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From Airfield to Prison, how a corner lot in California's Desert was essential to victory in Europe

Longtime residents of the Antelope Valley are no strangers to the persistent sound of aircraft flying in the skies overhead, even in the earliest years of aviation the clear blue skies of the valley enticed pioneers of flight to venture into the heat of the Mojave Desert. The planes filling the skies in the pre-war years would be an odd site to valley residents today as a majority of the air traffic over Lancaster and its surrounding areas from 1941-1943 would not have been American pilots flying in American military aircraft, but rather the odd coupling of a civilian airplane, painted in United States Army Air Force (USAAF) livery, being piloted by British airman in blue woolen flight uniforms.

British RAF Airmen in dress uniform appear on the cover of their War Eagle Field graduation album.


The roots of such a mix-match was the successful result of years of tireless effort by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to coerce his American counterpart, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, into becoming more involved in the second world war on the side of Britain and her Commonwealth allies. Churchill’s attempts to have America enter the conflict fell short, he did however manage to secure a massive victory for the British war effort when, after years of pleading with Roosevelt, the American Congress signed the Lend-Lease Act of 1941. One of the key concessions for the British contained within the act was the delivery of brand-new American aircraft to replace the British Royal Air Forces (RAF) dwindling supply. The problem the RAF faced was not simply the replacement of lost or outdated aircraft; but the necessity of having trained pilots capable of flying them. The real problem lay in the inherent dangers of training inexperienced pilots in the ferociously contested war-torn skies over the British Isles. As soon as the German Luftwaffe could discover where the cadets would be training from they could simply send long range fighter missions across the English Channel from occupied France to harass the British fliers at their bases or training grounds, a solution had to be found and fast.


Following the signing of the Lend-Lease Act in March of 1941 a secret plan quickly began to materialize as dozens of RAF airmen, not yet graduated pilots, began to be transferred quietly onto ships bound for the eastern coast of Canada. Once in Canada the men were then crammed into several train cars for their continuous journey across the breadth of the continent to the western coast of North America until eventually after several days they reached their terminus in Glendale, California. Here the airmen were told they were on their way to a flight school known to the RAF as No.2 B.F.T.S. (British Flight Training School)


The first two train cars of RAF Airmen arriving in Glendale, CA. July 1941


Unfortunately for the British airmen, they were once again loaded into several train cars and moved northward to their final destination of Lancaster, California. There in the far western corner of the Mojave Desert, a civilian company under contract from the Department of Defense, Polaris Flight Academy, had constructed and been operating one of four “Civilian” airfields. This was War Eagle Field on the corner of W Ave I. and 60th St. West, better known to current Antelope Valley residents as the eventual site of Mira Loma Detention Facility. It was at this site for several years that many hundreds of British and Canadian airmen would come to train at Polaris Flight Academy to earn their wings before being sent hurriedly back into the fight in the skies over Europe.


Graduating class of RAF pilots (Front Center) with their USAAF counterparts at War Eagle Field.

Front of War Eagle Field barracks, view from corner of W. Ave I /60th St West.

Polaris Academy’s operations were spread out across the Antelope Valley and included two smaller auxiliary fields; Victory Field six miles to the northwest, and Liberty Field six miles to the northeast. The main Academy facility at War Eagle Field was nicely equipped with two large enclosed hangars each capable of storing multiple aircraft, a high visibility air traffic control tower, and a new block-barrack square compound on the northwest of the lot featuring a grass lawn parade ground and large flag pole which flew both the American flag as well as the British Union Jack. To complement the large hangars were three 2,400-foot-long runways and a large fleet of Vultee BT-13 Trainer aircraft along with uniformed USAAF flight instructors to train them.


Air Traffic Control Tower at War Eagle Field.

A single Vultee BT-13 sits in front of War Eagle Field Hangar 1.

Three Vultee BT-13 Trainer aircraft sit along the runway at War Eagle Field, the barracks courtyard, parade field and flagpole can be seen in the background. North View looking towards Rosamond.


Immediately following the surprise bombing of the United States Navy’s fleet at Pearl Harbor in late 1941, it was apparent to the USAAF that there was a distinct lack of domestically trained American pilots to fill the cockpits of the planes now being rolled off of assembly lines at ever increasing rates. By late 1942 USAAF cadets began to arrive at War Eagle Field to earn their wings alongside their British and Canadian comrades. By late 1943 the British and Canadian pilots were steadily outnumbered by the American cadets and by the time of the field being renamed to Mira Loma Flight Academy in 1944, the school was almost exclusively USAAF pilots. Polaris Flight Academy would be the only civilian operated flight school to graduate students for the USAAF during the course of the war.


One of the last graduating classes of USAAF pilots from War Eagle Field.


Following Victory in Europe, the field began to slide into disrepair and use of the facilities for aircraft slowly tapered off and ceased. By 1954 the property had transferred into the hands of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. The Sheriff’s Department fenced in the still existing War Eagle Field barracks complex and bricked in many of the windows, walkways and doorways. The facility grounds were then opened as a tuberculosis isolation hospital for the Los Angeles corrections department before again being massively renovated and expanded into the current Mira Loma Detention Facility in 1983. The prison was expanded again in 1986 to allow for a women’s block and stayed relatively the same up until its closing some twenty years later. Fortunately, many of the original structures from War Eagle Field remain intact on the current site, including both large aircraft hangars as well as the original air traffic control tower and barracks complex which can both be viewed looking southward into the complex from W Ave I. The facility is largely vacant, however the LA Sheriff’s department still operates the hangars for storage as well as maintaining a small helicopter pad and refueling station for use with their modern police helicopters. Even though eight decades have passed since the last British pilots earned their wings, the remnants of War Eagle Field are still living on through the use of aviation, now as then, for the protection of the citizens of the Antelope Valley.


War Eagle Field barracks and administration complex as viewed in 2017


Sources:


Lancaster Museum of Art and History (MOAH) Permanent Collections


Glen A. Settle, and the Centennial Committee of the City of Lancaster. Lancaster Celebrates a Century. 1884-1984 City of Lancaster: Lancaster, CA. 1983.


Norma H. Gurba, Images of America: Lancaster. Arcadia Publishing: Chicago, IL. 2005.


Norma Gurba, Karl Peterson, Dayle Debry, and Bill Rawlings. Lancaster, California. Through Time. Arcadia Publishing: Mount Pleasant, SC. 2017.


Rich Breault, Brenna Humann, James Koren, and Alisha Semchuck. AV Scrapbook. Antelope Valley Press: Palmdale, CA. 2007.


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