Eagle Field Museum in Dos Palos draws crowds

The Central Valley is dotted with old World War II airfields. Most of them are abandoned or plowed under, but one of the survivors is Eagle Field.
November 21, 2013 12:00:00 AM PST
The Central Valley is dotted with old World War II airfields. Most of them are abandoned or plowed under, but one of the survivors is Eagle Field.

December 7, 1941

The Japanese attack Pearl Harbor forced an unprepared America into war. American factories begin churning out a quarter of a million war plane and training bases like Eagle Field in Dos Palos , California are built in just weeks to train the pilots of those planes.

The young recruits learning to fly at this base include Robert Meltvedt, 20, of Los Angeles. That 20-year-old Cadet is now 91, a retired doctor, he's come back to the place he trained at more than 70 years ago. There's a museum here now and a replica of the plane he trained in is part of the display.

"You know, real flying is open cockpit." He said as he looked at the model of the PT 22, a two seat, open cockpit trainer.

As rare color film of Eagle Field in 1943 shows, the runways here were once lined with these planes. Meltvedt recalls the rush to train new pilots could be more dangerous than combat.

"We lost more pilots in accidental flights accidents, you might say than we did to enemy fire. That's a lot of people. You know, in training, we lost a lot of guys."

But Meltvedt came through, and went on for advanced training.

"I wanted to be a fighter pilot so I went to single engine fighters."

The plane that took him from D Day to the Battle of the Bulge was the P 47 Thunderbolt.

"2,500 horsepower engine in it which is a lot for a 20 year old you know, it would go 450 miles an hour, and it saw me through a lot of missions."

"We used to come in as low as we could and we'd try to get to 500 miles an hour so it was harder to hit."

"Did you ever lose a plane?"

"Yeah I did. I got down once in Germany, but that's another story."

After World War Two, Meltvedt had other stories. He became a test pilot and aeronautical engineer. Then he was called back to duty in Korea, where he piloted an A-26 attack bomber. After Korea he hung up his wings and went to medical school.

"I interned and took a residency in obstetrics and gynecology, and I came to Fresno and I liked it thought it was a good place to raise a family."

He's lived in Fresno for more than 50 years. Captain Bob Meltvedt is part of the history of this base. That history has been preserved thanks to the guy who owns Eagle Field. Joe Davis.

"The federal government had this place for sale and I bought it back in 1980."

For $120,000.00. Since then he and friends and volunteers from Dos Palos have renovated the hangar, created the a museum, and brought in a lot of military relics.

Anti-Aircraft guns, Howitzers, a variety of weapons, trucks, an ambulance and a couple of old planes. Combined with the decaying, but historic buildings Eagle Field looks like a movie set, and in fact it became a scene in the last Indiana Jones Movie, the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls.

"When they go to Peru they land in an airfield in Peru, and this was the airfield. They used the back of the administration building out there was the terminal building for Nazca, Peru."

Joe says Director Steven Spielberg and star Harrison Ford were here.

"This was the last scene they filmed for the movie so they had the cast party here, so all the cast was here for the party."

Eagle Field now hosts different sorts of parties, like an annual World War Two themed dinner dance, and "Fly-Ins," where owners of vintage military aircraft from all over the country converge. These events can feature B-17's B-24's, P-51's, P-47's, and just about any classic aircraft. Twice a year the old landing strip roars to life when it's turned into a classic drag strip.

But the heart of Eagle Field is its role in the history of World War II and the men like Bob Meltvedt, who put their lives on the line, and saw their colleagues fall serving their country.

"Actually we lost about 70 percent of the pilots in our unit because of low altitude dive bombing and strafing. That's what we did a lot of. Kind of risky stuff. But I was lucky, I survived."

It's estimated that among the 5,000 airmen who trained at Eagle Field only about half survived the war. At 91, Meltvedt is just one of two former cadets who trained here who can still share their stories of Eagle Field and the war.


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