A 19-year-old farm boy from Perry, Okla., Westfahl was sent with thousands of other young men by the Army Air Corps to Minter Field, just east of Shafter, Calif., to learn how to fly fighter planes and bombers during World War II.
“It was enjoyable to be there as a cadet,” the 85-year-old Westfahl recalled during a recent interview. “We were treated well. The food was excellent. Honey, butter and a case of milk were always on the table. The mess sergeant would save the best steaks and he would put on a banquet at the end of training.
“They demanded discipline, but they were more interested in getting us to be pilots than in changing us. It was a good group of guys who had a lot of fun flying.”
Minter Field also was where Westfahl met his wife of 55 years, the former Lee Becker of Bakersfield, which is just south of Shafter. Westfahl and Becker met during a Junior Women’s League dance for cadets in 1944. Becker worked in a medical office on the base. The young cadet was just passing through.
Westfahl spent 10 weeks of his 40-week aviation training course at Minter Field, the Army Air Corps’ largest “basic training” base on the West Coast. After leaving Minter Field, he went on to advance training at bases in Texas, South Carolina, Georgia and Oklahoma.
But that dance in the “rec hall” sparked a romance kept alive through letters. “I still have letters I won’t let anyone see,” Westfahl confessed with a sly chuckle.
The couple married in June 1944 and Lee followed her husband from camp to camp until he was sent overseas a year later. From a base in India, Westfahl flew weather reconnaissance flights to support pilots navigating the dangerous “Hump,” a death-defying route over the Himalayas used to supply Chinese troops fighting the Japanese.
At the war’s end, Westfahl came “home” to Bakersfield, where his bride and a young son he had never seen were waiting for him. He was hired by a local refinery and worked his way up to assistant manager, before moving to Sunland Refinery, where he wound up a 40-year career as its manager.
The couple raised three children – Donald Jr., the oldest, who teaches English in Saudi Arabia; Patricia, a travel agent in Torrance; and Michael, who lives in Bakersfield and is retired from an oil equipment sales career. Westfahl’s bride died 10 years ago.
About six months after retiring from his refinery post, Westfahl said he “got nervous.” He went back to work as a part-time plumbing and electrical salesman at a Lumberjack home improvement store until it closed a few years ago.
In 1999, a man Westfahl knew from his refinery days came into the store. Talk bounced around various topics and somehow Westfahl mentioned he had been stationed at Minter Field during the war. The man he was talking to was a volunteer at the Minter Field Air Museum.
“I didn’t even know there was a museum,” Westfahl recalled. That was 10 years ago. Not only was Westfahl recruited as a volunteer, he became the “go-to guy” when people want to tour the old base, and learn about its war memorabilia, restored aircraft and various World War II-era military vehicles.
Westfahl is the museum’s only docent who actually served at the base. His first-hand knowledge is treasured by volunteers and visitors.
“Most of the board members can give a good tour, but only he can tell you where the buildings were on the field. He can point out the ready room,” said Dean Craun, a retired television marketing executive, who volunteers as the museum’s public relations contact.
“You never know who will pop through the doors,” said Craun, explaining museum visitors include local residents and those from far away.
“A few years ago, we were contacted by a guy who had been adopted. He wanted to learn more about his father and knew he had been based at Minter Field,” said Craun. Volunteers sorted through documents, including past issues of the base newspaper, the Echelon. They found a photo of the man’s father, had it enlarged and sent it to him. The man later visited Minter Field. “He was quite moved by the experience.”
“Not long ago, a couple of guys from England had been visiting military museums in the Bay Area and then driving to Arizona. They pulled off the highway to see the Minter Field Air Museum,” said Craun.
“It is important to preserve Minter Field,” said Craun, noting that more than 11,000 pilots were trained at the base during World War II.
It was named after Lt. Hugh C. Minter, a member of a locally prominent family and World War I pilot. Minter, the commander of the 73rd Pursuit Squadron at March Field in Southern California, died in a mid-air collision in 1932 over that base.
In historical documents, Minter Field is described as a “city within a city,” with about 7,000 personnel at any given time. The primary training aircraft at the base was the BT-13 Consolidated Vultee Valiant, affectionately known as the “Vultee Vibrator” because it shook during certain maneuvers.
“The museum honors the Greatest Generation – people who put it on the line for their country in the 40s,” said Craun. “The military is downplayed in schools. There isn’t much taught about World War II, Korea or Vietnam.”
Craun is putting together a video library commemorating the generation at the museum. So far, he has assembled more than 900 hours of World War II videos. A library of Minter Field and World War II records also is being archived in what was once the base’s original fire station.
The museum is a non-profit organization dependent on fundraising and donations. Major events conducted by the museum include a February founder’s day banquet, a spring Warbirds air show and an October military vehicle show.
The museum is open to the public and for touring on Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. By special arrangement, tours at other times can be arranged. Call 654-9159 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
The museum is located 12 miles north of Bakersfield at 401 Vultee St., Shafter, Calif.Exit Highway 99 at Lerdo Highway and drive west. Admission is free.
This article written by DIANNE HARDISTY first appeared in The Bakersfield Californian on Sunday, Jan. 17, 2010. You can see more articles written by Dianne Hardisty by going to www.svs2help.com
ABOUT MINTER FIELD
Dedicated Feb. 7, 1942
Named after Lt. Hugh C. Minter, a member of a locally prominent family and World War I pilot who died in a mid-air collision in 1932 over March Field
The largest Army Air Corps base during World War II on the West Coast for “basic” air cadet training
More than 11,000 combat pilots were trained at Minter Field
Minter Field Air Museum is located at 401 Vultee St., Shafter. Exit Highway 99 at Lerdo Highway and drive west. Admission is free.
Museum is open Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tours at other times can be arranged by calling 654-9159 or e-mail email@example.com.
Go to www.minterfieldairmuseum.com for more information.