If you happen to find yourself driving along Route 99 in California please be sure to make a stop at the American Veterans Memorial (AMVETS Post 56) in the city of Tulare next to Mefford Field, the public airport of Tulare County. This is no ordinary memorial as it includes a World War Two memorial with a USAAF/USAF Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress bomber and a Vietnam War memorial with a USAF McDonnell Douglas GF-4C Phantom II fighter-bomber ground instruction trainer. The memorials are dedicated to all the men and women of Tulare who served in those conflicts.
I have to say I was not expecting to see a B-17 on the side of the road. I actually drove past, did a double take and turned around immediately to go back and have a closer look! I am glad I did.
WORLD WAR TWO VETERANS MEMORIAL
The Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress (S/N 44-85738), on permanent loan from the National Museum of the USAF was manufactured and delivered to the USAAF in 1945. It spent much of that year in storage before being used as a drone controller for atomic tests in 1946 (Operation Crossroads at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean) and continued in the drone control role at a number of bases guiding target drones such as the QB-17 and QF-80 during missile tests. The B-17G was re-designated DB-17G in 1948 to reflect its drone control role (then re-designated to EDB-17G in 1949 and back to DB-17G in 1954) which it conducted until retired in 1958 at Eglin AFB when it was flown directly to Mefford Field then grounded and put on display as an obsolete aircraft (service history sourced from Warbirds Resource Group and 3205th Drone Group Wikipedia).
Apparently by the 1960’s the B-17G was pretty badly vandalised but was luckily moved in 1971 by the American Veterans at Tulare who moved it to private property at Perry’s Coffee House. Although a gift from the USAF Museum, they ordered it be returned to Mefford Field in 1981 and the long airframe restoration process began (the interior is gutted though). In 1982 a truck ran off the nearby highway damaging the airframe but this was repaired and no damage is noticeable. Today it sits behind some extensive security fencing to keep the aircraft safe but pigeons do seem to be making the engine cowlings their home!
The B-17G is dedicated to and painted in the markings of the USAAF 379th Bomb Group (Heavy) which according to the plaque in front of the aircraft was the only unit awarded the 8th Air Force “Grand Slam” award for the best bombing, greatest tonnage delivered, lowest losses and abort rate in April 1944. It is displayed with the serial number 0-85738 and named “Preston’s Pride” in tribute to Colonel Maurice A. Preston the commander of the unit from November 1942 to October 1944 who also happened to go to high school in Tulare.
On August 5th, 1958 the then Major General Maurice A. Preston, Operations Chief USAF(retired) flew the aircraft to Tulare (he also assisted Tulare in obtaining the B-17 on permanent loan from the USAF). He served in the USAF until 1968 and during his long career was commander of the Tactical Air Commands 19th Air Force (1960-1963), Commander US Forces Japan (1963-1966) and Commander USAF Europe (1966-1968). He passed away in 1983 at 70 years of age.
VIETNAM WAR VETERANS MEMORIAL
The McDonnell Douglas GF-4C Phantom II (S/N 64-0912) is on loan from the National Museum of the USAF. It was originally an F-4C fighter-bomber manufactured circa 1964 as F-4C-25-MC in Saint Louis, Missouri and served on active duty with USAF 92nd TFS (81st TFW), then the 401st TFW and Arkansas ANG 184th TFS. It was converted to a ground instruction trainer airframe in 1986 and assigned to Sheppard AFB, Texas (service information sourced from Forgotten Jets and Aerial Visuals Airfram Dossier).
A sign at the memorial says the GF-4C made its final landing on May 21st, 1991 flown by pilot Ty Holscher and co-pilot Anthony A. Bettencourt. 5,600 volunteer hours along with $31,000, plus $13,000 in donated materials and equipment were spent in putting this Vietnam Veterans memorial together.
The nearby Mefford Field was used briefly in World War Two as a civilian operated US Army Air Corps training base. Rankin Aeronautical Academy ran a cadet flying school for the Army where basic (level 1) pilot training was conducted. The school was established in February 1941 and with a cadre of qualified flight instructors began to train cadet pilots in March 1941 but moved to the nearby and newly constructed Rankin Field in May 1941 where the training continued until the end of the war.
From the war memorials there are numerous signs telling you to keep out of the airport grounds, so I didn’t do any exploring there other than take a few photos of a nearby hangar and the field itself. I believe at Rankin Field there are still buildings and facilities that were once used by the Rankin Aeronautical Academy but I did not get the chance to visit there on this trip.
Rankin Aeronautical Academy would go on to train 10,450 army cadet pilots including the top US air ace and Medal of Honour recipient, Major Richard Ira “Dick” Bong (September 24th, 1920 – August 6th, 1945). Bong went on to achieve 40 Japanese air to air victories flying a USAAF Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighter in the Pacific Theatre of World War Two between 1942 and 1944.
The December 8th, 1944 Medal of Honour citation for Richard Bong was as follows (from the United States Army Center of Military History):
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action above and beyond the call of duty in the Southwest Pacific area from October 10, to November 15, 1944. Though assigned to duty as gunnery instructor and neither required nor expected to perform combat duty, Maj. Bong voluntarily and at his own urgent request engaged in repeated combat missions, including unusually hazardous sorties over Balikpapan, Borneo, and in the Leyte area of the Philippines. His aggressiveness and daring resulted in his shooting down 8 enemy airplanes during this period
In early 1945 Richard Bong was sent back to the United States and became a test pilot for Lockheed in Burbank, California where he tragically died at just 24 years of age in an air crash flying a new Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star jet fighter which crashed in North Hollywood on August 6th, 1945. The P-80’s primary fuel pump failed after take-off, unable to activate the auxiliary pump he bailed out but was unfortunately too low for the parachute to deploy.
The Rankin Aeronautical Academy was established by John Gilbert “Tex” Rankin (January 20th, 1894 – February 23rd, 1947). “Tex” had been flying since 1913 and must have been quite the character as he had served in the Washington State National Guard and the US Army Signal Corps Aviation Section from 1916 to 1919, then during the 1920’s and 1930’s he was a barnstorming stunt pilot (Rankin Air Circus), record holder (he made the first un-refueled non-stop flight from Canada to Mexico and various records for the number of outside consecutive loops including 78 in 88 minutes in February 1931 and later that year 131 loops!), aerobatic pilot (1935 US Aerobatic Champion and won the 1938 International Aerobatic Trophy), air racer and flight instructor!
After the war “Tex” remained in Tulare as the president of Rankin Aviation Industries which conducted aircraft sales and maintenance, as well as providing crop dusting services. Sadly he also died in an air crash flying a Ryan Aviation Seabee amphibious aircraft on February 23rd, 1947 in Klamath Falls, Oregon.
So there you go. Quite a bit of interesting history in the city of Tulare, California!