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Half Moon Bay-San Mateo County Airport
June 09, 2014, 05:00 AM By Darold Fredricks

Image courtesy of the San Mateo County History Museum
When SFO is fogged in, HMB airport is pressed into service for landing,

The coast of San Mateo County south of Montara Mountain has a nice, quiet stretches of sandy beaches that goes on for miles. On sunny days, it attracts cars by the thousands full of parents and kids who want a few hours in the sun to play on the beach.

It can be quite idyllic.

Panic swept the Pacific Coast, however, after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. Most of the U.S. naval fleet of ships were caught lying in the harbor and were destroyed or damaged by the Japanese bombers on a fateful Sunday in 1941. Immediately, rumors of an invasion of the West Coast abounded and the U.S. military leaders rushed to defend and protect the wide open spaces the coast offered the Japanese. Thirty-seven coastal defense guns were installed at the Bay entrance and 10 batteries of guns and a power plant were installed along Montara/Half Moon Bay area along with observation bunkers to direct the fire of these guns. Pillar Point had searchlights set up around the area and four mobile 155-millimeter guns near Princeton presented a formidable defense.

The beaches by Montara, Moss Beach, Princeton-by-the Sea and Half Moon Bay were immediately declared off limits to any foreign born in the area and round-the clock patrols were set up to secure the area. A secret base was established along the coast and a anti-aircraft gunnery school was built in Montara. Forty permanent buildings were constructed along the coast where more than 3,000 personnel and 140 officers were stationed at the peak of its activity. Anti-aircraft guns and 50-caliber machine guns were mounted at numerous sites along the coast where personnel could train in their use against any invader. Concrete bunkers were built and 60-inch 8 million-candlepower search lights were installed at strategic places. One of the observation stations can be seen along the highway, just south of Montara Mountain, exposed from the surrounding mountain when an attempt was made to build a restaurant on the site. The lack of water and getting permits for the restaurant caused the owner to abandon his efforts to present one of the most unique restaurants along the coast.

The fear of an invasion instilled in the hearts of the populace in San Mateo County was not unfounded. A Japanese submarine was detected off of the Farallon Islands and a Standard Oil tanker and a Japanese submarine exchanged fire off of Half Moon Bay. Off of the Oregon coast, a Japanese airplane terrified Oregon when it dropped flares that started fires. The threat of a Japanese invasion was a real fear for many years.

In Half Moon Bay, a house at Kelly and Main streets was acquired for the Coast Guard personnel as well as a house at Pigeon Point where observations could be made of the area. A corral and barn was acquired at 625 Purisima St. where horses were kept for patrolling the beaches.

The Navy and the Army needed better surveillance methods than men riding horses along the beach and a request for air support was submitted. Just north of Princeton, in 1943, a small airport (named Moss Beach Airport originally and later changed to Half Moon Bay-San Mateo County Airport) was built to accommodate Navy PBY patrol planes. A group of WASPs (Women’s Airforce Service Pilots) was established and they flew PQ14s to give antiaircraft gunners practical experience shooting at targets pulled by these planes. The Montara base was “disestablished” in 1946. The Pillar Point installations were removed and the Air Force uses the site for tracking missiles along the Pacific Coast.

San Mateo County took over the airport in 1950 and appointed Frank Sylvestri as manager of the airport. He served for 29 years in this position. Sylvestri was familiar with the Bay Area as he had trained many pilots for World War II at different bases. While at the Half Moon Bay Airport, he continued teaching pilots and did crop dusting when needed.

The main motivation behind the county purchasing the airport near Princeton was to provide an alternative airport for planes to land in case of fog or inclement weather at San Francisco International Airport on the Bay. This alternative airport was needed a number of times, especially in 1957 when fog closed SFO. Manager Frank Sylvestri had to direct more than 34 planes to land at that time. After landing, the passengers were bused back to SFO or San Francisco.

Rediscovering the Peninsula by Darold Fredricks appears in the Monday edition of the Daily Journal.



Tags: coast, airport, along, japanese, montara, county,

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