Editor’s note: First in a three-part series
John Decker flipped through a large white binder inside his Merced home on a recent afternoon, each page revealing the photo of an airplane the 94-year-old flew during nearly three decades in the Air Force.
But the KC-135 – the “Cadillac of airplanes,” as he calls it – was by far his favorite. He wore a hat with a KC-135 emblem as he thumbed through the binder. His 93-year-old wife sat nearby, listening to her husband reminisce about flying 46 different aircraft all over the world – and his favorite plane to Guam and Japan.
“That plane had everything you needed at the time,” Decker said of the KC-135. “In a B-52, it gets crowded, but this was the Cadillac.”
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Decker, a retired lieutenant colonel, spent 28 years of his life in the Air Force – 10 of those stationed at Castle Air Force Base until he retired in 1969.
When Castle’s closure was announced in 1991, the news was sad for Decker, but it was devastating for Merced County. Castle’s demise sent a shudder through the portion of the Merced County community whose identity was wrapped in the sprawling military base.
“We were sad to see it go because it was more or less our life,” Decker said. “All the places I knew were gone. A lot of the buildings have been demolished or used for different purposes. It feels lonely when I go out there because it’s all civilian now – no military.”
Once home to the Air Force’s B-52 program, the base was named Castle Army Air Field in 1946 to honor Brig. Gen. Frederick Castle, who had been killed in action two years earlier. The base defined Atwater as a military community by employing 6,000 military and civilian personnel, pouring an estimated $105 million in retail sales into the local economy.
“When Castle closed in 1995, there was a huge economic impact to the area because the Air Force personnel spent a lot of money in the area,” said Sarah Lim, museum director for the Merced County Courthouse Museum. “Castle was really an integral part of the community from an economic and cultural standpoint.”
Joe Pruzzo, chief executive officer of the Castle Air Museum, said the base was part of the social fabric of the area.
“It was commonplace to be in Merced or Atwater and see people getting off work that were in their uniforms and flight suits,” he said. “The base personnel were involved in community activities, church groups and benefits to raise funds for causes.”
The fallout from the base’s closure impacted everything from businesses to the real estate market and schools, according to Pruzzo.
“All of a sudden this bustling economic engine was gone. About 6,000 people were gone,” he recalled. “The area really did not recover for many years – we still suffer some effects from the loss of Castle.”
A question posted on the Merced Sun-Star’s Facebook page asked residents to share their Castle memories.
Joshua Mock said the base was an economic engine for Merced County.
“Castle AFB brought money to us. Ever since they let it go, we’ve been in an economic slump,” Mock posted. “It was also nice to have soldiers in the area. They set a higher standard for people to achieve.”
For Decker, Castle was home. And it was the place where he made lifelong friends, many of whom he continues to see today.
“We used to have quarterly parties with different people at the base and get coffee,” Decker said. “Eighteen of us would meet for coffee, then it got down to 10 or four or five. As time went on, we lost people.”
Decker glanced at the model of a KC-135 sitting on a shelf in his living room, a distant look in his eye.
“But Castle will always be a part of Merced County,” he said.
COMING MONDAY: Castle’s present – how Castle has fared since the Air Force base closure, the current businesses that call Castle home and the challenges to redevelopment.