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Guard Unit Bids Farewell : Air base: The California Air National Guard turns over its Van Nuys Airport headquarters to the city of Los Angeles.

May 01, 1990|GARY LIBMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Like the orange groves that once grew on its grounds and the bean fields that surrounded it, the Air National Guard base at Van Nuys Airport is no more.

As two of its four-engined transport planes dipped to within 150 feet of the headquarters building on Balboa Boulevard in a farewell salute Monday, the 146th Tactical Airlift Wing of the California Air National Guard lowered the U.S. and California flags and shut the base, turning it over to the city of Los Angeles.

About 150 spectators and thousands of passing motorists saw a color guard lower the flags and Col. Daniel H. Pemberton, the base commander, present a ceremonial key to Van Nuys Airport Manager Charles D. Zeman Jr., representing the city.

"You will see a few misty eyes and a few people with a lump in their throats and I think I'll be one of them," Pemberton said as he relinquished the key. "But as the last in a long line of commanders, it's my lot to turn out the lights."

Out of sight behind the headquarters, 15 guardsmen swept out two large hangars and hauled away empty barrels. Two large docks once used to hoist turbo-prop engines to repair their C-130 cargo planes stood quiet and empty. All phones and furniture had been removed from three floors of administrative offices.

The ceremony left the airport without a military presence for the first time since the Army commandeered what was then a privately owned airstrip only hours after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

After World War II, the federal government gave the airport to the city of Los Angeles, and the Air National Guard moved onto the former Army Air Force base in a Van Nuys that still contained many small farms. Then, some crops grew on the base.

"We picked walnuts and oranges until we received our aircraft," said Andy Drysdale, 78, who had joined the National Guard in 1930, when the unit flew open-cockpit biplanes out of what is now Griffith Park.

The wing operated medical evacuation flights that brought wounded soldiers home from Vietnam and in recent years flew supplies to American embassies and military missions in Central America. It also flies forest-fire fighting missions.

It was nicknamed the "Hollywood Air Force" by other National Guard fliers and the regular Air Force, because of the actors in its ranks and because the base was used by producers of many movies and TV shows. Actor Kurt Russell and Jerry Mathers, who played the title role in television's "Leave it to Beaver," were members. The base appeared in "Raid on Entebbe," "The Six Million Dollar Man," "Call to Glory," "Firefox" and other shows.

In December, 1988, the 1,500-member wing--the largest Air National Guard tactical airlift wing in the United States--moved its 16 cargo planes to a new $75-million headquarters near the Navy's Pacific Missile Test Center at Point Mugu on the Ventura County coast, but until Monday had maintained offices at Van Nuys Airport and continued some repair and flying operations.

The Air Guard began looking for a new home in the 1970s when heavy light-plane traffic at Van Nuys Airport made military-style flying too risky.

In 1985 the Pentagon's $1-a-year lease on the base expired. The city Department of Airports, keenly aware that the city could earn millions of dollars a year by leasing out the 94-acre property, did not encourage the Guard to stay.

The Los Angeles Board of Airport Commissioners is scheduled to meet June 13 to consider a consultant's recommendation to build more than 1 million square feet of office and industrial space at the site.

At Monday's ceremony some of the unit's members said they welcomed the move to the new facilities, built to the National Guard's specifications. But the word "camaraderie" popped up repeatedly as many members said they would miss the spirit that permeated the Van Nuys base.

Fellow members of the wing "are good friends, not only to military people but to everyone in the neighborhood," said Senior Master Sgt. Frank Santo of Thousand Oaks, who has been a Guard member since 1952. "They are people-helping people, no matter what the situation."

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