East County residents while driving their daily commute and on personal business often find themselves driving around and past Gillespie Field. For most people in the area, Gillespie is little more than a normal municipal airport, home to small Pipers and Cessnas, several helicopters and a few executive jets. They hear the drone of propellers and the chatter of rotors morning, noon and night.
But Gillespie Field has a story to tell. It’s a story we should all know. In the first turbulent and uncertain months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the entire west coast was held in the grip of fear. Fear of invasion, of war coming to California. San Diego County was home to key military installations like the MCRD, Naval Training Center, Pacific Fleet berths, NAS North Island and the Pt. Loma facilities. Consolidated Aircraft had its huge plant near downtown, cranking out PBY Catalinas for the Navy and parts of the big B-24 Liberator bomber. In quiet East County things were about to change. In the summer of 1942 the Marine Corps began work on Camp Gillespie, a 688-acre plot of land, for training the new parachute battalions. Known as Marine Corps Auxiliary Air Field Gillespie, it was part of Marine Corps Air Station El Toro.
The skies over East County resounded with the sounds of powerful Pratt & Whitney and Wright radial engines. Several Marine and Navy squadrons bound for the distant Pacific war were rotated out of the state via Gillespie Field. Marine Scout Bomber Squadron (VMSB) 141 was commissioned at Camp Kearny, and departed Gillespie Field on 31 August 1942. During the long and bloody Solomons Campaign of 1942-43 VMSB-141’s Douglas SBD Dauntlesses were part of the famous ‘Cactus Air Force’ fighting against great odds to keep the Japanese from taking Guadalcanal. Then the Marines began the long campaign to retake the Pacific. On Gillespie’s runways thousand of young men of the 1st and 2nd Marine Parachute Battalions climbed into Douglas transports to learn their craft before being sent to the fighting on New Caledonia and Bougainville.
When the war ended, Gillespie Field was turned over to the County of San Diego as a general aviation airport. The Pipers and Beechcrafts, Cessnas and Bell Jet Rangers took over. Gillespie is quiet 51 weekends of the year. But every June, the sound of freedom carries across the hills and fields of San Diego County.
The annual Wings Over Gillespie Air Show, hosted by Air Group One of the Commemorative Air Force (CAF) welcomes dozens of rare and vintage warplanes from all over the southwest to thrill San Diegans just as they did seventy years ago. This year marks Gillespie’s 70th birthday, as well as El Cajon’s Centennial. Visitors will be able to see and learn about some of America’s most famous warbirds from World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the Gulf War. Scores of rare planes from the San Diego Air & Space Museum will be on static display, while others, their mighty metal hearts still pumping out thousand of horsepower will soar over the field just as they did during the Second World War. Many of the visiting aircraft will be flown in from other CAF wings, as well as the famous Planes of Fame Air Museum in Chino, California. The CAF’s Arizona Wing is bringing two of the crown jewels of the CAF’s huge collection, the one and only Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress ‘Sentimental Journey,’ and a North American B-25J Mitchell, which had undergone 28 years of restoration. The B-25, named ‘Maid in the Shade’ has actually seen combat in the skies over the Mediterranean in 1944. P-51 Mustangs and a rare British Fairey Firefly will be flying, along with the only Northrop N9M Flying Wing. The Navy will have their say at the 2012 Wings Over Gillespie Air Show with three products of Grumman’s famous ‘Iron Works,’ the F4F-4 Wildcat, F6F Hellcat, and the mighty F8F Bearcat, all of which played a crucial role in winning the Pacific War.
So on June 2-3, the residents of East County will have more to enjoy in the skies than the usual Lears and Beechcrafts. They will be able to see and hear what it was like seventy years ago when Gillespie Field played its part to help America win the war.