Naval Auxiliary Air Station, Watsonville

In August of 1942 a parcel of land (287.58 acres) was purchased near Freedom, the airport’s current site. It was reported that the CAA had allocated $743,900 for construction of the airport. On August 12, 1942 the Board of Aldermen, by adopting Resolution 3428 entered into an agreement with the United States relative to the operation and maintenance of the Watsonville Airport.

The War Department became involved and the city leased the Airport to the United States of America for the sum of one dollar on June 1, 1943.  Prior to the Navy taking over the airport in July, 1943, the CAA had contributed approximately $744,000. The Investment of the City in the project, by virtue of the ownership of the 287.58 acres, was approximately $280,000. By March of 1944, the Navy had invested an additional $1.2 million.
The Navy took over in July, 1943, purchased an additional 35 acres, built support buildings and the concrete ramp. On October 23, 1943, the airport was commissioned as Naval Air Auxiliary Station Watsonville (NAAS Watsonville) and served as a satellite to Naval Air Station (NAS) Alameda.

With two auxiliary bases here Watsonville became known as a “Navy town,” one well liked and remembered by the thousands of Navy fliers who made their way to war zones.
watsonville-f6f-5-hellcats

Grumman F6F Hellcats of VF-8 and VBF-8 (Fighters and Bombers) for USS Hornet CV-8 and USS Bunker Hill CV-17. Photo credit Lloyd Sawyer, USN.

There were as many as 75 combat aircraft and 1,200 men at a time stationed at the Air Station. Then the ramp was used for Avengers, Corsairs, Dauntless’, Hellcats and other Navy combat aircraft. Today that same ramp provides ample space for corporate and private planes, both local and visiting, which make daily use of the airport.

NAAS Watsonville was not a primary training base, but where Carrier Air Groups (CAGs) organized. CAGs consisted of torpedo, dive bomber and fighter squadrons. CAGs coalesced in Watsonville, stationed 90 to 120 days for training, then assigned to Pacific Theater carriers. Since aircraft carriers were vulnerable to submarine attack, CAGs would fly to the carrier after the ship was clear of the harbor and reverse the procedure when returning to port.

In 1990, three members of the World War II VC-33 succeeded in gathering shipmates for a reunion.  In the process, these service men encountered members of the current VC-33.  The group met at Watsonville Municipal, the training site of the World War II VC-33.  At the reunion, an organization was founded “to perpetuate the memories and traditions of

Composite Squadrons Thirty-Three “, including the VC-33 progeny of VA(AW)-33, VAW-33 and VAQ-33.  Since then the organization has expanded it membership to include personnel from any former or current US Navy Aviation squadron including the numeral “33”.i.e. VF-33, VT-33, AG-33, HSL-33 and VS-33.

During World War II, FG-33 flew F6F Hellcats from the Pacific Islands and combined with VT-33, which flew TBM Avengers, to form Carrier Air Group AG-33.  A new VF-33 was established in 1948 and disestablished in 1993 (on the same date as VAQ-33).  HSL-33 flew helicopters on antisubmarine missions from 1973 to 1994.  VS-33 was established in 1960 flying S-3B Vikings for antisubmarine missions.

As the war ended, so did operations at NAAS Watsonville, on Nov. 1, 1945 it was closed and placed on caretaker status. The last official Navy flight took off in Nov. 1945, piloted by Vern “Ack” Ackerman, a former operations officer at the base, a combat veteran decorated for sinking an enemy ship.  Ack, a Watsonville native who would soon serve as airport manager, also flew in the first civilian airplane to use the airfield after the city of Watsonville acquired the facility.

In March 1946, the War Department, through an Instrument of Transfer, returned the airport to the City of Watsonville for civilian use. The airport received a permit from the California Department of Transportation, Division of Aeronautics as the Watsonville Municipal Airport.

Following the war, the Navy returned the 87 acres to the corporation.  The city acquired the land and improvements at no cost from the War Assets Administration, and subsequently sold 32 acres to the Freedom Elementary School District which moved its school into the old Navy buildings and operated it until 1963.