Historic California Posts, Camps, Stations and Airfields
Naval Auxiliary Air Station, Vernalis
(Naval Auxiliary Air Facility, Vernalis; Vernalis Geophysics Annex)
Naval Auxiliary Air Station, Vernalis by M.L. Shettle, Jr.
In late 1942, the Navy started work on two auxiliary stations in the San Joaquin Valley near the small and isolated communities of Vernalis and Crows Landing. At Vernalis, 16 miles west of Modesto, 700 acres were purchased for $33,300 to build a base to support two multi-engine patrol squadrons. The Navy commissioned NAAF Vernalis on June 8, 1943, as an auxiliary of Alameda with one 4,000 x 500-ft. tarmac runway.

In November, a project began to extend the existing runway to 7000 ft., as well as add buildings and gasoline storage capacity. In the meantime, Vernalis's designation changed to an NAAS. During this time, VB-148 and VB-150 were aboard. In the spring of 1944, the Navy realized that Crows Landing, 18 miles to the southeast with concrete runways, would be better suited for the heavier multiengined types. The two stations swapped missions. Thereafter, Vernalis hosted carrier squadrons. With the arrival of carrier units, Vernalis added a 160 acre dive bombing range and commissioned CASU 63 in support. Due to the limited crosswind landing capability of Navy carrier aircraft, $240,000 was spent on the addition of a 4000 x 150-ft. crosswind runway. Further improvements included $16,000 in permanent runway lighting and a Seabee installed catapult and arresting gear. At a strafing range on the Diablo Mountain Range to the west, a silhouette of a submarine was painted on rocks for strafing practice.

Vernalis proper consisted of a single country store that also served as a Post Office. One local resident remembers that a visitor once walked out of the store and asked: "How do you get out of town?" -- the supreme insult! To keep the sailors entertained, Vernalis ran a liberty bus service to Modesto. German POWs arrived late in the war, constructed an Olympic-sized swimming pool, and worked on local farms. The base had a quarter-mile field track and an ice hockey team that played in Modesto.

Vernalis had daily afternoon logistic aircraft service from Alameda that brought mail, personnel, and aircraft parts. One morning, the passenger manifest for the afternoon flight, received by teletype, listed Admiral Dewey Bluitt as a passenger. The C.O. alerted the troops, who policed the base, neatly parked the aircraft in one direction, and decked out in dress uniform for the occasion. The C.O. and an honor guard met the flight when it arrived. Off the PBY stepped Admiral Dewey Bluitt -- a black Seaman First Class! Presumably, Bluitt's father had been a Navy man who named his son after the famous Admiral Dewey.

After the war, Vernalis initially was chosen to remain open; however, Crows Landing received the nod due to its concrete runways. On October 15, 1945, Vernalis was placed on caretaker status and abandoned three months later. In the 1950's, the Air Force used the airfield to launch 300-ft. diameter balloons that carried electronic equipment for experiments in the stratosphere. In recent years, the property has been used for sun-drying of agricultural products and the storage of cannery waste that is subject to spontaneous combustion. Locals claim the former base is haunted by a ghost, known as "the Colonel." The ghost is alleged to be a former military man who was murdered and dismembered on the base. Another explanation might be a tragic accident that occurred during the war. A cable broke on the catapult and arresting gear system killing two men -- decapitating one. The decapitated man was working in place of another man who had a date. Could this man be the ghost in question?

Copied with the permission of the author from United States Naval Air Stations of World War II.


US Army Corps of Engineers Sacramento District History (2005) by Dan Sebby


Portions of the following historical narrative were summarized from a US Navy Twelfth Naval District memo dated 12 October 1945 concerning the unit history of former NAAS Vernalis (Appendix B). The Site was constructed to meet demand for additional training and station facilities in the aeronautical organization of the 12th Naval District. A need existed to establish small auxiliary units sufficiently close to Naval Air Station, Alameda (NAS Alameda) to function smoothly and yet far enough away from the heavily populated areas of the San Francisco Bay District. The location of former NAAS Vernalis was chosen because of year-round flying weather, a flat valley area which simplified airport construction, and it provided the needed facilities at a distance of approximately 60 air miles from Naval Air Station Alameda.

In 1942 and 1943, 699.44 acres of land were acquired by eminent domain. Construction of a 500' X 4000' runway began in June 1942. Contracts were let later that year for construction of essential buildings, additional runway area, and gasoline storage. NAAS Vernalis was commissioned 8 June 1943. Construction continued up until the end of the war in the Pacific.

At the time of its inception, NAAS Vernalis was intended to support the operations of two heavy bomber squadrons flying PV2 Harpoons and PB4Y Liberators. The bomber squadrons were moved to NAAS Crows Landing in 1944 because the runways were more suitable, and the station function of NAAS Vernalis was changed to support the operations of carrier-based squadrons which were completing advanced training and to base such squadrons pending their assignment and arrival of transportation. During that time, the station was used as a base by Air Groups, Torpedo, Fighter, Bomber, and Composite Squadrons. The normal messing and berthing allowance of former NAAS Vernalis was 333 Commissioned Officers and 2,386 Enlisted Men.

NAAS Vernalis began transition to caretaker status (i.e., a non-operating condition requiring a minimum strength personnel unity, the mission of which is to maintain physical US possession of the property involved and to guard it against deterioration, damage, looting, and theft) on 15 October 1945, and the transition completed 15 March 1946. The Site was declared surplus 15 March 1946. NAAS Vernalis was disestablished 15 May 1946, and the WAA assumed custody on 17 October 1946.

On 9 April 1947, the Navy Department formally withdrew former NAAS Vernalis from surplus status. It was decided that the disposition of the Site in accordance with recommendations of the Civil Aeronautics Administration would materially lesson the value of the facility from the standpoint of future military requirements.

The Department of the Navy licensed portions of the Site to the Department of the Air Force for use by the 6580th Missile Test Wing, Air Research and Development Command. The Air Force used the facility to launch balloons 300 feet in diameter that carried electronic equipment for stratospheric experiments. The facility was known as the Vernalis Geophysics Annex at that time.

Approximately 58.8 acres of land were leased to EP Murphy and Son for cattle grazing in 1957. In 1958, approximately 300 additional acres were leased to Keith J. Weisenberger for agriculture and grazing. On 17 March 1960, land used for the Delta-Mendota Canal right-of-way was transferred from the Department of the Navy to the Bureau of Reclamation, Department of the Interior. The Air Force officially left the Site on 31 January 1962. GSA declared former NAAS Vernalis surplus to the needs of the Federal Government on 27 May 1963, and all land covered by road easements were donated to San Joaquin and Stanislaus Counties later that year. A total of 321.23 acres were sold to private individuals (Oliver I. Anderson, Edward R. Pollard, and Mack S. Campbell) in October 1963, and the remaining 328 acres were sold to Anthony Ruggiero in November of that year.

Other Histories
Abandoned and Little Known Airfields
Official Station History
Extract, US Army Air Forces Directory of Airfields (January 1945)
Site Map
Click image for a more detailed view.
World War II Images Images from the National Archives, College Park, Maryland
NAAS Vernalis under construction
NAAS Vernalis soon after being commissioned
NAAS Vernalis in 1943. By the end of the war, the number of barracks and officer's quarter would more than triple.
Surviving Military Structures (2005) Images courtesy of Dan Sebby
The station's flagpole
This building is shown on the 1946 station map as the station's brig and according to the owners, the building still has cells inside.
The station's swimming pool
Pump house
One of three 50,000 gallon underground concrete storage tanks
An unidentified building believed to be from the Air Force period.
Although recently resided, the station's storehouse still serves it's original purpose.
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Updated 3 July 2017