This is the first of two parts providing some overall highlights of the history and heritage of NAS Oceana from the beginning up through 1973. Look for part two in an upcoming issue of the Jet Observer.
With World War II looming, naval aviators in Tidewater had only Naval Air Station Norfolk and two grassy auxiliary landing strips on which to train. When the Bureau of Aeronautics decided that was insufficient for the number of carrier squadrons to practice on, the commander in chief, Naval Air Force Atlantic was directed to secure four additional fields around Norfolk.
Because an auxiliary landing field had already been planned at Oceana in Princess Anne County (now Virginia Beach), as early as 1938, the U.S. government began negotiations to purchase 328.95 acres for a small airfield and dive bombing field to accommodate 32 officers and 172 enlisted men.
Known as Potter’s Farm, the land belonged to John W. and Dean S. Potter and was purchased for $35,000, most of which was deposited with a “declaration of taking” on Dec. 18, 1940. By the time it was officially commissioned as Naval Auxiliary Air Station (NAAS) Oceana on Aug. 17, 1943, the base needed to be rapidly expanded to meet the demand for trained fighter pilots for World War II.
Oceana was seen as the perfect location for an auxiliary field. The town of Oceana was considered remote with the only industry being a sawmill operation, and three or four small food stores, a restaurant, three gas stations and a post office within one of the food stores. Located between the village and the Princess Anne Courthouse was 5,000 acres of farmland, from which the base grew over the years.
The first commanding officer of NAAS Oceana was Lt. Jesse A. Fairley. Fairley recalled later how even in Oceana’s early history, he received noise complaints from the few residents in the vicinity of the base about the large bomber engines and constant noise from fighters and bombers, who were preparing to go to war.
Along with Oceana and Norfolk, World War II fighter pilots trained at outlying fields in Fentress, Pungo, Monogram and Creeds; of those four, only Fentress is still in use today.
Seen as the “tip of the spear,” the Navy Department knew Oceana and its runways needed to be expanded, so it began appraising acreage around the base for future purchase. The expansion was intended to provide facilities for Army fighter pilots but the Bureau of Aeronautics designated the expansion for Navy air groups, including 64 patrol aircraft, mostly PB4Y-1 Liberators and PBY4-2 Privateers, and the plan to share the airfield with the Army was stopped. By 1945, the F4U-1D Corsair was a regular addition to the airfield, as well as the F6F-3 Hellcat, the TBM-1C Avenger and the SB2C-4E Helldiver.
The development of Oceana toward the Master Jet Base began with Fiscal Year 1951 funds which provided $13,850,000 to purchase 3,800 acres, construct two dual 8,000 foot runways, taxiways and lighting, 260,000 square yards of aircraft parking, storage for 2.5 million gallons of jet fuel, a sewage disposal plant and 30,000 feet of railroad tracks. The concept provided for permanent basing for four carrier air groups, along with at least one auxiliary landing field for aviators to use for concentrated field carrier landing practice. The auxiliary field needed to include at least one runway and a permanent air operations building.
On April 1, 1952, the airfield at Oceana was redesigned from NAAS Oceana to Naval Air Station (NAS) Oceana and Fentress was officially designated as a naval auxiliary landing field on July 7, 1952. Later that year, ground was also broken to relocate the air station to the southside of the field, marking the “beginning of the end” for the North Station, on which the base had originally been built.
In 1953, construction for the ultimate Master Jet Base was well underway as contracts were awarded to build a hangar, parachute loft, administration building, line shacks, crash and salvage building, magazines, supply facilities, transportation garage, operations building, heating plant, medical clinic, galley, high speed jet refueling pits and an enlisted man’s club.
During this time frame, the F9F-8 Cougar, flown by the “Be-Devilers” of Fighter Squadron (VF) 74 and the F9F-5 Panthers flown by the “Vagabonds” of VF-84 were common sites on the Oceana flightline. The “Waldomen” of Attack Squadron (VA) 66 became the first squadron to take the F7U-3 Cutlass to the Mediterranean in February 1956 as part of Carrier Air Group 3 on USS Ticonderoga (CVA 41). Also in 1956, the Be-Devilers received their new F4D-1 Skyrays. VF-32’s “Swordsmen” received the Crusaders in March 1957 and deployed on USS Forrestal (CV 59) with their new aircraft.
On June 4, 1957, the airfield was officially dedicated in honor of Vice Adm. Apollo Soucek, who set three world altitude records in the 1930s. During that same year, several construction projects were completed that are still in use today, including the Chapel of the Good Shepherd, hangar 122, the public works building and supply offices. Also opened that year were barracks 530, the Navy’s first Acey-Duecy Club and a commissary.
The following year saw the ribbon-cutting for the bachelor officers’ quarters and the officers’ club, photo lab, Naval Aviation Maintenance Training Department, a jet engine repair shop and a guided missile shop.
As part of a military construction bill passed in 1960, the U.S. House of Representatives appropriated more than 1.2 million for operational and maintenance facilities at Oceana, with the base eventually receiving just under $1 million of that amount to continue expansion.
The first F4B Phantom II made its initial appearance in Hampton Roads at noon on April 26, 1961 with a flight of the aircraft touched down at Oceana. It marked the introduction of the Phantom II to the East Coast for fleet training and operations. VF-74 became the first operational Phantom squadron, flying the aircraft on six major deployments in the following years, including to Southeast Asia on board USS Forrestal (CVA 59). Just three days into launching sorties against Vietnamese targets in the Gulf of Tonkin on July 29, 1967, a fire aboard Forrestal killed 134 Sailors. Among those casualties were 42 of the Be-Delivers’ enlisted Sailors and three of the squadron’s Phantoms were destroyed.
Less than two years after the Phantom II arrived, the A-6 Intruders were accepted during a ceremony at Oceana on Feb. 1, 1963. VA-42 was the first squadron to receive the Intruders and was designated as the fleet replacement training squadron for the Atlantic Fleet.
By 1964, Oceana’s area had increased to 5,372 acres with a plant inventory of approximately $60.5 million. From 1959 to 1964, Oceana had disposed of all but three buildings on the North Station and the 58 temporary buildings remained on the North Station were disposed of following the opening of new facilities.
Aircraft Maintenance Hangar 500 was dedicated during an official ceremony on May 17, 1968, as one of many events leading up to the base’s 25th anniversary celebration in July. The 133,000 square foot structure cost $3.1 million and took two years to complete. The cantilevered roof was unique to Tidewater at the time but allowed for 800 foot entrance clear of obstruction. Hangar 500 housed five squadrons of F-4 Phantoms and included air conditioned office spaces and steam-fed heating.
Anniversary celebrations throughout Oceana’s history were often held in conjunction with the annual “open house,” and included performances by the Blue Angels, the Navy’s Flight Demonstration Team and appearances by “Miss Oceana,” at the 25th and 30th celebrations.
By the end of 1972, five of the six Atlantic Fleet carrier air wings were based at NAS Oceana, including CVW-1, CVW-6, CVW-7, CVW-8 and CVW-17, with 14 squadrons. Oceana was also home to three squadrons from CVW-3, four permanent squadrons, VF-101, VA-42, VA-43 and Fleet Composite Squadron (VC) 2, and an Oceana detachment of Experimental Squadron (VX) 5. There was also a Marine Corps squadron.
Because of the continued Vietnam War and the prisoner of war/missing in action involvement had expanded so much, by 1972, a storage location for POW/MIA information was available in the Oceana Public Affairs Office and volunteers manned a desk and telephone where they fielded calls from all over the United States.
One of the most memorable days of the Vietnam War came on Jan. 27, 1973 when the VA-35 “Black Panthers,” attached to CVW-8 dropped the final Intruder bombs of the conflict. It marked the end of America’s combat role and spurred the release of American POWs, four of whom would eventually return home via the Oceana flightline on March 7, 1973. Nineteen POWs who returned after the war had been attached to Oceana attack and fighter squadrons.
— Information compiled by Cathy Heimer from “Mud Flats to Master Jet Base: Fifty Years at NAS Oceana,” by Amy Waters Yarsinske and from the Jet Observer archives