DECLASSIFIED: History Of The Salton Sea Naval Station

This is a transcript of a now-declassified history of the U.S. Naval Auxiliary Air Station at Salton Sea California.  This is a U.S. Navy document authored in approximately 1945. The department and name of the author are unknown, as is the reason for writing the history. It is likely that the author did not have any top-secret clearance as virtually no reference is made to the use of the air facility for atomic bomb-shape testing in the 1940’s – all of which was classified as Top Secret at the time this history was written.

Some images of the original document are included for reference.

1. Commissioned Naval air Facility, Salton Sea on 8 October, 1942.
Page 3 of the Salton Sea Navy Base history document
2. Officers in Charge have been:
(a) Lt. Frank A. ROBINTON, A-V(S), USNR from 8 October 1942 to 12 December 1942.
(b) Lt. (jg) Robert V. HARRIS, USN of San Diego, California from 12 December 1942 to 10 April 1944.
(c) Lt. Jacob Carney IRWIN, A-V(S), USNR of Palo alto, California from April 10, 1944 to present time.

3. Transfers of Command:
(a) Established as a Naval Air Facility under command of the Naval Air Station, San Diego on 8 October 1942.
(b) Placed under command of Naval Air Center, San Diego on 1 December 1942 by NAC-SD memo 2-43 dated 4 January 1943.
(c) Placed under command of Naval Air Bases, ELEVENTH Naval District on 10 August 1944 by General Order No. 210 and NAB-11ND Order No. 44-8 of 31 August 1944.

4. Significant changes in function:
(a) Primary function at the time of establishment was to serve as operating base for VP type planes. First planes assigned were four PBY-5A planes that arrived on 29 October 1942.
(b) Facilites for basing 18 CV type planes for rocket work requested by ComFair W.C. ltr. to ComNAC-SD on 10 March 1944. First squadron, VT-20, arrived 27 March 1944.
(c) NAAS, Salton Sea redesignated as Shore Facility to support 12 VPD(MS) or 24 CV type planes on 22 December 1944. Restr. letter CNO to ComFair W.C.

Diagram of the Salton Sea Navy Base from 1945
The official commissioning date of the station is recorded as 8 October 1942 at which time it was called Naval Air Facility, Salton Sea. Due to the advanageous location of the Salton Sea and the character of the climate it had been used by the Navy for almost three years before this date as an emergency landing area and operational area for VPB aircraft, and as a target area.

The first Naval activity in the area was in December 1939 when a Navy seaplane landed in the sea. The plane put out kerosene lighted buoys and stayed overnight to act as tender for other seaplanes in night operations. Soon after this the Commander of Aircraft Scouting Force, U.S.S. Memphis recommended that Salton Sea be used as an emergency seaplane landing area and as a target area. Acting on this recommendation soundings were taken, weather data collected, and surveys made of the area early in 1940.
After receiving a favorable endorsement by the Commanding Officer, Naval Air Station, San Diego, the recommendation went to Washington.
It was decided that the Navy Department and the Treasury Department would share the expense of the seaplane facilities. The Navy department agreed to participate to the extent of $10,000 if the Coast Guard would install and service the buoys. A small pier was constructed at Sandy Beach by the Coast Guard for this purpose. Laboratory tests determined that the corrosive value of the water of Salton Sea was slightly less than that of ordinary sea water and would offer no particular problems. The installation for the buoys was delayed because of disagreement on the type of buoy to be used and on the location of the buoys.


Early in 1942 the need for training facilities in Salton Sea became apparent. As the existing emergency facilities were inadequate for operational training, a new seaplane base was requested to accommodate twenty-five (25) officers and one hundred twenty five (125) enlisted men. Sandy Beach was chosen as the location and the necessary land acquired. Of the 2780 acres within the station boundaries, 853 acres were government owned. Plans for the seaplane ramp were drawn up by the ELEVENTH Naval District Engineers and the remainder of the station was engineered by Kistner, Curtis and Wright. The contract for the station proper was let to Vinson and Pringle and Del E. Webb construction Company as a cost-plus job which totaled, $1,250,759. This original Page 7 of the Salton Sea Navy Base historycontract also included improvements to the existing runway at an additioanl cost of $32,351. This runway was a 4000 ft. clay surfaced strip built early in 1942 by Paramount Studios for the picture “Wake Island”. The first effort by the Navy to surface this runway was in April 1942, when the Commander, Patrol Wing ONE advisted that it would be an aid in establishing the seaplane base. In the three years since there have been numerous proposals and opinions concerning this runway but it is still a clay surfaced strip. The latest movement to surface the two existing runways is a $386,000 appropriation approved by Buaer on 1 February 1945. All original construction was supervised by the Civil Engineer Corps. The station was commissioned as Naval Air Facility, Salton Sea, on 8 October 1942 with Lieut. Frank A ROBINTON, A-V(S) USNR as Officer in Charge.

On 16 November 1942 the original contract was completed. About six months later the Macco McKittrick Company build the four small barracks buildings and the head and shower building at a cost of $60,506. The ship’s service and recreation building was rebuilt from a construction warehouse. The Sick Bay was rebuilt from the original gate house. Public Works Department has done all the recent construction work on the station except the marine railway. This work includes the eastwest runway, the taxi strip, parking area, ready ammunition lockers and athletic field. The marine railway was build by Shannahan Brothers at a cost of $38,000. It was completed and put in operation on 9 August 1944.

The station is approximately thirty-five miles from Brawley the nearest town of any size, four miles from highway 99, and forty miles from the nearest main line railroad. The Imperial Valley Irrigation Company furnishes the only fresh water available at a cost of $1.26 per 1000 gallons. The ditches, water treatment plant and piping necessary to make this water suitable for use cost over $175,000. The station is located in an area of sand dunes and is subject to frequent sandstorms. Summer temperatures in the area reach 125°F with humidities as high as 90%.

The primary function of the station at the time of its establishment was to serve as an operational base for seaplanes. In addition to this it provided target facilities for the area, and service seaplanes on ferry flights and emergency stops.

Operations were begun on 12 October 1942 when the first target boat was received. The first planes to arrive were four PBY-5A planes of the Transition Training Squadron that arrived on 29 October 1942. The old Paramount runway had been repaired and was used by these planes. In July 1942, a sum of $60,000 had been appropriated by BuDocks to surface this runway but this was deferred pending further investigation. In January 1943 BuDocks made another appropriation of $958,500 to construct concrete runways and other landplane facilities at Salton Sea. However in March 1943 this was reduced to $119,500 to be used for “additional facilities”, and in April 1943, a sum of $29,773 was approved for repairs to runway.

The facility was established under command of the Naval Air Station, San diego and was transferred to the command of the Naval Air Center, San Diego, on 1 December 1942. On 12 December 1942 Machinist R.V. HARRIS relieved Lieut. F.A. ROBINTON as Officer in Charge of the facility. At that time housing and messing facilities were limited to to lack of equipment. The station had been in operation a year before the first medical officer was assigned. The sick bay was housed in the Operations Building at that time but was later moved into the rebuilt gate-house.

In the summer of 1943, Salton Sea was chosen for rocket development work by Commander RENARD and the California Institute of Technology unit. In September 1943, Commander, Fleet Air, West Coast requested an additional landing strip, a parking area, and magazines for this work. The landing strip was completed and put in use on 15 February 1944. The next month Commander, Fleet Air, West Coast requested Salton Sea be redesignated for CV type planes. CASU 53 “Det” “A” and a rocket training unit were assigned to the station in March 1944 and the first squadron reported for rocket training on 27 March 1944. This training unit, with Lieut. Robert J. REISING in charge, has trained 56 squadrons since it was been on the station.

In March 1944 an appropriation was made to surface the two runways, improve drainage, construct a taxiway to the hanger, and to construct a new control tower. The taxiway was built and put in use November 1944 but the remainder of the work was held up for further consideration. The control tower was urgently needed because the hanger limited the view of the strips from the existing control tower. In July 1944 a temporary auxiliary control tower was put in operation at the intersection of the two strips. This tower has telephone communication with the main control tower and operations in conjunction with it as the auxiliary tower does not have radio equipment.

The station again served as the site of experimental work in July 1944 when Jet-Assisted Take-Off equipment was tested here.Page 11 of the Salton Sea Navy Base History

This work was done by the BAR Aerojet Engineering Corporation in cooperation with the Navy. A test stand was constructed at the north end of the parking area for tests of the propellant mixtures. Experiments were also conducted using a PBM in the sea.
More experimental work was begun in November 1944 when the Z-45 Army-Navy unit arrived to conduct high altitude bombing experiments. A target was built about 1-1/2 miles north of the control tower and 300 yards off shore. This unit has operated intermittently from December 1944 until the present time, using B-29 Super Fortresses operation between altitudes of 25,000 and 40,000 feet.

The chief function of the station at present time is rocket training with CV type planes. It also provides and maintains thirteen water targets, ten land targets and five emergency landing fields in the area. It has a fleet of twelve boats which are used for rescue work, towing targets, salvage operations and maintenance of water targets. The sea is used as an emergency landing area, operational area, and ferry flight stop for sea-planes. Salvage operations on the sea and surroundings area are conducted from the station. The station also has an ambulance plane, a cabin plane and an amphibian plane for search and rescue work.

This document is publicly available in the Orrell Anza Borrego Desert Collection MS 213 at the San Diego History Center in Balboa Park, CA.  Thank you to Mr. Sid Burks for making it available to me.

One Comment:

  1. Do you have photos of the officers, hopefully of Lt. Frank A. ROBINTON, A-V(S), USNR. He is my father, would like to know more about him.

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