proved to be short-lived, because on May 1, 1949, March found itself aligned under the Strategic Air Command. The 22nd Bombardment Wing arrived that same month with its compliment of B-29s, ushering in a new era for March and a legacy that would last almost 45 years.
Little more than a year after arriving at March, in July of 1950, the same month the Korean Conflict erupted, the 22nd Bombardment Wing was ordered to Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, Japan, for combat duty. Ten days later the unit’s B-29s had dropped their first bomb loads over North Korea. The B-29s of the 22 BW continued their tactical bombardments--hitting bridges, railroads, troop concentrations and various other targets on the front lines. By the close of October, 1950, all the major targets for the unit’s heavy bombers had been destroyed, and the 22nd returned to March Air Force Base. The unit’s deployment lasted four months, in which time 834 sorties were flown and 7,063 tons of bombs were dropped.
In January of 1953, the first B-47 arrived. The following month, the last B-29 Superfortress left for storage. On January 16, 1957, three B-52s took off from Castle AFB, California, on an around-the-world mission. The nonstop flight was code-named POWER FLITE and was led by Major General Archie J. Old, Jr., Commanding General Fifteenth Air Force. The mission concluded at March AFB and it demonstrated to the world the global reach of the United States bomber force.
In October of 1957, SAC began the ground alert concept. This required March crews to be billeted very near the aircraft and their movements were strictly controlled. In March of 1963, the 22nd’s B-52s took on a heavy bombardment role and the wing converted from the KC-97 to the KC-135A Stratotanker. In September of that same year the first B-52B, the “City of Riverside,” arrived from Castle AFB and the following month the first KC-135A, “The Mission Bell,” was received.
The first bombing raid over Vietnam by a wing Stratofortress was launched on November 11, 1966. The 22 BW participated in further bombing missions during partial deployments. In early 1967, March’s bomber, tanker, and numerous support assets deployed to various SAC units involved in direct combat operations in Southeast Asia. The 22nd deployed to Guam from April through September of 1967 in support of the Southeast Asia conflict. Around-the-clock operations continued as strike orders were received. Each crew on a single sortie dropped 70,000 pounds of bombs on the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese, with an accuracy of 99.6 percent. Wing crews flew more than 3,000 missions.
On February 8, 1970, the same year the 22 BW celebrated its 30th anniversary, the new base chapel on the east side of Riverside Drive was dedicated. The chapel contained a large roseate window dedicated to the memory of 300 March fielders killed in flying mishaps since 1918. The original chapel opened in 1940 and closed in 1970, to become the base courtroom. It would re-open as the base chapel in 1996.
While deployed in support of the Vietnam War, the 22nd participated in bombing operations in support of Linebacker II over North Vietnam during “The 11-Day War” of December 1972. March crews experienced their first combat losses of crew members and aircraft since the Korean War. Between December 21st and 27th, 1972, the wing lost four men who were categorized as Missing-In-Action, five became POWs, and five wounded crew members were rescued. On January 20th, 1972, the Young Tiger air refueling mission was changed from Castle to March AFB. Tankers on rotation to and from the Western Pacific staged through the base—providing additional airlift capability for personnel and freight. March tankers airlifted 2,426 passengers and 4,278 tons of cargo over a four-year period. The success of these airlift missions meant new opportunities for March.
On January 27th, 1973, a cease-fire was announced. Within 60 days, all surviving American POWs were released. The Air Force Regional Hospital at March was chosen as one of the facilities to welcome and care for returning POWs. Under Operation Homecoming, 52 airmen processed home through March—five of them from the 22 BW. These included, Major James Condon, Captains Peter Camerota, Samuel Cusimans, and Peter Giroux, and Master Sgt. Louis E. LeBlanc, Jr. Still listed as Missing-In-Action were, Majors Gerald W. Alley and Frank A. Gould, Captain Thomas W. Bennett, Jr., and First Lieutenant Joseph B. Copack, Jr.
On January 12, 1976, the 452nd Tactical Airlift Wing (Reserve), previously at March AFB from
October 1960 to January 1972, returned from Hamilton AFB. The unit was redesignated an Air Refueling Wing on October 1, 1976, and converted from C-130 Hercules to the KC-135 aircraft. In October of 1977, the 452 ARW became the first Reserve unit to stand alert alongside the, then Strategic Air Command’s 22 BW, an active duty wing. This helped solidify the “Total Force” concept by aligning active and Reserve components, as part of the nation’s military deterrence posture.
On November 11, 1978, the new national cemetery, termed “Arlington West, officially opened.
A dedication had been held years earlier during a blistering hot day on June 27, 1976. Just as they had in 1918, various local politicians and business leaders had lobbied tirelessly to bring the national cemetery to Riverside. The site had been chosen because of its size and potential, and due in large part, to its proximity to the larger population centers it would service. Today, the Riverside National Cemetery is the third largest cemetery managed by the National Cemetery Administration, and since 2000 has been the most active in the system based on the number of interments.
On February 10, 1982, SAC announced that the 22nd would retire its B-52 fleet and re-equip with the new KC-10A Extenders. Six months later, March AFB received the new aircraft. The KC-135A Stratotankers, which had been a fixture at the base since the early 1960s, continued their mission at March—serving the Strategic Air Command’s alert and peace time needs.
On October 1, 1982, the 163rd Tactical Fighter Group, California Air National Guard, arrived from Norton Air Force Base. The unit brought with it its F-4C Phantom aircraft. The unit began its lineage as the 196th Fighter Squadron on November 9, 1946. Over the course of its history it flew the F-80C Shooting Star, the F-84E Thunderjet, and the P-51H Mustang. The unit was reorganized to the 163rd Fighter Interceptor Group in 1958, and went on to fly the F-102 Delta Dagger. In 1975, the unit was again reassigned as the 163rd Tactical Air Support Group, flying the 0-2A/B Super Skymaster, the F-4C in 1982, and the F-4E in April of 1987. In 1990, the unit changed missions and was redesignated the 163rd Tactical Reconnaissance Group, flying the RF-4C—maintaining a dual federal and state mission. In 1993, the 163rd became an air refueling wing, flying the KC-135E to the KC-135R. In 2006, the wing took on a reconnaissance mission, flying the MQ-1 Predator, and today the unit is designated the 163rd Attack Wing, flying the MQ-9 Reaper.
From mid-December through late January, 1990, the United States invaded Panama. The goal of the mission, code-named Operation JUST CAUSE, was to arrest the country’s president, General Manuel Noriega, as part of the larger war on drugs. President George Bush called for the United States military to make the arrest and to protect American interests—specifically, the Panama
Canal Zone. KC-10 crews from the 452nd and 22nd Air Refueling Wings provided aerial refueling support throughout the operation. Other Team March units directly supported the KC-10s and other aspects of the operation, until its successful conclusion.
In August of 1990, Iraqi troops, under the command of President Saddam Hussein, invaded Kuwait. The United Nations renounced the invasion, calling for the immediate and total withdraw of Iraqi forces from the country. The Iraqi dictator only entrenched his forces further. By the middle of August, Team March was heavily involved in Operation DESERT SHIELD. California-based Marines began arriving at March for deployment to Southwest Asia. By early December, coalition forces were entrenched in the region and ready for Iraq’s withdrawal or the authorization of force from the United Nations. On December 14th, the 22nd and 452nd Air Refueling Wings began flying U.S. Transportation Command cargo missions from stateside locations to Southwest Asia. As tensions mounted, President Bush authorized the call-up of select Air Force Reserve units. This meant that many of the members of the 452nd who were not already on active duty, were called into service.
Before the close of the year, the United Nations had passed Resolution 678, calling for the complete withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait by January 15th. President Hussein ignored the resolution and promised the “mother of all battles.” On January 16, 1991, Operation DESERT SHIELD became Operation DESERT STORM. For 42 days and nights, coalition aircraft pummeled Iraqi positions and air refueling played a major role. Ground forces, like the Marines that deployed out of March, broke through the Iraqi defenses at an earth-shattering pace. Within 100 hours of the start of the ground offensive, President Bush halted the forces. By April of 1991, most U.S. forces had begun redeploying to home bases.
Little more than a year after the start of Operation DESERT STORM, Team March assets would yet again be called into service. A civil war was raging in Somalia—thousands of citizens were starving and UN relief workers were finding it difficult to deliver food and medical supplies to the populace. American military forces intervened under Operation RESTORE HOPE. As it had in the Gulf War a year earlier, March became the staging based for deploying Marines. Just as they had in the past, and would in the future, local communities made donations and provided care packages to the deploying Marines. The KC-10s, supplemented by C-5 Galaxys and C-141 Starlifters, transported the Marines’ equipment. The operation would last until mid-March, 1993. During the time, Team March personnel processed 17,000 passengers, provided service to 653 aircraft, and transported almost 10,000 tons of cargo.
With the Cold War at an end policy planners focused on cost-savings initiatives—this meant a Base Realignment and Closure Commission would evaluate the closing of military installations. By mid-March, 1993, the Department of Defense announced its recommendations to the commission. For March, this meant significant changes. The base’s current active duty flying mission would end in 1995 and transfer the base from the Air Mobility Command to the Air Force Reserve Command in 1996. The, then, 452nd Air Refueling Wing and the California National Guard’s 163rd Air Refueling Group would remain. The 22nd Air Refueling Wing would move to McConnell Air Force Base, Kansas, in January of 1994. The Fifteenth Air Force would depart March on July 1, 1993. The unit had been part of Team March since November of 1949.
The 445th Military Airlift Wing, having recently moved from Norton AFB, California, would be merged with the 452nd Air Refueling Wing on April 1, 1994. This was the first such unit to combine tanker and cargo aircraft. A month later, the 452nd would be redesignated the 452nd Air Mobility Wing and a large Reserve contingent would remain at the base and mission partners at the installation would continue to grow.
A re-alignment ceremony was held on March 23, 1996. March Air Force Base became March Air Reserve Base. During the ceremony the Air Force Star was passed from the active duty to the Reserve. The official redesignation occurred on April 1, 1996. While many changes had and would come to the base, the members of Team March would push forward—finding new ways to do more with less—while always continuing to accomplish the mission.
From the dusty stubble that once was Alessandro Aviation Field to today, March Field, for almost 100 years, has been a key element in the advancement of aviation and in the growth of the modern Air Force. As the Air Force restructures and prepares for new challenges, March seems destined to remain as an important base for the air operations of tomorrow.
452nd Air Mobility Wing
2145 Graeber Street
March ARB, CA 92518