George AFB: My first duty station

by Bob Alvis, special to Aerotech News
Once upon a time, an Airman in technical school in Wichita Falls, Texas, got orders to his next duty station, and so started a relationship that would last for decades.

I was that Airman at Sheppard Field when I got those orders, and I was pretty surprised to see “George AFB, Victorville, California” staring up at me from the page. I began to chuckle a bit, thinking that here I had joined the Air Force to see the world — and I end up about 50 miles east of the town I have lived in my entire life.

A call to my folks and friends, with the words, “Guess who’s coming back to the High Desert” were met with a few giggles and laughs, but it would be a lot different now. The life of a working Airman would play out a bit differently than the wild man I was before I went in to the service.

So the day came and travel orders were cut. Before long I pulled up to the main gate of George Air Force Base, home of the 35th Tactical Fighter Wing. I set about getting settled into my new digs as a young Civil Engineer with the 35th Civil Engineering Squadron, finding out all about this base at which I would spend many years.

George Air Force Base, circa 1962. (Air Force photograph)

Even in my younger years, I was always fascinated with history and exploring and finding out about all the things that happened around the places I would visit. After growing up in the shadow of Edwards AFB just to the northwest of George, I was amazed at all the events and operations that took place on this air base — and I never even remember having an interest in its history! Of course, that all changed as I spent time on the base, and old building custodians and civil service-types who had been there for many years brought me up to speed on the facility, which had a very distinguished and colorful existence.

George AFB started as Victorville Army Air Field in 1941 during World War II, during which it was focused on pursuit flight training. It was quickly converted over to glider training, as the many dry lake beds in the area were perfect landing and takeoff locations for glider operational training. Before long, the base was recognized as a location that pretty much was available with 365 flying days a year, meeting the need for a location with plenty of open area nearby for conducting bombing mission training. The base converted over to bombardier and navigator training and before long, the 24-hour-a-day drone of twin-engine trainers and four-engine bombers were filling the skies over the High Desert.

That mission carried on until the end of the war. With the war won, the base was shut down and it became a graveyard of sorts for all kinds of aircraft returning from the battlefields around the world.

When the Air Force became its own branch of the military, it went shopping for a few old bases to open up, and Victorville’s ideal flight conditions drew attention once again. Before long the sounds of aircraft returned, as it became a training base for many Air National Guard units from around the country. In June of 1950, Victorville AFB would be renamed George AFB in honor of World War I flying ace Harold H. George, who had lost his life in Darwin, Australia, in 1942 while serving with General MacArthur. At the time of his death, he was a brigadier general and was highly decorated. Oddly, his death did not come in combat like so many other warriors, but rather during a freak accident on an airstrip. A P-40 lost control on landing and slammed into the general’s transport, killing him and few others on board. General George is at rest today at Arlington National Cemetery.

Gen. Harold George as a lieutenant in World War I where he shot down five enemy aircraft. (Courtesy photograph)

With the outbreak of the Korean and Vietnam wars, George went into high gear and became the training grounds for pretty much all types of air operations. Aircraft over those years were constantly being changed out to whatever new “hot rod” in the skies was being used; from P-51s, F-86s, F-100s and F-104s, the list was constantly evolving. The birds of my generation were the F-4s and F-105s, which showed up en masse during my time in service.

One thing that really stands out in my mind was that George was the home of an alert squadron under the control of the West Coast Air Defense command, which had been there for many years. Many times during my years there, we would hear that wail of a horn and these slick F-106 beauties would bolt out of those alert hangars and blast down the runway, to be lost in the horizon in just a few minutes. Looking back, it was pretty scary stuff, as those birds were packing some very lethal weapons to confront unwanted “guests,” shall we say, from across the seas.

George was a great assignment if you liked nonstop air action, as every day formations of fighters kept the skies full of departing and returning aircraft. We even had the German air force there, doing training in their F-4s with their olive drab and gray paint jobs. We learned pretty fast that, if you were ever working in their facility, it was a good idea not to fall prey to the Germans and their foosball table, like so many other warriors — as they made pretty quick work of the unknowing Airmen and scored a few bucks while they were at it!

Again, George was a pretty good assignment. I won’t say it was a perfect place, since in the late 1970s the military was not getting much love and we were keeping things together with safety wire and duct tape. But I did find, many times, when I was out on the flight line GCA or RSU sites, that I enjoyed seeing the business end of Uncle Sam’s Air Force in action.  

One day I was passing by late in the evening and the silence was interrupted with a wind gust and the clanging of the clips on an old flag pole at headquarters that is now abandoned. Every day for decades, reveille and retreat sounded and the flag was raised and lowered as we came to attention. Those days are long gone and this old flagpole will now just fade away with the memories. (Photograph by Bob Alvis)

Working on the base, I was always aware of the history I was walking in and around. Many of those old buildings were holdovers from World War II and many of those F-4s and F-105s I helped to support had made many trips over North Vietnam. In fact, the F-105G at Joe Davies Air Park in Palmdale is one of those birds I would see lighting up its afterburner on a regular basis. Also note that the tail number on that old bird was seen in many photos as it was chasing SAM sites in North Vietnam.  

Looking back and seeing the sad shape but also the resurgence of the base that was once called George AFB, I find myself, on occasion, stopping in to see if I can find anything left from my time there, let alone the World War II years. A few things still remain, but not much. One thing I find sad is all the warbirds that used to surround the headquarters buildings are all gone. I hope they fared better than other aspects of the base. In a way, I feel a bit for the good general for whom the base was named. Now, just like him, his namesake base is just a memory that over time will fade like the last note of “Taps.”  

So there you have my take on those orders I got back in Texas, and what an assignment to a Tactical Fighter base in the High Desert meant to me. I came to respect it over time, along with its legacy of what it had done to provide for this nation. My time at George contributed greatly to my understanding of how the business end of the Air Force gets things done and the amazing men and women who make it all happen. Looking back, it was four years of my life that I would not trade for anything. I didn’t do anything heroic during my Air Force days, but I will just say I sure got to see how heroes earn that title.  

Until next Time Bob out …

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