The Secret of Salton Sea Naval Base

Salton Sea Base Sign
Welcoming visitors to Salton Sea Base while it was run by the Sandia Corporation.

Salton Sea Naval Base is not known as one of the famous military test sites in the United states. Although it isn’t as revered as places like White Sands or Edwards AFB it is still the location of some of the most important testing during the second world war. It aided in the development of the Fat Man, the bomb that eventually ended the second world war by destroying Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. With many aerodynamic testing, and target practice for the bombers, at one point it was one of the most secret places in the United States, now it is basically a desert, with broken buildings, occasionally being found by urban explorers.

Building from the pier
A building found 100m up from the pier, showing signs of wear. Found by urban explorers recently. Credit: Saltonseawalk.

Salton Sea is a shallow saline lake located directly on the San Andreas Fault. The U.S. Navy inspected the site in January of 1940, and commissioned it as the Salton Sea Naval Auxiliary Air Station in October 1942. The base was designed as a training base for seaplanes, and was located just to the south east of Salton city. Although it only initially took claim of the northern end of the Lake, it eventually controlled part of the southern end too. Technically speaking it is a Naval Station and not a Navy Base, but most references refer to it as a Test Base.

Overhead view of Salton Sea in 1947
An overhead view of Salton Sea base in 1947.
View of Salton Sea base
Aerial view of Salton Sea boat docks, showing how remote the place is. Credit: Center for Land Use Interpretation.

Throughout the 1940’s it functioned as an active military weapons test site. Lt. Col. Paul Tibbets led the 393rd Heavy Bombardment Squadron during 1944 and 1945 through a series of classified B-29 practice flights from Wendover, Utah to the Salton Sea, where they would drop dummy atomic bombs onto a floating white raft. This was used as the testing site for the fateful atomic weapons attacks that ended the second world war for Japan. It is said that Tibbets dropped the first atomic bomb himself on Hiroshima in a plane named after his mum, Enola Gay. The prototypes were tested at Salton Sea.

instrument lab 1951
Image of the instrument lab of the Salton Sea Navy Base taken in 1951.

The crews made hundreds of practice runs over the Mojave and Salton Sea. The bombs they used were full size mock-ups, sometimes filled with concrete, other times containing everything except the nuclear part. This often meant being filled with explosives. During one Salton Sea run, an engineer dropped one of the Fat Man mock ups too soon. It narrowly missed the town of Calipatria. The bomb buried itself 3m into the ground, but luckily didn’t explode. Bulldozers rushed to the scene to erase the evidence.

UXO sign at Salton Sea
A sign warning of Unexploded Ordnance around the Salton Sea base area, with all the testing over the years it is understandable. Credit: Saltonseawalk.
Area Closed
A sign telling all visitors that the area is closed to all users.The guys who took the pictures ignored this warning though. Credit Saltonseawalk.

During the 1950’s the base was used by Sandia National Labs as a range for missile testing, with over 1,100 missile tests being conducted there. Sandia was the principal contractor for the Atomic Energy Commission after the war, and they renamed the site Salton Sea Test Base in 1946. They used the site to test weapons, space capsule parachute drops, drone airplane tests, and Nike missile launches. 150 different tests were conducted annually over a ten year period some using depleted uranium. Sandia ended operations in 1961 when they moved to a new remote site. The main reason for moving was a fight with rising waters of the lake.

Building A1
Located a few hundred meters into the base, Building A1 is one of the more interesting surviving buildings, you can see that it has not been looked after. Credit: Saltonseawalk.
Building A1
The building marked A1, one of the only buildings still standing. On top an Alaska Pedestal, used to hold tracking equipment for missiles. Credit: Saltonseawalk.

During the 1960’s it was mainly abandoned, and in the 1970’s it was occasionally used for live munitions practice.  Most buildings suffered substantial damage. The site was listed as inactive in 1986, but the facility found renewed life as a site for Gulf War training maneuvers during the 1990’s. As most of the original buildings were destroyed, the base was decommissioned and turned over the the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in the mid-1990’s. The Site was used during the early 2000’s as a research site for salinity control. There are no plaques or monuments to the achievements of Salton Sea, and the parts it played in winning the second world war, and very little online about it.

Pier at Salton Sea
A great picture of what used to be the pier at Salton Sea base. Credit: Saltonseawalk.

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