History of El Toro
The Founding of MCAS El Toro
After the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, national attention was on military readiness on the West Coast of the United States. Marine Corps Air Station El Toro was one of several military training areas established for training and equipping America’s military shortly after America’s entry into World War II. MCAS El Toro was established on a tract of land which had been owned by James Irvine, 40 miles south of Los Angeles. When the Navy surveyed the site in 1928, Irvine was reluctant to sell the most productive bean fields on his ranch. But in 1942, El Toro, which had been little more than a small farming community for nearly a century, was transformed into what would become one of the most consequential Marine air stations of the 20th century.
An early 1940s aerial view looking at El Toro's main entrance, with the control tower visible in the background (courtesy of Rex Ricks).
In May 1942, LtCol William Fox selected the land for the site of a Marine Corps Air Station. The Irvine Company sold two parcels of land comprising 4,000 acres for $100,000 for the construction of MCAS El Toro and Naval Air Station Santa Anna. Without infrastructure yet in place, the first 30 Marines to arrive were fed by the ranch’s chuck wagons. The station was commissioned on March 17, 1943, as F4F Wildcat fighters and SBD Dauntless dive-bombers made the first official flyover. Walt Disney designed the station’s insignia – a flying bull with the Marine Corps’ Eagle Globe and Anchor on its shoulder.
“El Toro (Navy)”, as depicted on the August 1943 San Diego Sectional Chart.
Early Operational History
During World War II, MCAS El Toro served as a training station for pilots and crews, providing timely reinforcements for the war in the Pacific theater. It became a launching point for Marines bound for the Pacific, and a debarkation point for Marines returning home. In 1943, Marines returning from the fight at Guadalcanal arrived at El Toro for reorganization, re-equipping, and training.
A 1949 photo of F4U Corsairs at MCAS El Toro.
In 1950 MCAS El Toro was selected for development as a Master Jet Base and the permanent center of Marine aviation on the West Coast of the United States. Its mission was to support the operations and combat readiness of Fleet Marine Forces. In 1955 the Third Marine Aircraft Wing relocated to El Toro from Miami, Florida; and after 1971, elements of the Fourth Marine Aircraft Wing (Marine Forces Reserve) conducted reserve training operations at El Toro. The station’s activities were an important component of the U.S. strategy for the Korean, Vietnam, and Gulf Wars.
Showcasing Marine Corps Aviation
During its operational history, MCAS El Toro became a showcase for Marine Corps aviation and reserve operations and was designated as one of 15 Department of Defense Model Installations. In 1985 and again in 1986, the station was awarded the Commander in Chief's Installation Excellence Award for its efforts in improving the quality of life aboard the station. MCAS El Toro remains the only installation that has received this award twice.
El Toro was the largest of five Marine Corps Air Stations on the West Coast, covering approximately 4,700 acres. The air station brought people and employment to Orange County, who had a front-row seat to decades of innovations in Marine Corps aviation. From the end of World War II to the station’s decommissioning, every U.S. President landed at MCAS El Toro in Air Force One–Richard Nixon frequently traveled to his “Western White House” at San Clemente via MCAS El Toro.
The Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum was established aboard MCAS El Toro in 1989, as a tribute to the history and legacy of Marine Corps aviation. It is the only museum in the world dedicated exclusively to telling the stories of Marine Corps aviation. In 1994 the Flying Leatherneck Historical Foundation was formed to support the Museum.
A 1994 USGS aerial view looking north at the massive El Toro airfield.
In 1993, the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission completed its deliberations and votes for base closures. The most significant item for the Marine Corps was the decommissioning of Marine Corps Air Station El Toro. The station was permanently closed in 1999, and the Marines moved to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego. The Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum was also moved piece by piece to MCAS Miramar. The project was led by retired Marine Corps Major Generals Bob Butcher and Frank Lang.
A 10/12/98 photo by George Trussell of a Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15bis of the Flying Leatherneck Museum in front of an MCAS El Toro hangar.
Flying Leatherneck Museum Closure and Relocation
In 2021, MCAS Miramar announced it was no longer able to host the Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum. The Flying Leatherneck Historical Foundation carries on the mission to preserve and share the legacy of Marine aviation by working to relocate the Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum to its original home at the former MCAS El Toro, which is now Great Park, Irvine, California.
The Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum has grown to a collection of more than 40 aircraft and many related artifacts, representing more than eight decades of Marine Corps aviation, from World War II to present. The stories of Marine Corps aviation are not only cherished by Marines, but they teach and inspire all generations.
A 9/27/20 panoramic drone aerial picture by Andy Gulley, looking east at the remains of the El Toro hangars, ramps, and runways.
From the first daring Marines to climb into a flying machine, to those who trekked into a dusty ranch at the base of the Saddleback Mountains and established an air station to fight tyranny overseas, to the men and women who sacrificed for freedoms enjoyed today, to the volunteers who gave decades of service to present this Museum to the public and those who are working to save it today, the stories of Marine Corps aviation continue to inspire.
We invite you to join us as part of that legacy.