History of the Marine Corps Air Station, Santa Barbara

When the US became a combatant in World War II a need arose for Marine Corps air bases on the West Coast.   Thus the newly constructed Santa Barbara Municipal Airport was leased to the US Government in February 1942.   Acquisition of surrounding lands began immediately. The first Marines arrived in June 1942 and in December ‘Marine Corps Air Station Santa Barbara’ was placed in commission.  By the middle of 1943 over a hundred new buildings had been erected and the footprint had grown from the Airport’s original 580 acres to 1490 acres. The base now had everything needed to serve as a training base for pilots and aerial gunners.  In effect it became a small city, with a population greater than Goleta’s and capable of housing and feeding a few thousand Marines.    

Pilots who arrived here had already earned their wings as Naval Aviators principally at Pensacola or Corpus Christi Naval Air Stations.  Familiarization training in specific airplane types (e.g., fighter, bomber, transport) had already taken place at the Marine Corps’ east coast bases.  Santa Barbara, now one of four Marine Corps Air Stations out west (along with Mojave, El Centro and El Toro) was to be the last stop for squadrons heading to combat in the Pacific. Here aircrews spent 6 to 9 months learning advanced combat flying tactics and other skills from seasoned veterans.  Squadrons sent to MCAS Santa Barbara comprised a mix of combat veterans, newer pilots, and those who had been flying aircraft transport missions in the states.  Here they learned to fight as a coherent combat unit.  

Towards the war’s end and in anticipation of the final assault on Japan’s home islands a unique command structure was put in place at Santa Barbara that trained Marine aviators for the arduous task of flying from small aircraft carriers to support Marines invading enemy-held lands from ships. 

After the final surrender activity continued but the need to keep personnel at a high level wound down. 

Having invested so much in it the Department of the Navy wanted to make this a permanent base.  However pleadings from the city of Santa Barbara eventually persuaded the U.S. Government to abandon the Marine base and all its buildings.  In February 1946 the base was decommissioned and placed on caretaker status at the end of March 1946.  The remaining personnel were transferred to El Toro.  All told nineteen fighter squadrons (most flew the F4U Corsair), eleven torpedo bombing squadrons (principally the TBF/TBM Avenger), and three Scout bombing squadrons (with the SBD Dauntless) had trained here. 

When the U.S. Government gave up the land Santa Barbara Airport received 928 acres. Many of the Marine Corps’ buildings are still in use today.  And the Regents of the University of California received over 400 acres, now the site of the University of California, Santa Barbara. 

The following images are a sampling of the collection amassed by the Wings of Honor Committee. If you would like to see the complete collection or learn more contact us. Photos provided by Adam Lewis.