FIVEPOINT’S COMMITMENT TO HISTORY AND LEGACY
"We’re creating a new community where the Marine Corps community lived before. And we want to do it with the same sense of pride they had."
Artifacts preserved by FivePoint honor the legacy of service at MCAS El Toro.
Marine Corps Air Station El Toro
Preserving The Military Heritage At The Orange County Great Park
By Terence Loose
As new neighborhoods, schools and parks open at Great Park Neighborhoods and new amenities continue to be built at Orange County Great Park, some may forget what was on the land before.
“It’s easy to look at open space after all these years and just see it as that, open space,” says Bill Hammerle, former Commanding Officer of Marine Corps Air Station Tustin and now Vice President of Special Programs for FivePoint, which is Development Manager of the land that was the Marine Corps Air Station El Toro (MCAS El Toro). “But if you take a step back just a little bit further and envision all that activity and all those people who lived and worked here and then deployed, you get a very different picture. It was a home to thousands of people. It was a Marine Corps family that was here,” he says.
The Marine Corps family history is a strong one for Orange County. It all started in 1942, at a time when the U.S. was building up its military after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Looking for West Coast air station sites, the government paid then-farmer James Irvine Sr. $100,000 for 4,000 acres of agricultural land. The plan: build the largest Marine Corps Air Station in the western U.S. By January of 1943, that was a reality, with the first operational units arriving at MCAS El Toro.
It was in the next year that Walt Disney Studios created El Toro’s iconic logo, the red “Flying Bull.” That was also the year that funds were approved to double MCAS El Toro’s operations. By the end of 1944 more than 1,200 officers and nearly 7,000 enlisted men occupied the air station. For the next five decades, Marines from El Toro were in every U.S. military conflict, from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, to the Gulf War, until the base closed in 1999.
It’s because of this rich and important history that FivePoint and the city of Irvine have taken such care in the reuse of the air station, says Hammerle.
More than 90 percent of the 3 million tons of concrete from the demolition of El Toro’s four runways is being reused or recycled, as is debris from buildings and facilities. “We send very little to the landfill,” says Hammerle of FivePoint’s commitment to use the material in new construction.
That dedication to the past and future of the base has been part of FivePoint’s plan since Heritage Field, El Toro and its partners submitted the winning bid of $650 million for the 3,700-acre El Toro base. In a subsequent agreement with the city of Irvine, FivePoint spearheaded the commitment of $383 million to complete roads and infrastructure needed for the Orange County Great Park.
Another example is FivePoint’s work with the landowners and Habitat for Humanity. “We brought in Habitat for Humanity to find everything that had a salvage or reuse value from the buildings,” he says. “Washers, dryers, cabinets, doors, windows, if they could be pulled out, measured and weighed, and go to another location for use, they did.”
These, of course, are examples of very practical ways to show respect for the former air station, while serving the environment and philanthropic goals. But there’s also the work of respecting the past enough to preserve it for the future.
There are no MCAS El Toro buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, says Hammerle, but we understand the importance of preserving these artifacts. It’s more about the emotional attachment, a respect for those who were here over the years, for the families that called the station home, he says. “So before we dispose of anything, we try to put it through a filter to see if it has a connection to the base and the people who were here,” he says.
If it does, it’s saved for posterity, which might include making items available for research by historians and possible museum exhibits.
The effort has revealed and preserved some interesting artifacts from El Toro’s long history. For instance, says Hammerle, when the gymnasium was torn down, FivePoint cut out the center section of the basketball court that featured the large Flying Bull logo. There’s also a collection of sheetrock cut out of buildings that hold pictures former Marines drew. All the street signs were kept, as was a large recruiting banner, and a memorial plaque.
“If it could be preserved and it had significance, we saved it,” says Hammerle.
Hammerle recalls when a former Marine working for FivePoint came into his office with a dog tag. “He found it laying in a field,” says Hammerle. “Is it worth anything? Not really. So it would have been real easy just to discard it, but we take great pride in these pieces from the past. So he took the time to bring it in.”
That small piece of metal represents not only the care and pride that FivePoint, the landowner and the community at large take in the men and women who served at MCAS El Toro, but also the pride in creating a new, thriving community where theirs once was.
“I’m not one that gets too emotionally charged over what was and what is, but the thing about [MCAS El Toro] is that it’s not a physical thing. It’s a generation of people. To me, it’s not about replacing a big open space with other uses. We’re creating a new community where the Marine Corps community lived before. And we want to do it with the same sense of pride they had.”
Irvine honors its veterans
The city of Irvine and its citizens honor military veterans in many ways. Irvine has officially “adopted” the 2/11 Marines, a battalion of the 1st Marine Division based at Camp Pendleton, by forming a nonprofit that supports the benefit and welfare of the Marines and their families. The city’s Colonel Bill Barber Marine Corps Memorial Park was named for a Medal of Honor recipient who was also an Irvine resident, and the Northwood Gratitude and Honor Memorial, which honors all of America’s casualties from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The city of Irvine has committed to creating a Southern California Veterans Cemetery in the Orange County Great Park, with the project estimated to cost $75 million at the 125-acre site approved by the city council.
President Lyndon B. Johnson is saluted as he arrives at MCAS El Toro in 1965