Museum champions China Lake culture

As the Navy’s local installation turns 75, stewards of that legacy celebrate 25th

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Museum champions China Lake cultureThe F-11 Super Tiger — one of only two made, and the last remaining — stands outside Phase I of the China Lake Museum relocation project. — Photo by Laura Austin

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An F-11 Super Tiger, sitting outside the U.S. Naval Museum of Armament and Technology’s new community-side location, is the only one in the world. Ironically, that’s how members of the China Lake Museum Foundation feel about the significance of the base whose culture they are committed to sustaining.

“This museum is not only to preserve China Lake’s history, and to tell of our contributions to the warfighter and national security, but also to document the way we do things,” said Scott O’Neil, former executive director of Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division, who addressed attendees at the museum’s grand reopening on March 16.

That way of doing things began as an early government partnership between military and civilian scientists and engineers, established in 1943 for the purpose of protecting our country’s tenuous future during the throes of World War II.

“The public needs to know how China Lake contributed to the defense and safety of our nation,” said CLMF President Laura Hickle.

The overall mission of the foundation directly correlates to this year’s observance of China Lake’s 75th anniversary — which will be marked by several celebrations scheduled throughout the year, starting with Community Day on April 28. (See related story, this edition).

China Lake began its mission by aiding in the development of rockets and, although it was not widely known at the time, the top secret Manhattan Project that resulted in the atomic bomb.

Hickle said that by the time the Vietnam War came around, “it was evident that tactical targets and related weaponry that had been developed earlier were not up to doing the job in this new environment.”

Jack Latimer, the CLMF historian, summed it up by noting, “You can’t shoot down an enemy aircraft with a rocket.”

Until the revolutionary heat-seeking Sidewinder was developed, that is. Thanks to the pioneers at China Lake, it is estimated that two-thirds of the weapons used in Vietnam were developed locally.

That culture prevails today, with uniformed and civilian leadership in the highest levels of government continuing to tour — and add praise to — the Navy’s ongoing mission at China Lake.

As civilian housing, commercial endeavors and cultural facilities shifted off base, so did the Maturango Museum — which formerly housed exhibits celebrating local achievements in defense.

“When Maturango moved off the base they took the natural science materials and a Sidewinder missile, and left the rest of the materials behind,” said Hickle.

A group of China Lakers suggested taking over the by-then-vacant Officer’s Club to set up new museum. After many hurdles and delays, the group successfully launched the museum in that location. But after just two years, it would be disestablished and defunded as a result of budget cuts.

Supporters continued to raise money and volunteer to keep the installation open.

But post-9-11 increases in security contributed to annual visitors dropping from 20,000 to 7,000 annually.

So the foundation shifted its focus to opening up a “community-side” location. The group secured a parcel on county land adjacent to the Maturango Museum, as well as a $250,000 grant to match more than $100,000 in founders’ pledges, to open Phase I of the new building last month.

CLMF continues to raise money toward Phase II — which will expand its footprint of indoor and outdoor exhibit space, as well as the number of assets on display.

To that end, the organization’s 18th annual dinner-auction will be held May 19. (Watch future editions for more details.)

Hickle noted that in addition to their participation at Community Day, CLMF is also involved in bringing the moving Vietnam Wall here this summer, and scheduling a speaker series to spotlight the people behind China Lake’s groundbreaking achievements.

A gala dinner is also being planned for the fall, potentially at the original site of Naval Ordnance Test Station.

The China Lake Museum is located at 130 E. Las Flores Blvd., and open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

“The community can support the museum by visiting, becoming a member, telling others about the museum, attending the lecture series and other special events, donating and becoming a capital founder to help move us ahead on Phase II of building plans,” said Hickle.

For details call 760-677-2866.

Story First Published: 2018-04-06