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MCAS El Toro: Modern Day Marine Ghost TownTim King and Bonnie King Salem-News.com
The photos each tell a small story, all are captioned.
(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.
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.
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 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 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.
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