Located in the former Air Terminal building at Alameda Point--formerly known as Naval Air Station (NAS) Alameda--this museum features a variety of exhibits, photographs, and archived newspapers preserving nearly a century of landmark achievements. The airfield and its accompanying facilities have hosted a stunning array of historical figures and events, including admirals and presidents, the first trans-Pacific airline, the loading of B-25 bombers for Colonel Doolittle’s famous air raid on Tokyo, and even the climactic highway chase scene from “The Matrix Reloaded” film. Though the base closed in 1997, the Naval Air Station Museum opened in its current location in 2004. Economic recession stalled further redevelopment of the former base for over a decade, but as of 2015 plans have been approved for the construction of new residential and commercial sites on the site’s 878 acres.
The tip of Alameda Island known as Alameda Point already had claim to historical significance before construction on a civilian airfield began in 1927: a pre-existing pier there had served as the western terminus for the Transcontinental Railroad. Since the early 1900s, however, several bids to gain the Navy’s attention to develop the site had failed. In 1930, the Army Corps of Engineers at last built Benton Field on the newly filled land, and by 1935 Pan-American Airlines was operating the “China Clipper,” the first airborne trans-Pacific mail and passenger service, from Alameda Point.
Rapid change seemed to be coming to the airfield in 1936, when President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration mandated a huge wave of naval construction. That June, the city of Alameda deeded the property to the U.S. Navy for the price of one dollar, and the Army departed Benton Field four months later. But funds were short: construction didn’t begin until 1938 and the minimal facilities of the base were not officially commissioned until 1 November 1940.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, however, put all bases on the West Coast on high alert--and many had to handle extra traffic due to damaged airfields at Pearl. Initial construction had provided for two carrier air groups, five seaplane squadrons, two utility squadrons, and an Assembly and Repair Department, but soon new activity was afoot: on 15 May 1942, sixteen B-25 bombers arrived at NAS Alameda with their mission commander, Colonel James Doolittle, who would soon be awarded the Medal of Honor for a daring, one-way bombing raid on the Japanese capital of Tokyo.
Multiple training schools for flight and radar-related activities were added over the course of the war, as the installation ballooned from 300 acres to 878 (over 2,800 acres when counting submerged areas surrounding the base) and it became the headquarters for a network of smaller airfields scattered around the Bay Area. In addition to ship maintenance and other activities, the NAS’s primary mission was to service aircraft from the Navy’s “flattops”--the huge aircraft carriers that had become the backbone of the Pacific War against Japan. This effort required thousands of workers, among them the new WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), who stepped into Naval Reserve roles as men were drafted into combat zones.
NAS Alameda continued in this capacity through World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and in interwar periods--particularly as support for nuclear-powered aircraft carriers of the Navy’s Pacific Fleet. After sixty years, however, the NAS’s clock had run down. The base closed in 1997 as part of a large series of post-Cold War defense cuts during the administration of President Bill Clinton. Clinton himself visited the NAS on 1 August 1993, a few months after the announcement of its impending closure, to reassure the community of a quick environmental cleanup and bright economic future. Such a future would not arrive for nearly two more decades.
The effort to preserve the NAS’s history couldn’t wait that long. Fortunately, Alameda Naval Air Station Museum founder Marilyn York led the charge, forming a team of volunteers to convert the former air terminal into a physical museum to house artifacts, archives, and more. York had a strong connection to Alameda, as she joined the Naval Reserve early in the war as a WAVE (in addition to selling over a million dollars in war bonds), and after the armistice worked on the base for thirty years as a Journeyman Aircraft Engine Mechanic. The revitalized facility opened in 2004; York passed away in 2012, only a year before the NAS was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Areas of the former base were used periodically for the popular television show “Mythbusters,” as the broad, flat pavement allowed dangerous tests to be carried out safely. In 2002, Warner Brothers filmed the climactic freeway chase for the blockbuster The Matrix Reloaded on large, looping set constructed specifically for the purpose at the location.
Today, the Museum continues to preserve the important legacy of the NAS, offering events, a rental space, children’s programs and more. Several attempts at redeveloping the rest of the huge facility fell short until 2015, when a plan was at last approved for mixed affordable housing and commercial space.