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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.
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. The term 'Swing with the Wing' applied to this perceived better life, where Marines wore their hair a little longer, saluted a 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 than 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 Salem-News.com 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 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 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 we have explored at great length and 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, those that have taken place at El Toro have been grisly. Once a plane actually crashed into the base chapel and destroyed it. 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 in on 25 June 1965. A military transport KC-135 jet departed El Toro with 72 Marines aboard, who were 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. It also 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. El Toro most of all, is what died. The ghosts of people are likely incidental.

Here are the photos that were taken in 2008 and 2009, by my wife Bonnie King, the Publisher of Salem-News.com, 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 by Tim King Salem-News.com

Signs of dedicated Marine service are everywhere at the El Toro air base in
California. Photo by Tim King Salem-News.com

Main gate- now-closed El Toro Marine air base.
Photo by Tim King Salem-News.com

Maintenance building near MWSG-37's part of El Toro MCAS, the closed
air base in California. Photo by Tim King Salem-News.com

A jet fighter hangar also in the highly contaminated part of the Marine air
base, El Toro. Photo by Tim King Salem-News.com

Another shot of an abandoned building at El Toro MCAS.
Photo by Tim King Salem-News.com

More expanses of abandoned air base and buildings at El Toro in California.
Photo by Tim King Salem-News.com


Large buildings at the El Toro Marine base unloaded freight from trains.
Photo by Tim King Salem-News.com

The Marine base at El Toro- a ghost town in 2008.
Photo by Tim King Salem-News.com

Group headquarters for MWSG-37 in the contaminated zone at the El Toro
Marine base. Photo by Tim King Salem-News.com

Small chow hall for Marines in the MWSG-37 area of El Toro MCAS.
Photo by Tim King Salem-News.com

Another angle of the MWSG-37 at El Toro which is contaminated with
the chemical TCE. Photo by Tim King Salem-News.com

MWSG-37 hangar at the El Toro Marine air base is highly contaminated with
TCE. Photo by Tim King Salem-News.com

Reverse view of the photo at left, MCAS El Toro in Southern California.
Photo by Tim King Salem-News.com

El Toro's 'ground zero' - MWSG-37.
Salem-News.com photo by Tim King

A chair that could probably tell a thousand stories at the El Toro Marine
Corps Air Station. Photo by Tim King Salem-News.com

A view from the upper floor of Hangar 297 at MCAS El Toro.
Salem-News.com photo by Tim King

The entrance to the upstairs area of the 37 hangar at El Toro MCAS.
Photo by Tim King Salem-News.com

This is another building on the extremely contaminated part of the base at
El Toro. Photo by Tim King Salem-News.com

The Hqs-37 hangar at MWSG-37 was the prime contamination zone at
El Toro MCAS. Photo by Tim King Salem-News.com

During the time of the Marines, the base at El Toro was active and immaculate.
Photo by Tim King Salem-News.com

This officer suite was dedicated to a Marine named General
Schlitz. Photo by Tim King Salem-News.com

A building for visiting officers at the El Toro Marine Air Station.
Photo by Tim King Salem-News.com

People spending time on the closed base say several notable areas are haunted.
It is not hard to imagine. Photo by Tim King Salem-News.com

The VMFA 212 is another Marine Corps Fighter and Attack squadron that
was based at El Toro. Photo by Tim King Salem-News.com

VMFAT-101 is a training squadron and is still active at MCAS Miramar.
Photo by Tim King Salem-News.com

MCAS El Toro was the Marine Corps' flagship air base.
Photo by Tim King Salem-News.com

Marine Aviation Weapons Tactics Squadron 1 (MAWTS-1) squadron sticker
still affixed to a hangar window. Photo by Tim King Salem-News.com

El Toro's buildings were mostly WWII vintage. Some like these were still
very sound. Photo by Tim King Salem-News.com

Another row of abandoned buildings at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station
in California. Photo by Tim King Salem-News.com

Asbestos contamination accompanies pollutants in this El Toro building.
Photo by Tim King Salem-News.com

This abandoned building once filled an important role at the El Toro Marine
Corps Air Station. Photo by Tim King Salem-News.com

The hangar to the immediate south of the MWSG-37 hangar at El Toro.
Photo by Tim King Salem-News.com

Buildings filled with life for decades sit quietly in the sun, without the sound
of jets thundering by. Photo by Tim King Salem-News.com

Marine Hqs-37 Squadron hangar at El Toro's "Ground Zero".
Photo by Tim King Salem-News.com

There are several toxic, cancer causing chemicals in the groundwater from
El Toro Marine Air Station. Photo by Tim King Salem-News.com

MCAS El Toro MWSG-37 area, the most toxic part of the base, where
several Salem-News.com writers were stationed Salem-News.com photo

The now-closed El Toro Marine base.
Summer 2009 photo by Bonnie King Salem-News.com

El Toro Marines drew their flight gear in this huge, now abandoned
warehouse. Summer 2009 Salem-News.com photo by Bonnie King

Yet another shot of the air control tower at the now-closed El Toro Marine
air base, Summer 2009 Salem-News.com photo by Bonnie King

The old now decrepit Marine Air Station at El Toro,
Summer 2009 Salem-News.com photo by Bonnie King

Many died while attending and teaching at the El Toro School. The feds
won't admit the level of toxic contamination that the base conta

Near the El Toro School, where numerous kids died, and teachers, mostly
from cancer- that was probably tied to El Toro's contamination

Another lonely shot of base housing at El Toro, once full of life. Homes were
built as temporary housing in WWII. Salem-News.com photo


Bonnie King has been with Salem-News.com since August '04, when she became Publisher. Bonnie has served in a number of positions in the broadcast industry; TV Production Manager at KVWB (Las Vegas WB) and Producer/Director for the TV series "Hot Wheels in Las Vegas", posts as TV Promotion Director for KYMA (NBC), and KFBT (Ind.), Asst. Marketing Director (SUPERSHOPPER MAGAZINE), Director/Co-Host (Coast Entertainment Show), Radio Promotion Director (KBCH/KCRF), and Newspapers In Education/Circulation Sales Manager (STATESMAN JOURNAL NEWSPAPER). Bonnie has a depth of understanding that reaches further than just behind the scenes, and that thoroughness is demonstrated in the perseverance to correctly present each story with the wit and wisdom necessary to compel and captivate viewers.

View articles written by Bonnie King

______________________________

Tim King in 2008, covering the Iraq War

Tim King: Salem-News.com Editor and Writer

Tim King has more than twenty years of experience on the west coast as a television news producer, photojournalist, reporter and assignment editor. Tim is Salem-News.com's Executive News Editor. His background includes covering the war in Afghanistan in 2006 and 2007, and reporting from the Iraq war in 2008. Tim is a former U.S. Marine.

Tim holds awards for reporting, photography, writing and editing from The Associated Press the National Coalition of Motorcyclists, the Oregon Confederation of Motorcycle Clubs, Electronic Media Association and The Red Cross In a personal capacity, Tim has written 2,026 articles as of March 2012 for Salem-News.com since the new format designed by Matt Lintz was launched in December, 2005.

Serving readers with news from all over the globe, Tim's life is literally encircled by the endless news flow published by Salem-News.com, where more than 100 writers contribute stories from 20+ countries and regions.

Tim specializes in writing about political and military developments worldwide with an emphasis on Palestine and Sri Lanka, Iraq and Afghanistan, and the U.S. Marines. You can write to Tim at this address: tim@salem-news.com. Visit Tim's Facebook page (facebook.com/TimKing.Reporter)

View articles written by Tim King




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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 Salem-News.com, thank you sir!

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