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CELEBRATE! : Orange County's First 100 Years : COMING OF AGE : WE SHALL RETURN!

May 21, 1989|DENNIS McLELLAN | McLellan is a Times staff writer

World War II put an end to the county's bucolic existence as thousands of servicemen arrived for training at bases that sprang up overnight. Many of them, obviously captivated by the area's charms, vowed to come back when hostilities ended. Here is the story of three such veterans.

In 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Orange County was a predominantly agricultural area with a population of 130,000. Almost overnight, the county underwent a dramatic war time transformation.

Enemy-aircraft-spotter stands, manned 24 hours a day by civilian volunteers, cropped up along the coast. Anti-aircraft artillery units were installed in Irvine Park, La Habra, Fullerton, Anaheim and Orange. A squadron of 16 P-38s, stationed at Orange County Airport, flew patrol.

The county became home to half a dozen military installations, including the U.S. Naval Reserve Aviation Base in Los Alamitos, the U.S. Naval Ammunition and Net Depot in Seal Beach, the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station at El Toro, a Coast Guard station in San Clemente and the Santa Ana Naval Air Station with its two cavernous dirigible hangars built on Irvine Ranch land just south of Tustin.

But the military installation with the largest number of personnel was the Santa Ana Army Air Base, which offered preflight training for aviation cadets who would go on to become pilots, bombardiers and navigators.

Located between Santa Ana on the north and the tiny, country community of Costa Mesa on the south, the base ultimately sprawled over more than 1,300 acres of farmland that now encompasses Orange Coast College, the Orange County Fairgrounds, Southern California College, Costa Mesa High School, Davis Intermediate School, Costa Mesa City Hall, TeWinkle Park and the College Park and Mesa del Mar residential tracts.

The base, with an orange-and-white-checkered 500,000-gallon water tower as its tallest landmark, boasted 39 miles of road, 28 miles of walkways and more than 800 buildings--classrooms, barracks, mess halls, supply buildings, a gymnasium, fourchapels, three theaters and one of the largest hospitals in Southern California.

In mid-1943, at the peak of its four-year operation, the base population swelled to 26,000 servicemen and nearly 1,000 civilian workers. Between February, 1942, when the first cadets arrived, and March, 1946, when the facility closed, an estimated 220,000 flight cadets and returning combat veterans were processed through the base.

Through the Newport Boulevard gate opposite the Santa Ana Country Club passed a host of familiar names who would spend part of their military careers in Orange County: Jimmy Stewart, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Gene Autry, All-American ex-Michigan football star Tom Harmon, future Los Angeles television news anchorman Jerry Dunphy and baseball legend Joe DiMaggio, who served as a base physical education instructor.

On weekends, if they didn't head for the bright lights of Los Angeles and Hollywood, the servicemen were drawn to such places as the Cadet Cafe and Fountain in Costa Mesa, the Balboa Bamboo Room, the Balboa Beer Depot and the Home Cafe in Santa Ana, which offered a "home-style" Thanksgiving dinner for $1.50. Other favorite haunts were the USO in Santa Ana and the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa, where such big bands as Stan Kenton and His Orchestra and Harry James and His Music Makers played regularly.

But the cadets didn't always have to travel to be entertained: the big bands of Tommy Dorsey and Duke Ellington, and Kay Kyser and his "Kollege of Musical Knowledge," were among those that played at the base, and Bob Hope, Edgar Bergen, Jack Benny and Eddie Cantor did live radio broadcasts from the base theater.

Today, all that remains of the base are a dozen-odd buildings and a memorial garden at the Orange County Fairgrounds--scattered remnants of the important role the site played in World War II.

But each year, in March, the Costa Mesa Historical Society holds a reunion at Orange Coast College for those who served at the base. Several hundred men usually turn out. It's a time to reminisce about the days when the world was at war and they were young and far away from home.

For many who spent time at the base, it was their first glimpse of the fabled California life style, and their time in Orange County made a lasting impression.

Indeed, World War II was a watershed in the county's history and growth.

Thousands of servicemen returned after the war, moving into the tract houses that sprang up in the '50s and '60s on land where beans and orange trees once grew.

Here are the stories of three such veterans: Larry Acosta, 71, of Newport Beach, an aviation cadet from Chicago; Rusty Rostvold, 69, of Laguna Beach, an Army buck private from Nashwauk, Minn., and Roy McCardle, 69, of Costa Mesa, a base finance officer from Lewistown, Pa.

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