Brigadier General Robert F. Travis ... 1904-1950
Brigadier General Robert F. Travis’ untimely death in a tragic crash of a B-29 on August 5, 1950, cut short a brilliant military career that had begun with his graduation from West Point in June 1928. An accomplished military aviation engineer and command pilot. Travis saw action in World War II as commander of the 41st Combat Wing in England. He personally led his men in 35 combat missions over Nazi-occupied Europe. The decorations that he received included the Distinguished Flying Cross with three oak leaf clusters, the Air Medal with three clusters, the French Croix de Guerre with palm, the Legion d’Honneur, and the Purple Heart.
Brigadier General Robert F. Travis
Son of a prominent military family (his father was an Army general), Travis was born in Georgian 1904. He assumed his first command at Hickam Field, Honolulu in June 1939 as commander ofthe72M Bombardment Squadron. He received his brigadier general’s star in September 1944 after assuming command of the 41st Combat Wing in Europe. He was then reassigned to Hickam, this time as Commanding General, Pacific Air Command. His brilliant wartime bombing record and rapid rise in rank made him an obvious choice to supervise the Strategic Air Command’s development of Fairfield-Suisun AFB in 1949. Attaining command of both SAC wings at the base granted him an additional distinction during his tenure there.
Brigadier General Travis’ popularity and the effect of his death in such a terrible accident led local civilian leaders and base officials alike to propose renaming the base in his honor. Their proposal was favorably received in Washington and on October 20, 1950, Fairfield-Suisun AFB became Travis AFB. California Governor Earl Warren presided over the formal dedication ceremonies, which many dignitaries and members of the Travis family attended, on April 20, 1951.
The Crash of the B-29 on Travis AFB, CA
August 5, 1950
On August 5th, 1950, Communist troops came across the Naktong River to southwest and northwest of Taegu on the Korean peninsula. They begun filtering troops to the rear of American lines, forming a tense political situation. The perimeter around Pusan was forming. The increasing hostilities, and the North Koreans numeric superiority left few options for the United Nations and American ground forces. But, on that day, a Mark IV nuclear bomb was dispatched to the eastern Pacific. It would travel in two parts. One part, the dense uranium core, and the other, the high explosive outer casing, would each be carried to the area via separate aircraft, routes, and times. A B-29 bomber left Fairfield-Suisun Air Force Base on August 5th, 1950, carrying the high-explosive portion of the Mark IV. ... About twenty minutes after the crash occurred, the high explosives in the bomb casing ignited. The blast, felt and heard over 30 miles away, caused severe damage to the nearby trailer park on base.
Travis Crash Exhibit
The explosion was heard many miles away
Late in the evening of 5 August 1950 the lead plane of a fifteen-plane flight of B-29s lost control of an engine during take off from the Fairfield-Suisun Air Force Base. The heavily loaded airplane lost a second engine while attempting to return to the runway. An electrical power failure added to the airplane’s difficulties but the pilot, Captain Eugene Steffes, was able to set the aircraft down in a controlled sliding crash that saved the lives of several crew-members.
As the aircraft slid forward it spun to the side and broke apart just forward of the bomb bay so the cockpit area became separated from the rest of the airplane. This allowed rescuers a chance to remove crew members from the forward part of the airplane. Brig. General Travis was one of several crew members rescued alive from the cockpit area but he died from crash related injuries enroute to the hospital. Captain Steffes, the pilot, crawled out the pilot’s window and fell to the ground. He was rescued by members of the 9th Food Service Group who were working near the crash site.
The rest of the aircraft was loaded with fuel and caught fire before rescuers could save any of the ten people from the rear of the airplane. As the fire burned, the 5000 pounds of high explosive inside the Mark IV atomic weapon became overheated and exploded. This explosion was very powerful and was heard many miles away. Several people were killed by the blast and others suffered from loss of hearing and other injuries. The explosion also scattered wreckage over a wide area.
Travis Crash Damage
At the time of the crash the people of the United States were in turmoil about “atomic spies” stealing U.S. Government secrets and giving them to the Russians. Fear of the Communist successes in Europe and Asia was pervasive and there was a nationwide consensus to hide military information from “Communist spies.” In this social climate people were willing to close ranks behind official stories claiming that the mission was “a routine training flight” even though the local press and most of the community knew there was much more to the story. Civic leaders stood squarely behind the tragic training mission story as they openly campaigned for the base to be renamed for General Travis. Many notables including the California Governor Earl Warren attended the dedication ceremony. Interest in the incident gradually faded away and newcomers to the community seldom heard of the crash. The rapid growth of Solono County insured that what had been a well-known incident within the community became a forgotten footnote of the cold war.
Complete coverage of the Travis Crash Exhibit is found in an article written by Jim Houk in the October 1999 Travis Air Museum News. This was a special edition which was devoted to the Travis Crash Exhibit.
Another story about the Travis Crash from the Spring 2005 Travis Air Museum News:
The Crash of General Travis: The Virginia Esh Story
- By Sandra Miarecki
Here's the story of Virginia Esh who witnessed the crash of General Travis’ B-29 in August 1950. I met Virginia while selling air show coins at the BX in June, 2000. She saw the General Travis face on a coin and said he was a very nice man. I asked her some questions and found out she knew him and was on the base at the time of the crash. I later called her to get her story.
Virginia moved to this area in 1943 when her parents relocated. She went to Armijo High School and then worked for the telephone company doing the billing for the people who lived at Fairfield-Suisun Airfield. She met her future husband Bobby Chase through her telephone dealings. They were married and lived in base housing, which at that time was located directly beneath the eucalyptus trees in today's Eucalyptus Park. Her husband ran Base Operations at the time, and the base was busy with folks returning from the Pacific after World War II ended.
On the day of the crash, she was at home having a late dinner with her husband. He got a phone call that there were some B-29s preparing to take off, and he left to go launch them. Virginia was recovering from polio at the time and was in a back brace. The planes took off, and Bobby returned home. A little while later, Virginia heard aircraft engines and mentioned it to Bobby. He said all the planes had left, but then a very low flying aircraft flew over their house. It was a very cold and foggy day in August, and she said she thought the plane was trying to find the runway to land. Her husband grabbed her and they both hit the floor. The second time around, the plane struck the tops of the eucalyptus trees and crashed just south of today's Family Camp Ground. There were some folks at the bakery not too far away, and they were the ones who ran over to help, pulling people out of the plane. Because of the fire, oxygen bottles were shooting out of the aircraft and flying in the air, striking the roof of a nearby house. It was some time later that General Travis died from his injuries.
She remembers General Travis well. He and his wife were good friends of theirs. In fact, General Travis loved to build model airplanes and used the Chase's spare bedroom as his workshop. She said he was a sweet man, and the base was very sad when he died.
At the time of the crash, the people at the base were trying to think of a new name for the base because it was hard to say Fairfield-Suisun. The city council members didn't like that idea, but when General Travis was killed, it seemed a perfect way to honor him and find an easier name. This helps explain why the renaming went so quickly.
Ironically, Virginia’s current house in Vacaville was directly under the flight path of a C-5 when it made a flyby for a special occasion over the baseball stadium in Vacaville. When she heard and saw the plane, which was flying quite low, it immediately brought back memories of the crash of the B-29. However, with her vast experience with aircraft during her husband's Air Force career, she soon realized that the plane was merely flying low, so she was not among those who called in to report a crashing C-5!
The following photographic collage is available for download as a PDF document.
Click on the image or click here to download.