To many who grew up in San Bernardino in the 1950s and ’60s, it didn’t seem like a military town.
It was a working town, and Norton Air Force Base was one of the top employers. But living in the neighborhoods alongside the base’s military and civilian employees were families whose breadwinners worked at the city’s Santa Fe Railway maintenance yards and the Kaiser steel mill in Fontana.
Those three big employers fueled many smaller ones, and San Bernardino hummed with enterprise. Restaurants, dress shops, an ice cream parlor, toy store and nursery called Flowerland populated Highland Avenue. Storefronts, movie theaters, bars and restaurants bustled downtown, where sidewalks on a Friday evening were crowded with shoppers.
In the neighborhoods, kids played softball and football in the streets and on the wide median down the middle of Mountain View Avenue.
“Everybody looked out for each other,” said Leanne Drake, 59, who worked at Norton and lived for a time in north San Bernardino. “The kids would go out and play and come in when the street lights came on.”
Children got around on skates and skateboards and elementary students rode their bikes to school unescorted.
“I rode my skateboard to San Bernardino High School until I got my license,” said Steve Portias, 64, who grew up on Pershing Avenue and still lives in the area.
His parents both worked at Norton and, when he was a teenager, he got a job at the base commissary, bagging groceries for tips.
“I started working there when I was 15,” Portias said. “In those days that was a great job. I was making $20 a day.”
Those were the good times in San Bernardino, when jobs were plentiful and paid well and families lived in homes they owned.
Anyone looking for the city by that description these days would be hard pressed to find it.
With the closure of the Kaiser Steel plant in 1983 and of the Santa Fe Railway shop in 1992, tens of thousands of jobs were lost. By 1988, when Norton was targeted for closure, the city already was reeling.
By the time the base closed on March 31, 1994, the trouble was dire. A recession had caused home values to decline. Many families forced by job losses to move away were unable to sell, or sold at low prices to new owners who turned the homes into rentals, said economist John Husing, a longtime San Bernardino resident who now lives in Redlands.
Adding to the region’s woes were the closure in December 1992 of George Air Force Base in Victorville and the downsizing of Riverside’s March Air Force Base in 1996 to an air reserve base.
In San Bernardino, crime skyrocketed in the late 1980s and early ’90s as cheap housing lured gangs from Los Angeles. When the number of homicides rose to 82 in 1993, Money magazine deemed San Bernardino the nation’s sixth-most-dangerous city. Police officers sold T-shirts touting it as “Murder City.”
The past 20 years have brought some improvements. Crime has decreased, though there already have been 10 homicides so far this year. Restaurant row along Hospitality Lane is bustling, and some development has occurred at the former base, including construction of more than a dozen warehouses. There’s a ritzy new passenger terminal for what is called San Bernardino International Airport, though it has no regularly scheduled flights.
Still, the city remains impoverished and filed for bankruptcy in 2012.
Census data shows that 30 percent of San Bernardino residents were living below the poverty line between 2008 and 2012; the median household income during that time was $39,000, compared to $61,000 statewide. The median value of owner-occupied homes during that period was $166,100, compared to $383,900 statewide.
IN ITS PRIME
When the city was in its heyday, such a decline would have been hard to envision.
In the 1970s, the economy thrived and housing developments sprouted, especially across the foothills to the north. Along street after street, driveways sported boats, trailers and RVs. New schools were built to accommodate the influx of students.
The solidly middle class Mountain Shadows neighborhood stretched east to an upscale mobile home park by the same name perched above Highway 330. Park residents enjoyed panoramic vistas of the San Bernardino Valley from their double-wide picture windows and from lounges arrayed around the clubhouse pool.
At the center of their view was the runway at Norton Air Force Base, the small city within a city where C-141 cargo jets came and went in a steady parade. Some 23,000 military and civilian workers were employed there when the base was at its peak.
Drake was a sheet metal mechanic at Norton in the 1980s and recalls “absolute wonderful working relationships” with her colleagues.
“I have so many good memories from that base,” said Drake, who now lives in Arizona. “We had such a tight unit. We even vacationed together.”
Late at night, valley residents lying awake listened to the roar of jet engines as mechanics maintained and tested them.
Newcomers might have considered it a racket, but for those who grew up with the sound, it was part of the fabric of the community, like the Santa Fe Railway whistle that summoned workers to the shops at 6 every morning and sent them home in the afternoon.
They were comforting sounds of industry at work in the valley.
Much of what contributed to the San Bernardino Valley’s prosperity in those years was born out of World War II.
Kaiser’s steel mill, which fed the war effort, was built in Fontana so it would be out of range of possible West Coast strikes by the Japanese.
Santa Fe was flush with freight business, keeping the San Bernardino shop busy with repairs and maintenance.
And after Pearl Harbor, what been a small air field and then a pilot training base became home to fighter planes sent to protect the West Coast from Japanese attack.
In March 1942, it was renamed San Bernardino Army Airfield and became a hub for aircraft repair and maintenance. When the war ended, it was a processing center for returning service members who were being discharged. In 1950, the base was named for Leland Norton, a San Bernardino native who died during the war when his bomber was shot down over France.
By 1953, the base had become one of three U.S. Air Force jet overhaul centers and its main runway was extended to 10,000 feet. In the late 1950s and early ’60s, various missile defense programs moved to the base, bringing with them well-paid scientists and programmers.
The base and the community were tightly interwoven, in part because the base offered so little on-site housing. Norton employees lived in town and often invited their neighbors to enjoy the base’s amenities, including pools, officers’ clubs, a gymnasium and bowling alley.
“I went to teen dances at the Officer’s Club,” Portias said. “It was really nice.”
Col. (ret.) Gary Underwood, Norton’s last base commander, said it was a community unto itself, with a library, medical clinic, auto shops, a chapel and educational programs that enabled workers to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees and even doctorates.
The 63d Military Airlift Wing, which came to Norton in 1967, flew troops and supplies around the globe in C-141 Starlifters. The crews ran frequent missions to the Philippines and Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War and flew the Apollo 11 astronauts from Hawaii to Houston as they returned in 1969 from a walk on the moon.
A C-141 designated 66-0177 flew Bob Hope and his troupe to USO shows around the world, and was the first into Hanoi to bring home American prisoners of war. It became known as the Hanoi Taxi.
The wing air-dropped supplies to scientists at McMurdo Station in Antarctica as part of Operation Deep Freeze and conducted humanitarian missions after earthquakes, storms and other disasters.
Still, when Underwood arrived in the late 1980s, he saw signs that Norton was headed downhill.
BEGINNING THE DECLINE
“I asked about the military construction program, because every viable base has one,” Underwood said. “If you don’t, it’s a clue that your base is in decline.”
Norton didn’t have one.
There were other clues — and they weren’t hard to spot, he said.
The dormitory carpets had holes, the drapes were sun-damaged, the gym and weight room were a mess, Underwood said. At the golf course, skull and bones signs had been hammered onto the palm trees, warning that the water wasn’t safe. And inside the enormous desk in his office, he said — six rat traps.
When the military began a base realignment program, Norton was chosen for closure. The announcement came in 1988.
“It was not a surprise to me,” Underwood said during a talk at the Norton Air Force Base Museum last December.
But closure wouldn’t come for another six years. Underwood’s task was to keep the base functioning and help its people transition into new jobs or retirement while keeping the buildings in decent shape, bringing in new industry and dealing with pollution that resulted from years of dumping chemicals on the ground.
He likened it to caring for a beloved but aging 1956 Chevy.
“It can never be modern, but it can be fit,” he said.
EXCELLING WHILE CLOSING
By the late 1980s, many of Norton’s buildings were more than 40 years old and in need of attention.
The money for that wasn’t going to come from the federal budget. But on the base were two hangars filled with unneeded parts for the SR-71, a spy plane for which Norton was the supply depot. Why not recycle the titanium in those parts and use the money to fix up the base buildings, Underwood wondered. That scheme generated a couple of million dollars, which was spent on paint and repairs, and even a few new TVs, he said.
The improvements brought morale up considerably, he said.
Because of concerns that closure and relocation would cause stress and strife among the workers, teams were created to help them with such tasks as preparing a resume, interviewing for a job, selling a house.
“We offered 150 classes to the base population on employment transition-related issues, like how to dress and how to handle depression,” Underwood said. “We were teaching people how to fish. And as a result, we didn’t have any of the issues like spousal abuse or alcoholism increases.”
The base workers continued to excel, winning awards that included taking first place in the 1990 Airlift Rodeo, a challenging international competition that tests the skills of the aircraft’s entire team, from pilot to loadmaster to mechanic.
THE LAST DAY
The weeks and months leading up to Norton’s last day were marked with banquets and ceremonies honoring the various units as they moved on. Glasses, wine bottles and ceremonial flags from those events occupy some shelves at the Norton Air Force Base Museum in San Bernardino. Outside there’s a memorial to the Hanoi Taxi.
On the final day — March 31, 1994 — all of Norton’s C-141 cargo planes were scheduled to take off, perform a flyover at the closure ceremony and then fly on to their new home at March in Riverside, some 20 miles south.
Drake was there that day, sitting in a launch truck on Norton’s runway, worrying that something would go wrong and leave the crews who worked on the planes — and the base itself — with egg on their faces.
“These are old airplanes and getting them all off the ground at the same time was a superhuman feat,” Drake said. “When the last plane got off the ground I was sitting in that truck crying my eyes out. I was so proud of them. I could not have been more proud of anything they had ever done.”
Underwood retired from the Air Force when the base closed and went on to work with Inland Action, which sought ways to reuse the base property. In 1996 he became chief of the San Bernardino City Unified School District Police Department, retiring in 2010.
Twenty years after the demise of Norton, Underwood acknowledges that many who now live in the Inland region don’t know of the base or what was done there.
“If you don’t have any memories of this place, remember this,” he said during the talk at the Norton Museum. “The whole world felt our impact.”
Contact Jan Sears at 951-368-9477 or email@example.com