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Veterans Group Hopes to Convert Tustin Hangar Into an Interactive War Museum

Military: Project at the closed Marine base would chronicle life in wartime. Supervisors agree to study the idea.

January 03, 2002|DAVE McKIBBEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The cavernous hangars at the deserted Tustin Marine base--historic leftovers from another era--are a planner's challenge.

Eighteen stories high, the structures are so enormous that blimps--as many as six at a time--once were housed inside. The hangars are now historic sites. They also are empty, except for pigeons that flap through the airy buildings.

So what do you do with a World War II blimp hangar? Thoughts vary. One idea: a movie sound stage. Another suggestion calls for college classrooms and still another, a homeless shelter.

Bill Mannes, a war veteran, sees a military museum.

Mannes is president of the United Veterans Organization, a group that wants to convert the northern hangar into a military museum with exhibits that chronicle life in wartime and pay homage to the county's 250,000 veterans. So far, though, Orange County supervisors have agreed only to study the plan.

"There's no question that there's a reawakening of interest in the military services," Mannes said. "Just look around the county and see how many homes are flying U.S. flags and how many people are attending veterans events. Something like this would help keep that feeling of patriotism going."

The hangar, according to plans, would be filled with thousands of items donated by about 40 private collectors: planes, tanks, trucks, Jeeps, uniforms and photographs.

Museum organizers have already received $2 million worth of vintage tanks, landing craft, uniforms and other equipment that was restored for the movie "Windtalkers," a recently completed Nicolas Cage drama about U.S. Marines assigned to protect Navajo encryption experts in the Pacific during World War II. The items are being stored in a lot outside the county's Veterans Service Office in Santa Ana.

Most of the museum's displays would be centered around World War II.

"We're focusing on World War II because it's a part of history we can still capture," said Ron Melendez, a Vietnam veteran who is the museum's lead organizer. "A lot of these guys are still alive, and we can get a real sense of what it was like to be there."

Melendez said he hopes to make the displays realistic and interactive.

"We don't want rooms with glass cases and uniforms," he said. "We're planning on a room that will be like a World War I trench, where you'll have to look over edges of the trench to see the display. Our intent is to have a mock destroyer docked at Pearl Harbor and then show a troop transport."

Visitors would also have an opportunity to see what life was like for prisoners of war.

"They'll be able to get in the cage where a POW [might have] stayed and see the amount of food they are given," said Carol Hatch, a special project manager for the county. "It will look like you'll be in a camp."

The first two planned phases of the project will cover World War II, with subsequent additions centering on earlier conflicts--possibly as far back as the Revolutionary War--and more on the wars in Vietnam and Korea. While the county studies the cost and practicality of converting a 291,000-square-foot blimp hangar into a museum, Melendez is hoping his group can use an adjacent building on the old base as an interim site.

Melendez hopes a makeshift museum can be opened at the interim site by late spring with the hangar conversion completed by early 2003.

Of course, nothing moves very fast on the mothballed air station, which has been closed for three years. The northern hangar anchors the southeast corner of the county's 84.5-acre parcel, which has been designated for public parks, a homeless shelter, an animal shelter and a Sheriff's Department training facility.

The rest of the land, which will eventually be turned over to the city of Tustin, is intended for homes, a golf course, several schools and a commercial business park. The Santa Ana Unified School District also wants some of the land for schools.

Both hangars are on the National Register of Historic Places. The structures were completed in October 1943 and are so large they have been known to support their own weather patterns, including miniature fog banks. Although the hangar being eyed for a museum is in relatively good shape, the southern hangar is more susceptible to northwest winds and has been battered by the weather over the decades. It might have to be demolished if the county can't find someone to restore it.

Supervisor Todd Spitzer said he has always supported the concept of a military museum on the former Tustin Marine Corps Air Station.

"Orange County has a rich military history," he said. "We need to preserve and honor those who have served here."

Spitzer said the county could help pay for redesign and maintenance costs of the northern hangar by renting it for dinners, banquets and even weddings.

"The blimp hangar is a phenomenal structure," he said. "I couldn't think of any better place for this museum."

Organizers hope the museum will eventually become a destination for school field trips and Veterans Day ceremonies.

"If we get this built," Mannes said, "it would be unrivaled in the Western part of the country for military museums."

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