Nestled on the eastern edge of Novato, along the Marin Country shore is a bit of aviation history. During the First World War it became apparent that not only did nations need to have navies and armies to win wars, they were also going to need air forces. Since the Civil War, the United States Army had used balloons for artillery spotting and reconnaissance but with the advent heavier than air flight, the role of military aviation began to rapidly change. The US Army Signal Corps established an Aeronautical Division in 1907. At that time, the Army only had eight balloons, used for observation and reconnaissance. During that year, the Signal Corps purchased two more balloons and, in 1908, a small dirigible, bringing the total number of Army aircraft to eleven.
In 1909, the Army acquired its first airplane from the Wright Brothers and in 1910 it made its first flight. In 1911, Congress appropriated $125,000 for the Army’s Aeronautical Division. By the end of 1911, the Army Signal Corps had a total of six aircraft, and had conducted trials to prove the feasibility of aerial bombing. Still, the fledgling Air Corps only had a handful of pilots including 2nd Lt. Henry “Hap” Arnold, who was one of the Army’s first flight instructors. In 1913, the “1st Provisional Aero Squadron” was created, alter renamed the “1st Aero Squadron” and saw service in Mexico in 1916, becoming the first United States air combat unit. It still exists as the 1st Reconnaissance Squadron and is headquartered at Beale Air Force Base. With the outbreak of World War I, the European powers rapidly increased the size of their air forces and aeronautical technology rapidly advanced.
By the time the United States entered the war in 1917, it was far behind the other warring nations in air strength. By the end of the war, the US Army Air Service only made up 10% of the aeronautical strength of the Allied Powers and after the war, the Air Service, like the rest of the United States military, was rapidly reduced in size from 19,168 officers and 178,149 enlisted men in November 1918 to just 1,168 officers and 8,428 enlisted men by the end of June 1920.
During the late 1920’s the Army Air Corps began looking for a suitable location on the West Coast for an air base. The Army settled on a location known as “Marin Meadows” and Marin County transferred the 937 acre site for $1.00. Originally known as Air Corps Station, San Rafael, construction began on the airfield in 1932, the airfield was renamed “Hamilton Field” after 1st Lt. Lloyd Hamilton who received the Distinguish Flying Cross, posthumously, during World War I and was completed in 1935. Upon completion, the airfield was officially dedicated on May 12, 1935 and ceremonially “handed over” to Brigadier General Henry, “Hap” Arnold who commanded the Army Air Corps’ 1st Wing. Hamilton Field was to be primarily a bomber base and it was before the addition of pursuit (fighter) units.
During World War II, Hamilton Field was part of the Western Defense Command and served primarily as a training and transshipment base. It was on December 7, 1941 that the six B-17 bombers of the 38 Reconnaissance Squadron from Hamilton Field arrived at Hickam Field in Hawaii while the Japanese attack was ongoing. The personnel at Hickam was expecting the squadron and early in the attack radar operators confused the Japanese attack with the incoming squadron. After the war was over and the Air Force was created in 1947, Hamilton Air Force Base remained in service, serving as the home for several units of the Air Defense Command were stationed at Hamilton including the 325th Fighter Wing, the 78th Fighter Wing, the 556th Air Defense Group, the 1st Fighter Wing and the 26th Air Division all called Hamilton Air Force Base home. NORAD’s Western Region Command was stationed at Hamilton until 1969.
By the early 70’s, the usefulness of Hamilton Air Force Base was declining. Urban encroachment, lack of land to expand and an increasingly ambivalent, if not hostile, political climate all led to the deactivation of Hamilton as an active base in 1973. In 1973, the base was transferred to the Army, the Navy used some of the housing and the Coast Guard used two of the hangars. In 1976, the base was closed and placed in “caretaker status”. In 1980 to 1983 a few of the barracks and other buildings were used as a refugee processing center. From 1983-1990, Hamilton Field was the venue for the “Wings of Victory” air show, an annual event produced by the non-profit Hamilton Field Association. In 1993, the Army transferred its remaining portion of the base to the “New Hamilton Partnership” and redevelopment began. In 1996, the Navy vacated the housing on base and the military presence on Hamilton Field ended, nearly sixty years after it began.
Today, several of the historic Spanish Revival style buildings and hangars have been restored and repurposed. The developer had built several housing developments on the former base. The former runway is no more, the levee that protected it having been intentionally breached and the area allowed to revert to marshland. The Hamilton Field History Museum, a small but impressive museum housed in the former base fire station and staffed by volunteer docents who are more than eager to spend time explaining the history of the base to you is worth a visit, there are excellent displays covering the entire history of the base.
GETTING THERE: Take US101 N to exit 458 Nave Drive in Novato. Merge onto Nave Drive. Turn Right onto Main Gate Road, and continue on to Palm Drive and make a slight right onto South Palm Drive. Then turn right onto Hangar Avenue. The museum will be on your right at 555 Hangar Avenue. The museum is open on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays from Noon to 4:00 pm. (415) 382-8614