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Apr-17-2012 08:56printcomments

MCAS El Toro: Modern Day Marine Ghost Town

The photos each tell a small story, all are captioned.

Marines dancing on the flightline at MCAS El Toro in 1982.
uS Marines dancing by the flightline at MCAS El Toro in 1982.
Photo by Tim King, USMC.

(IRVINE, CA) - There was a time, half a century in fact, when the best possible stateside duty a Marine could hope for, was Marine Corps Air Station El Toro in Orange County.

It was exciting and fast paced, the home of the Third Marine Air Wing, a fighter and attack jet base, located in warm, sunny Southern California, close to Laguna Beach.

Marines in the air wing are known for having a substantially "easier life" than their infantry counterparts at Camp Pendleton, just an hour south from El Toro. The term 'Swing with the Wing' applied to this perceived life, where Marines were allowed to wear their hair a little longer, had to salute bit less, and filled more technical roles in aviation. When El Toro was an operational base, the west coast of the United States was extremely secure.

The closure of this base in 1999 seemed to make little sense then and while we now know it is heavily contaminated with toxic waste, it is better that Marines no longer have to serve here, this human safety aspect never had anything to do with decisions regarding the base's future use.

Toxic Ghost Town

Long ago listed as an EPA Superfund Site, MCAS El Toro's water tables are clogged with the chemical TCE (Trichloroethylene) which is a chemical degreaser used to clean the jet fighters and C-130's, and disposed of hap-hazardously, into the water drains. TCE is only one of many contaminants associated with the base; benzene is a product of fuel, and lots of that was spilled over the base's half century of use. I happen to know about that one as I spent more than two years at this base in the early 80's. My job as a Marine was tactical aircraft refueler.

The control tower is said to be one of the base's most haunted locations.
2010 photo by Bonnie King

Today the once glorious Marine air base is quite ironically, part of what people call "The Safest City in America" and Irvine is a nice place, but this base isn't part of what led to this claim, not at all. El Toro MCAS, in the end, is a hotly pursued business venture that turned into a toxic liability.

Soon after its closure in 1999, it was decided that the base would become a housing community and park, but the bad publicity, combined with the fact that millions and millions of dollars vaporized into thin air, have kept this project from creeping along.

It is a long story and I won't put you through it. It does seem hard to view this once viable aspect of Orange County as anything more than a toxic nightmare. 'Toxic soup' as our writer Roger Butow once said, man how that description stuck.

But why a ghost town?

Fair question, let me see if I can account for a few of the reasons that this is probably one of the most haunted places in America; where security guards frequently "see Marines walking" on the base at night, who are never there upon closer examination. Or, the way the tower lights come on when the place is off the grid and totally abandoned, locked tight.

A Colonel named James Sabow who was a career Marine fighter pilot, blew the whistle on El Toro being used to receive continued drug shipments from Nicaragua. Years after the Iran-Contra hearings, he was threatened and then quickly died, allegedly from suicide.

This is a story Salem-News has explored at great length and we are convinced that this honorable man was murdered. His case has never been pursued by officials who might as well say the sky is green, for all the sense they make. This is a story that our Reporter Robert O'Dowd, also a former El Toro Marine, has followed closely.

Of course any military air base has crashes, and those that have taken place at El Toro have been grisly. In the 80's, a plane actually crashed into the base chapel and destroyed it. Those most flights were successful, there were many aircraft that lifted off the tarmac at El Toro and never returned.

Google Earth view of the flightline at MCAS El Toro

The worst was the tragic crash that happened 25 June 1965. A military transport KC-135 jet departed El Toro with 72 Marines aboard, deploying to Vietnam. All of those men plus the flight crew, for a total of 84 souls, died almost immediately after take off, when the plane struck a fog-shrouded mountain and exploded.

It was one of the worst military air disasters in peacetime history. At that time, it was California's worst air disaster.

During the Vietnam War, bodies of Marines killed were shipped back to the U.S. via MCAS El Toro. I do not know what percentage of the Marines we are talking about, but I have been told it was the majority. Of course death is part of the military and all bases are associated with it in their own ways. After that, El Toro MCAS itself, is what died. The ghosts of people are likely incidental.

Here are several photos that were taken in 2008 and 2009, by Bonnie King, the Publisher of, and I.

We were both at El Toro when I was a Marine, it is our own personal history, and that of our children, two of which were born with health problems related to El Toro. Sadly for many Marines who served here, the toxicity meant a death sentence from cancer or other ailments that tend to result from exposure to these chemicals. The photos each tell a small story, all are captioned.

Sticker on a window at the El Toro Marine air base in California.
(Photo: TAK/

Signs of dedicated Marine service are everywhere at the El Toro air base in
California. (Photo: TAK/

Main gate- now-closed El Toro Marine air base.
(Photo: TAK/

Maintenance building near MWSG-37's part of El Toro MCAS, the closed
air base in California. (Photo: TAK/

A jet fighter hangar also in the highly contaminated part of the Marine air
base, El Toro. (Photo: TAK/

Another shot of an abandoned building at El Toro MCAS.
(Photo: TAK/

More expanses of abandoned air base and buildings at El Toro in California.
(Photo: TAK/

Large buildings at the El Toro Marine base unloaded freight from trains.
(Photo: TAK/

The Marine base at El Toro- a ghost town in 2008.
(Photo: TAK/

Group headquarters for MWSG-37 in the contaminated zone at the El Toro
Marine base. (Photo: TAK/

Small chow hall for Marines in the MWSG-37 area of El Toro MCAS.
(Photo: TAK/

Another angle of the MWSG-37 at El Toro which is contaminated with
the chemical TCE. (Photo: TAK/

MWSG-37 hangar at the El Toro Marine air base is highly contaminated with
TCE. (Photo: TAK/

Reverse view of the photo at left, MCAS El Toro in Southern California.
(Photo: TAK/

El Toro's 'ground zero' - MWSG-37.
(Photo: TAK/

A chair that could probably tell a thousand stories at the El Toro Marine
Corps Air Station. (Photo: TAK/

A view from the upper floor of Hangar 297 at MCAS El Toro.
(Photo: TAK/

The entrance to the upstairs area of the 37 hangar at El Toro MCAS.
(Photo: TAK/

This is another building on the extremely contaminated part of the base at
El Toro. (Photo: TAK/

The Hqs-37 hangar at MWSG-37 was the prime contamination zone at
El Toro MCAS. (Photo: TAK/

During the time of the Marines, the base at El Toro was active and immaculate.
(Photo: TAK/

This officer suite was dedicated to a Marine named General
Schlitz. (Photo: TAK/

A building for visiting officers at the El Toro Marine Air Station.
(Photo: TAK/

People spending time on the closed base say several notable areas are haunted.
It is not hard to imagine. (Photo: TAK/

The VMFA 212 is another Marine Corps Fighter and Attack squadron that
was based at El Toro. (Photo: TAK/

VMFAT-101 is a training squadron and is still active at MCAS Miramar.
(Photo: TAK/

MCAS El Toro was the Marine Corps' flagship air base.
(Photo: TAK/

Marine Aviation Weapons Tactics Squadron 1 (MAWTS-1) squadron sticker
still affixed to a hangar window. (Photo: TAK/

El Toro's buildings were mostly WWII vintage. Some like these were still
very sound. (Photo: TAK/

Another row of abandoned buildings at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station
in California. (Photo: TAK/

Asbestos contamination accompanies pollutants in this El Toro building.
(Photo: TAK/

This abandoned building once filled an important role at the El Toro Marine
Corps Air Station. (Photo: TAK/

The hangar to the immediate south of the MWSG-37 hangar at El Toro.
(Photo: TAK/

Buildings filled with life for decades sit quietly in the sun, without the sound
of jets thundering by. (Photo: TAK/

Marine Hqs-37 Squadron hangar at El Toro's "Ground Zero".
(Photo: TAK/

There are several toxic, cancer causing chemicals in the groundwater from
El Toro Marine Air Station. (Photo: TAK/

MCAS El Toro MWSG-37 area, the most toxic part of the base, where
several writers were stationed. (Photo: BJK/

The now-closed El Toro Marine base.
Summer 2009 (Photo: BJK/

El Toro Marines drew their flight gear in this huge, now abandoned
warehouse. Summer 2009 (Photo: BJK/

Yet another shot of the air control tower at the now-closed El Toro Marine
air base, Summer 2009 (Photo: BJK/

The old now decrepit Marine Air Station at El Toro,
Summer 2009 (Photo: BJK/

Many died while attending and teaching at the El Toro School.
The level of toxic contamination unknown. (Photo: BJK/

Near the El Toro School, where numerous kids died, and teachers, mostly
from cancer. (Photo: BJK/

Another lonely shot of NAMAR base housing at El Toro, once full of life. Homes
were built as temporary housing in WWII. (Photo: BJK/



Comments Leave a comment on this story.

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Robert Kaminski October 10, 2015 4:38 am (Pacific time)

This was my first duty station after A/V school in Memphis.I was with VMCJ-3 (68-69).What a beautiful base and felt so lucky to be assigned here.Those afternoons working on the flightline in that warm weather and laughing to myself for the poor souls back home(Chicago)with the snow.Everything just seemed to click there and got spoiled real fast.Southern California was the place to be in the late 60's and El Toro was right in the middle of it all.I recognize most of the places these pics are of and it just breaks my heart to see a once vibrant duty station reduced to this.

John Pavlik September 2, 2015 9:36 pm (Pacific time)

This was my first Duty station out of boot camp in 1990. I was with MWSS 374 was a 3521. I was a young kid loving life living in Ca . I work at the E club on base bouncing in the evenings and on the week end . I haven't been back there since I got out and moved back to Pittsburgh Pa . This was a beautiful base and hard to believe it now looks like it does. Anyone that was with 374 at same time leave a comment.

Marlene Crumley August 29, 2015 1:41 pm (Pacific time)

I was stationed there (WMD-1) 1968-1971. MOS was Limited Crypto Maintenance. Read about the contamination some time ago in the American Legion magazine and couldn't believe it. How could a place that was so beautiful end up like this? These photos should be up alongside photos from the time to compare.

Don Lemmon August 22, 2015 7:28 pm (Pacific time)

Stationed in El Toro for my full enlistment after school. 81-85. The plane crash into the chapel, was an old corsair or other vintage aircraft, no fighter jet though. Believe it happened in summer of '85. I was assigned to MAG-13, Aviation Supply H&MS-13. Deployed with VMA-214 and again with VMGR-352 to Okinawa and Iwakuni. Never knew of EPA issues until recently, but a sad sight to see an awesome base turn into its current look, after returning on vacations twice... in '97 and '12. Great memories, great friends, solid Marine brothers and sisters. Just praying the Good Lord keeps is all healthy not knowing details of the chemicals and toxic waste. Semper Fi my friends-

Thomas Leary Jr. August 18, 2015 9:15 am (Pacific time)

First time I came to El Toro was as an infant in 1951 the son of a career Marine and we lived in the Namar housing tract.. I went to 1st thru 3rd grade at the El Toro Marine School, two of my teachers were Mrs. Lynch and Mrs Michelson.. Later on in the late 1960's we lived in Wherry Housing at 13681 Wake Ave. My father MSGT. T.S. Leary retired from the Marine Corps in 1969. I went in the Army in 1970 and was discharged in 1973 and that same year I went to work at El Toro in the Facilities Management Dept. where I had a great career until July 1st, 1999 the day they shut the base down and locked the gate.. El Toro MCAS was the best kept secret in the Marine Corps, it was an amazing base and all of us who worked there and the Marines who were stationed there were like family..

Tim Collins August 4, 2015 7:25 am (Pacific time)

I was stationed at VMA-242 from 1986 to 1991. I knew it was contaminated (No one informed us) but not to the great extent that I know now. Overall.... was a great place to be stationed and have many great memories of it. Still keep in touch with a lot of my fellow devil dogs that shared the same spaces as I. Been by a few times over the years and it's sad to see this once thriving base now succumbing to the elements.

James Branson July 18, 2015 6:01 pm (Pacific time)

I was at El Toro in 1977 and was part of MWSG-37, amazing that I was not informed of living on a contaminated base, this a sad story as I had good memories of that base. Was sent back again in 1979 and discharged on 6/80, is there anyway to find out how to contact someone on this matter as I am 57 now and want to know when this was discovered to be a superfund site. Thank you for the pictures and the story great job.

Thomas Terrell June 30, 2015 8:04 pm (Pacific time)

Seeing MCAS El Toro as it is now made me sad. It was my 1st duty station in 1975 with the MACG38. Semper Fi

Bob Chambers May 14, 2015 6:03 am (Pacific time)

Many great memories and friendships were made in 1961 & 1962 while at MCAS EL Toro. We were training and getting ready for deployment to the far east with Marine Corps All Weather Fighter Attack Squadron 542 (VMF(AW)542. I was a radio/radar technician, MOS 6611/6614. Our squadron still holds reunions and some of us remain in regular contact. A great group of guys that shared life, love, commitment and still would die for this great country. Thanks for great pictures and story on a once beautiful base. Semper Fi and may God Bless all of my Marine buddies, Bob Chambers

Lisa Hollingsworth May 12, 2015 7:08 pm (Pacific time)

My father, Lance Corp. Alfred Eugene Peterson, was aboard the C-135 that crashed into Loma Ridge shortly after takeoff from El Toro on June 25, 1965, killing all 84 men on board. We will be holding a 50th Anniversary/Memorial Unveiling Ceremony on June 27th, 2015 at the Heritage and Aviation Museum at The Great Park (the former site of MCAS El Toro). We will never forget these men.

Jerry Horner April 8, 2015 1:16 pm (Pacific time)

I was stationed there in 1976 & 1977 with VMA-311. I transferred there from Beaufort, SC. It was a beautiful base. I really enjoyed the drive to and from work down through the orange groves. They was always working those fields along the road planting tomatoes and other vegies. I worked for a great guy there named Charlie Wise. Sometimes I think it would be nice to meet some of the guys again, even the Tech Reps that worked beside of me in the office. I have forgot a lot of things over the years though.

Mark Carver March 8, 2015 1:36 am (Pacific time)

After completing school in NAS Millington I went to MCAS Santa Ana for a short time but it was pretty boring for a young 19 year old Air Traffic Controller so I asked for reassignment to EL Toro and arrived in 1977. I remember the drive to the base and the miles of orange groves I passed through along the main road leading into the base. I worked in the TRACON for two years before rotating to Iwakuni, Japan in late 1978 and I remember when I left almost all of the orange groves were gone, now filled with condos. EL Toro was lush and green and I still have photos that reveal its beauty back then. It was exciting for an Indiana farm boy to work military jets in and out of EL Toro mixing them into the commercial traffic, emergencies, accidents, NEMACS, what a time. I can't believe the way it looks now what a shame - after all it was home for two years and I loved it.

Michael Waddell January 3, 2015 3:04 pm (Pacific time)

El Toro was my first duty station out of Boot Camp, Parris Island. What a beautiful Base it was. I stationed at El Toro from 1985 - 1989 before being transfered to Okinawa, Japan. I lived and worked on the base, played at the Basketball court near the picnic area and ran the 3 mile course around the airfield everyday. Being from The Bronx. MCAS El Toro was like a fairytale come true, open air, beautiful skies and a golf course. i was there the day the plane crashed into the Base Chapel. I would write back home how i would lay on the grass at night and watch the Jets make touch and go landings in the Southern California night. that was 30 years ago. so painful to look at those pictures, when i was there it was spotless clean. i worked in Disbursing and once illustrated the cover for the base newspaper.

Ray Felton December 10, 2014 3:05 pm (Pacific time)

I lived in Wherry housing with a view of the one of the runways from June 1957 until June 1958 when my father was transferred to Kaneohe MCAS. While we lived there, we watched planes take off and land as we sat on a hill outside the base. One night while eating dinner, we watched what I think was a FJ4 Fury crash while attempting to land, something I will never forget. I went to the El Toro Marine School for fifth grade. My teacher was Mr. Rex Wenger. Used to hike up the foothill above the housing to a reservoir at the top of the ridge. You could see Saddleback Mountain from there. A great place to be a kid. Just think, there were still orange groves in Irvine!

Laura Cole November 1, 2014 4:13 pm (Pacific time)

My father and our family spent a great deal of time at El Toro. Dad was stationed there at least 2 different times or maybe 3. Mom and dad had 9 kids. He was stationed there when the 5 older ones were little and then stationed there again when the 4 youngest ones were little. It was one of my favorite places. We lived off base I believe, there were foothills and a big water tower and just neat places for kids to explore. I went to kindergarten in a Quantson hut. Then first and second grade on El Toro Elementary. There were horse stables a mile or less behind the school. I would sometimes climb the back gates of the school and go spend time with the horses and talk to the soldiers there. That is until the MPs or my mom would come get me and take me back to school. I also would sneak away and go climbing in the arroyos and "crystal canyons" as I walked to my home. Only to be again taken back to school by my mom or the MPs. El Toro was a great part of my life. I am sadden to see the disrepair it has fallen into. I was only 4 years old but I can remember sitting in our living room and seeing my mom and dad cry when Kennedy was shot. Dad was a pilot, a Lieutenant I think, when we were stationed there. I do not remember which squadron he was in at the time, I think MAG 123? I remember the painting of a big bull on the side of a building that had wings on it. He also had patches of other squadrons, I remember the Top Hat, The Rattlesnake (Death Rattler?), The Polka Dots. He may have others but not sure. Thank you for sharing this story. I see those buildings and I think of my dad and family. I see him on the run way, I see him in is pilot gear, I just have so many memories of El Toro. We have been to so many bases growing up. And while each has special memories and invoke different emotions, nothing quite touches me or my siblings like El Toro.

James Biven May 17, 2013 10:51 am (Pacific time)

Served there in 1974 (whole year). I worked in HandMS-11 but, was detailed for around a month to HandMS-37 to work in their battery locker. Anyone know which building that was in? My neighbor died in 2012 of multiple cancers that tie to the ground water pollution. He was there at least five years of his career total. Retired LTC Chemical Corps Army with 35 years. Exposed to more than just what was at El Toro in my 35 years.

chris August 27, 2012 11:58 am (Pacific time)

Great story. I was stationed on the base from 1990-92. I remembed the 1st time I entered the base via a taxi from the Joihn Wayne Airport on a summer morning. It really was a beautiful base, all things considered. -chris

Tim King: Thanks Chris!

Richard L. Matteoli April 22, 2012 6:08 am (Pacific time)

And the living returned from In Country, medically and dentally evaluated before discharge or further assignment. The control tower now is truly haunting. El Toro - 1991.

Editor: Richard L. Matteoli is a former Naval officer who also writes articles for, thank you sir!

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