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George AFB brought business, residents to High Desert

Editor's note:

George Air Force Base shut down 20 years ago, in December 1992. This is the first in an occasional series of articles commemorating the history of the base and its impact in the Victor Valley. This story first appeared in the Daily Press in December 1999 as part of a series on events that shaped the area in the 20th century.

The Daily Press will publish a series of articles to commemorate the history of the base and its impact in the Victor Valley. If you worked at George Air Force Base or moved to the desert because of the base’s presence, share your experience with us. Please contact Reporter Tomoya Shimura at (760) 955-5368 or TShimura@VVDailyPress.com.

VICTORVILLE • Even before America’s entry into World War II, military planners recognized the vital role air power would play in the looming conflict.

Two months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Victorville Army Airfield — the forerunner to George Air Force Base — opened as an important training center for the pilots and bombardiers who won the Second World War.

Established on Oct. 1, 1941, the Victorville Army Airfield quickly became an anchor for the High Desert’s economy and a source of local pride.

More and more training programs were instituted as the war unfolded, with instruction given on at least 17 planes during the 1940s.

Longtime High Desert resident Peggy Sartor said people in the Victor Valley were happy to have the base around.

“I think it was accepted from the very beginning,” she said. “Everyone realized it was a plum for the community.”

An excited community responded to the announcement of the $10 million base in 1941.

“The huge new base and training school will receive its first instruction class of 165 pilots and bombardiers on Oct. 1,” The Victor Press reported on July 18, 1941. “Approximately 250 bi-motor planes will be used as trainers. A class will be graduated every 10 days. The base will house 4,100 officers, crews and cadets, but facilities will be large enough to house 6,000 men.”

Construction on the first runway began Sept. 29, 1941. The Victor Press reported the runway would be 6,500 feet long and 150 feet wide. A week after the base opened, 2,066 workers continued on various projects at the sprawling desert installation.

With the end of the war in 1945, flying operations ceased, and the base was placed on standby status. Surplus planes were stored at the base for the next three years, in which time the Air Force was established.

In September 1950, the base was renamed in the memory of Brig. Gen. Harold H. George, a World War I ace who had been killed in a plane crash in Australia in 1942.

The Air Force began training pilots at the base in 1950, beginning with propeller-driven planes. It wasn’t until 1952 that the base made the transition to jets.

George Air Force Base was home to countless pilots and air crews who fought in America’s wars for half a century.

The base’s most famous pilot, Capt. Joseph McConnell, became a national hero as America’s first triple ace during the Korean War. When he returned to the High Desert in 1953, locals welcomed him back by building him and his family a new home on Highway 18 in Apple Valley. His exploits were heralded in the 1955 film, “The McConnell Story,” starring Alan Ladd.

During Vietnam, too, countless pilots who trained at George commanded the skies over Southeast Asia. For years, pilots from allied countries regularly trained at the base.

Local air crews, most notably the “Wild Weasels,” were dispatched to the Persian Gulf to knock out Iraqi antiaircraft batteries and radar installations.

At its peak, George Air Force Base employed nearly 6,000 people, both civilian and military.

With the base came officers and other personnel who settled with their families in surrounding communities. Much of the High Desert was formed by such activity, Sartor said.

“At that time, we saw that the base would help our community,” she said. “I think the base had a lot to do with the development of Apple Valley. I don’t think the development out there would have happened without the promise of the growth factor.”

— Editor Don Holland contributed to this story.

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