Norton Air Force Base Museum in San Bernardino brings back father-son memories
One nice aspect of visiting a museum you have not been to before is that you are a newcomer.
Nothing is expected of you.
“Welcome to the Norton Air Force Base Museum,” the friendly female docent said as I entered through the double glass doors. “Is this your first time visiting?”
Nothing was expected of me, but I thought there should have been.
“No, in fact, my father was stationed here in the 60s, and I make it a habit to visit the museum to remind me of the times I came out to the base with my father as a young boy.”
I wish I could have replied to that. I could not. It was my first visit to a museum that opened in 2013 on the very base my father, George T. Beyer, served until he retired from decades serving in the United States Air Force.
“My first visit.”
Docent JoAnn explained, “We are a small boutique museum. But we are filled with a lot of memories of both the men and women who served at Norton and all those from around the world who found themselves here for a long or a short period.”
It is a small museum. One large rectangular room filled to the rafters with every sort of memorabilia a lover of military history would find enthralling.
Of course, the room did not have rafters but instead featured a drop ceiling which had been constructed when the museum concept came to fruition in 2012. Before that year, the entire building, not just the museum, had been neglected for years.
“It used to be the NCO club,” Docent Dudley stated. “I understand this place has had a lot of visitors through the years.
Docent Dudley would know. He had been a flight engineer before retiring from the Air Force and served at Norton AFB from 1973 until 1982.
I wondered momentarily if my father had straddled a stool sipping a cold one after work on a hot summer day when this was the NCO club.
The image of him swapping stories with other like-minded fellas, and grabbing a few cold beers at the bar seemed a real possibility.
It made me smile.
Docent Dudley would be my tour guide. A nice thing about a boutique museum, such as Norton, a visitor gets their very own guide.
This Docent, Dudley, was a fount of knowledge of everything Air Force to pretty much everything else.
At the end of the tour, I was so impressed with his knowledge, I asked if he knew the winning Lotto numbers for the next drawing.
“I do,” he said. “But I can’t tell you – state’s secret.”
He led me to a large display concerning Lt. Col. Kathy La Sauce.
“Have you ever heard of her?” he asked.
I was going to mention that I hadn’t but was a fan of certain bearnaise sauces, but I figured this was not a moment for fun.
“She was in the first group of female airplane pilots who graduated in 1977 from the Air Force. She eventually became the first woman aircraft commander at Norton.”
“That’s very impressive,” I replied while looking at La Sauce’s flight suit, which is on display, as well as about a billion awards earned by her.
“Not only that but she was also inducted into the Women in Aviation, International Pioneer Hall of Fame in 2016.”
This revelation called for a little more research. I soon discovered La Sauce was the first woman to pilot a C-141 Starlifter. That is one big plane, and anyone who could pilot such a beast is a stud or studette.
I have trouble with my golf cart.
I also discovered that Norton used to have flights to Antarctica.
“I guess the NCO club needed a lot of ice,” I said.
Docent Dudley just rolled his eyes. “No, we have research stations and needed to resupply the people living there.”
“The last trip was in 1992, and the base officially closed in 1994.”
There is a cheery black-and-white photo of the crew of that last flight. All were smiling ear to ear – a caption below the photo stated, ‘At last we don’t have to freeze our butts off anymore.’
I might have made that part up.
Norton Air Force Base was named after a true hero and local boy, Leland Francis Norton. He was born in 1921 in San Bernardino, and as Docent Dudley explained, Leland was a man’s man.
Handsome, athletic, and had a great sense of humor, women loved him – for a moment, I thought Docent Dudley was talking about me – but I digress.
Leland always wanted to give more than he received, and when World War II broke out, he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force. At that time, in 1941, a pilot had to have at least one year of college, Leland did not. But that was not the requirement in Canada.
In March of 1942, Leland joined the U.S Army Air Force (it was still under Army control), and due to his bright mind and knowledge of flying, he quickly moved up the ranks.
On May 27, 1944, while flying an A-20 Havoc plane – a twin-engine bomber – Captain Norton led a raid against a German railroad yard near Amiens, France. His aircraft was struck by anti-aircraft fire, and even knowing his plane was doomed, Norton kept it flying long enough for most of his crew to parachute out. As the wings and rest of the aircraft were coming apart, Norton and his bombardier finally bailed out very close to the ground, but as they landed, so did the plane not far away, and the unexploded ordinances blew up, killing Norton and the bombardier.
The base that Norton had grown up near was named after him on March 2, 1950.
Next, I was shown a Geiger counter.
“The pay load guys used it to make sure nothing being loaded up on the transport planes was radioactive.”
Many follow-up questions came to mind, but being on a military post – I probably did not have the need-to-know authority.
And now comes Docent Chuck, who joined Docent Dudley and me.
“We’d love to have a flight simulator for the kids,” Docent Chuck said. “To get the young ones interested in the Air Force and all the opportunities they offer.”
I am in complete agreement. Military service is very honorable, and I have the utmost respect for any service members.
Though my father and uncle served, I never served in the military. My mother begged me not to join after my uncle was shot down and killed during the Viet Nam era, so I became a cop instead.
But serving your community or country is a beautiful thing.
“There should be many things here for kids to enjoy,” I suggested.
“And more room,” one of the Docents mentioned.
Come on, Air Force – give us a little more room!
Docent Gail joined us and explained that it was a hit and miss in even opening the museum in the first place. There is the large March AFB Museum, but the Norton Museum seems like a poor second cousin.
“March, can we have a plane throttle?”
“No controls for you!”
I was told that the tall missile out in March once belonged to Norton. Since Norton closed, the rocket was moved over to the March location. And when the Norton museum opened in 2013, they asked to have it back.
“We’ll send a couple of fire nozzles with Norton etched in them. And you’ll be a happy little shoeless cousin.”
In all transparency, both museums get along wonderfully, but I had just to write that.
Docent Chuck told me that Amelia Earhart once landed at Norton in need of gas.
“Did they give it to her?”
He just looked at me.
“What Amelia wants; Amelia gets.” And she paid for it with an autograph; in truth, she offered money, but her little old signature was what the folks wanted.
By now, the tour was about over, and I could not tell one Docent from the other. They were beautiful, informative, and knowledgeable, but my pen had run out of ink.
I kept scribbling, never letting on.
“Did you know we had one of the Tuskegee pilots as our base commander from 1974 until 1976?”
Colonel Paul L. Green was a Redtail during World War II. He was and is a legend. An entire wall is in his honor, it should be an entire museum for his heroics and service, but the museum is small, and his history is large.
Norton AFB Museum is a must-see. That is, if the visitor is thankful for the service and sacrifice all these military stars contributed to our country.
For more information, https://www.nafbmuseum.org/
This article originally appeared on Victorville Daily Press: Air Force museum in San Bernardino brings back father-son