March is one of the oldest airfields operated by the United States military, being established as Alessandro Flying Training Field in February 1918. It was one of thirty-two Air Service training camps established after the United States entry into World War I in April 1917. The airfield was renamed March Field the following month for 2d Lieutenant Peyton C. March, Jr., the recently deceased son of then-Army Chief of Staff Peyton C. March, who was killed in an air crash in Texas just fifteen days after being commissioned.
World War I
The establishment of March Air Force Base began in the early 20th century at a time when the United States was rushing to build up its military forces in anticipation of an entry into World War I. In 1917, in response to news from the front lines, Congressional appropriations attempted to back the plans of General George O. Squier, the Army's chief signal officer, to "put the Yankee punch into the war by building an army in the air".
At the same time, the War Department announced its intentions to build several new military installations. Efforts by Frank Miller, then owner of the Mission Inn in Riverside, California, Hiram Johnson and others, succeeded in gaining War Department approval to construct an airfield at Alessandro Field located near Riverside, an airstrip used by aviators from Rockwell Field on cross-country flights from San Diego.
The Army quickly set about establishing the new air field. Sergeant Charles E. Garlick, who had landed at Alessandro Field in a Curtiss JN-4 "Jenny" in November 1917, was selected to lead the advance contingent of four men to the new base from Rockwell Field. On 26 February 1918, Garlick and his crew and a group of muleskinners from nearby Colton, known to be experts in clearing land as well as for their colorful syntax, began the task of excavating the building foundations, and on 1 March 1918, Alessandro Flying Training Field was opened.
On 20 March 1918, Alessandro Flying Training Field became March Field, named in honor of Second Lieutenant Peyton C. March, Jr., son of the Army Chief of Staff, who had been killed when his Curtiss JN-4 "Jenny" crashed in Fort Worth, Texas the previous month. His crash occurred two weeks after he had been commissioned in the regular United States Army Air Service.
By late April 1918, enough progress had been made in the construction of the new field to allow the arrival of the first troops. The commander of the 818th Aero Squadron detachment, Captain William Carruthers, took over as the field's first commander and for a time operated out of an office in the Mission Inn. Within a record 60 days, the grain stubble-covered plain of Moreno Valley had been partially transformed to include twelve hangars, six barracks equipped for 150 men each, mess halls, a machine shop, post exchange, hospital, a supply depot, an aero repair building, bachelor officer's quarters and a residence for the commanding officer. Eventually March Field saw the construction of some 50 buildings. It covered over 700 acres and could accommodate up to 1,000 personnel. Dozens of wooden buildings served as headquarters, maintenance, and officers' quarters. Enlisted men had to bivouac in tents.
A Curtiss JN-4 "Jenny" on a training flight during World War I. This is the type of aircraft used at March Field during this era for basic pilot training of military pilots.
The first flying squadron was the 215th Aero Squadron, which was transferred from Rockwell Field, North Island, California. Later the 68th and the 289th were also transferred up from Rockwell. Only a few U.S. Army Air Service aircraft arrived with squadrons, most of the Curtiss JN-4 Jennys to be used for flight training were shipped in wooden crates by railcar.
March Field served as a base for primary flight training with an eight-week course. It could accommodate a maximum of 300 students. In 1918, flight training occurred in two phases: primary and advanced. Primary training consisted of pilots learning basic flight skills under dual and solo instruction. After completion of their primary training at Mather, flight cadets were then transferred to another base for advanced training. Training units assigned to March were:
Post Headquarters, March Field, March 1918 – April 1923
68th Aero Squadron (II), June 1918 (Transferred from Rockwell Field, California)
Re-designated as Squadron "A", July–November 1918
215th Aero Squadron, March 1918 (Transferred from Rockwell Field, California)
Re-designated as Squadron "B", July–November 1918
289th Aero Squadron, August 1918 (Transferred from Rockwell Field, California)
Re-designated as Squadron "C", July–November 1918
293d Aero Squadron, June 1918
Re-designated as Squadron "D", July–November 1918
311th Aero Squadron, June 1918
Re-designated as Squadron "E", July–November 1918
Flying School Detachment (Consolidation of Squadrons A-E), November 1918 – November 1919
On 2 August 1918, Standard J-1, AS-1918, crashed and was written off at March Field. "By Associated Press to THE SUN RIVERSIDE, Aug. 2. - William L. Ash, flying cadet at March field [sic], fell 1,000 feet in a tail spin today and was seriously injured. He suffered a fractured leg and arm and puncture of the side. It is expected he will recover. Ash lived at Pittsburg, Kansas. It was the first serious accident at March field. Ash was making his second solo flight when he fell."
With the sudden end of World War I on 11 November 1918, the future operational status of March Field was unknown. Many local officials speculated that the U.S. government would keep the field open because of the outstanding combat record established by March-trained pilots in Europe. Locals also pointed to the optimal weather conditions in the Riverside area for flight training. Cadets in flight training on 11 November 1918 were allowed to complete their training, however no new cadets were assigned to the base. Also the separate training squadrons were consolidated into a single Flying School detachment, as many of the personnel assigned were being demobilized.
Boeing P-26A Peashooters of the 17th Pursuit Group, 18 February 1935. 33–102 sits in the foreground. These aircraft were later sent to the 1st Pursuit Squadron/Group of Philippine Air Force in 1937.
The signing of the armistice in November 1918 did not halt training at March Field. Initially March was used by several Air Service squadrons that returned from France:
9th Aero Squadron: 22 July – 2 August, 15 November – 11 December 1919
19th Aero Squadron: 1 October – 29 June 1921
23rd Aero Squadron: 1 October 1921 – 21 March 1922
However, by 1921, the decision had been made to phase down all activities at the base in accordance with sharply reduced military budgets. By the spring of 1923, March Field was deactivated as an active duty airfield, however, and a small caretaker unit was assigned to the facility for administrative reasons. It was used by the aerial forestry patrol. It also was used intermittently to support small military units.
March Field remained quiet for only a short time. In July 1926, Congress created the Army Air Corps and approved the Army's five-year plan which called for an expansion in pilot training and the activation of tactical units. Accordingly, funds were appropriated for the reopening of March Field in March 1927.
Colonel William C. Gardenhire, assigned to direct the refurbishment of the base, had just directed his crews to replace underpinnings of many of the previous buildings when he received word the future construction would be in Spanish Mission architectural design. In time, March Field would receive permanent structures. The rehabilitation effort was nearly complete in August 1927, when Major Millard F. Harmon reported in to take over the job of base commander and commandant of the flying school. Classes began shortly after his arrival. The 13th School Group and its 47th and 53rd School Squadrons provided primary and basic flying training for future Air Force leaders such as Hoyt Vandenberg, Nathan Twining, Thomas Power and Curtis LeMay.
As March Field began to take on the appearance of a permanent military installation, the base's basic mission changed. When Randolph Field began to function as a training site in 1931, March Field became an operational base. Before the end of the year, the 7th Bombardment Group, commanded by Major Carl A. Spaatz, brought its Curtiss B-2 Condor and Keystone B-3A bombers to the airfield. The activation of the 17th Pursuit Group and several subordinate units along with the arrival of the 1st Bombardment Wing initiated a period where March Field became associated with the Air Corps' heaviest aircraft as well as an assortment of fighters. Aircraft on March's flightline in the 1930s included Keystone B-4, Martin B-10/B-12 and Douglas B-18 Bolo bombers; Boeing P-12, P-26 Peashooter, and Curtiss P-36 Hawk pursuit aircraft; Northrop A-17A dive bombers and Douglas O-38 observation aircraft.
In the decade before World War II, March Field took on much of its current appearance and also began to gain prominence. Lieutenant Colonel Henry H. (Hap) Arnold, base commander from 1931 to 1936, began a series of well-publicized maneuvers to gain public attention. This resulted in a visit by Governor James Rolph in March 1932, numerous visits by Hollywood celebrities including Bebe Daniels, Wallace Beery, Rochelle Hudson and others, and visits by famous aviators including Amelia Earhart. Articles in Los Angeles newspapers also kept March Field in the news and brought to it considerable public attention. The completion of the first phase of permanent buildings in 1934 added to the scenic quality of the base.
World War II
The Attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 quickly brought March Field back into the business of training aircrews. Throughout World War II, many soon-to-be-famous bombardment groups performed their final training at March before embarking for duty in the Pacific. Known sub-bases and auxiliaries used for training were:
Buffalo Springs Airport 33°24′17″N 118°24′58″W
Needles Army Airfield 34°45′55″N 114°37′28″W
Shavers Summit Army Airfield 33°39′54″N 115°42′36″W
On a lighter note, entertainer Bob Hope's first USO show was held at March on 6 May 1941. Hope had been asked to do this show on location by his radio producer Albert Capstaff, whose brother was stationed there. Jack Benny later originated his own radio program from March Field on 11 January 1942.
English Heritage's record description
Not yet known
B-17 Flying Fortress
Delivered 96BS/2BG Langley 1-Mar-37; transferred 19BG March Fd, but force landed due to engine failure 8-Oct- 40; with Lee Coates force landed base 2-Dec-40; Albuquerque 16-Jul-42; 66 flights; Written off 30-Dec-42. [aircraft No. 60] Never saw combat.
B-17 Flying Fortress
Delivered 20BS/2BG Langley 27-Mar-37; transferred 19BG March Fd Oct-40; Hendricks Fd, Sebring 6-Feb-42; force landed base with W.R. George; 65 flts; Written off 13-Apr-42. [aircraft No. 50] Aircraft never served in combat.
B-17 Flying Fortress
Delivered 20BS/2BG Langley 17-Jun-37; transferred 19BG March Fd Oct-40; public relations trip to Grand Union High School, McClelland Fd 4-Jul-41; 66 flts; Written off 2-Apr-42. [aircraft No. 51] This aircraft never served in combat and was never posted...