“The Navy had just opened Chase Field and you really couldn’t call it a naval air station,” recalled Jones, who went on to fight in the Philippines as a rear gunner. “There was only two barracks for men, one barracks for the women and one hangar.”
Jones was among some 100 former naval personnel stationed at Chase Field who attended a reunion at the long-abandoned military installation last weekend.
Civil employees who worked at the base also were invited to attend the first-ever “All Hands” reunion.
“It was a great reunion,” said Mark Webb, who was stationed at Chase Field as an enlisted man between 1967 and 1969. “We shared a lot of memories and reunited with some good friends. It couldn’t have gone better.”
Webb, who couldn’t wait to “see Chase Field in his rearview mirror” when he was discharged in 1969, helped organize the reunion.
“I wanted to see a show of hands of everybody here who as little as a year ago would have bet good money they’d never be standing here again, and all of them raised their hands,” said Webb, who now lives in California.
Webb served as a flight simulator instructor at Chase Field: “What we’ve come away with here is that while you may have been here at the same time or at a different time, there’s a common denominator and that’s the bond of having served at Chase Field.”
Steve Shanker of Rochester N.Y., helped Webb get the reunion off the ground.
“Just walking around here makes me feel like I’m back home,” he said. “I have a lot of wonderful memories of this place.”
Shanker served as a plane captain at Chase. Plane captains prepped airplanes for flight, filling them with fuel, checking their tires and flight surfaces.
He shared one of his stories with his fellow veterans. While stationed at Chase between 1967 and 1970, a hotshot jet pilot insisted on tagging along with a helicopter crew on a training flight.
After lifting off and hovering about 10 feet off the ground, the helicopter dipped its nose to gain altitude and speed, Shanker recalled.
“This hotshot j.g. was sitting in the front seat and when that helicopter’s nose dipped down, he was looking straight down at the ground, and he went white. I was sitting behind him and I heard a loud ripping sound. This (junior grade lieutenant) had reached above his head and yanked down on the handle of the first aid kit attached to the wall behind him. He must of thought it was the ejection handles on his jet,” Shanker recalled with a laugh.
“He never lived that down.”
Vietnam veteran Frank Gonzalez of Beeville, who is commander of VFW Post 9170, also helped organize the reunion.
“Everybody seems to be having a good time,” he said. “We should have done this long ago.”
Gonzalez arrived at Chase Field in 1974 and served as a plane captain.
He was working at the auxiliary air field in Goliad County when it was shut down.
He was working at Chase Field in the early ‘90s when it too was closed by the military.
“You were stationed in Goliad?” Pat Klinker asked Gonzalez. “Yes, yes, I remember you now. I was your commander.”
Klinker, of Louisville, Ky., served as a wing operations officer at Chase Field from 1986 to 1988 and as base operating officer from 1990-1992 when the naval air station was shuttered.
“This place brings back a lot of memories,” he said as he looked across the tarmac at the long-closed operations building and control tower. “It’s very emotional. It feels like I’m on an emotional journey back home.”
Rear Adm. Mark Guadagnini told the former veterans and civilian personnel that he wished the Navy could return to chase.
“We should have Navy jets flying over Chase Field again,” he told the crowd.
Guadagnini said Chase Field is an ideal practice field for Navy fighter pilots.
“Chase Field is in an ideal location and Beeville has always, always been Navy-friendly,” said Guadagnini, who took a flight above the former naval air field in an WWII vintage fighter plane at the conclusion of the reunion on Saturday night.
“One of the best memories I have of Chase Field: the people of Beeville,” he said. “The people of Beeville always made the Navy feel welcome. That’s not always the case in other communities.”
Don “Bull” Worker, the last executive officer at Chase Field, took a flight on a rebuilt Japanese “Kate” torpedo plane.
“This (reunion) has really been a hoot,” he said.
Former Vietnam prisoner of war Richard “Dick” Stratton, also attended the reunion.
He earned his wings at Chase Field in 1957. He returned to Chase Field years later to teach young pilots.
“I kept trying to leave but they wouldn’t let me go,” said Stratton, whose plane was shot down over Vietnam and who spent five years as a prisoner in the infamous Hanoi Hilton.
During a barbecue supper, Stratton sang a few bars from the song, “Please release me, let me go.”