Vets urge roundabout marker for Gen. Arnold

The Sonoma Valley veterans’ community is rallying around the idea of placing a memorial marker honoring Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold inside the traffic roundabout currently being built at the Arnold Drive and Agua Caliente Road intersection.

“One hundred years from now, we want people to know who Arnold Drive was named for,” said retired Marine Capt. Robert Leonard, who is leading the effort. It might also be nice if more people living in the Valley today knew about the namesake of Arnold Drive, Leonard suggested.

Arnold was the leader of the Army Air Corps during World War II and was one of only nine men to achieve permanent five-star rank in the U.S. military.

After retiring from active duty in 1945, he and his wife, Bee, moved to Sonoma Valley. It was while living here at their El Rancho Feliz that Arnold implemented his vision of creating the U.S. Air Force as a separate branch of the service. When President Harry Truman created the U.S. Air Force in 1947, Arnold was given the rank of five-star general of the Air Force, replacing his earlier rank of five-star general of the Army, making him the first, last and only airman to hold that rank, and the only person to serve as a five-star general in both the Army and the Air Force.

Letters requesting the marker in his honor were sent recently to 1st District Supervisor Susan Gorin. Her office has acknowledged receiving the letters, and said she will discuss the suggestion with the county Department of Public Works, which is overseeing the project. The current landscape plan being considered for the center of the roundabout was designed by Hanna Boys Center, and would complement the landscaping on its property, which is adjacent to the roundabout.

The letters to Gorin were sent by Gary Magnani, commander of the American Legion Jack London Post, and retired USAF Lt. Col. James Poore, the Sonoma representative of the Military Officers Association of America. The letters suggest that a circle of five stars be placed flat inside the roundabout facing skywards. It would be visible from the air and would be a landmark to flyers, serving as a reminder of Arnold’s contributions to the military and his time in Sonoma.

The Arnold’s El Rancho Feliz, meaning the happy ranch, a play on the general’s internationally known nickname “Hap” because of his great sense of humor, was about 400 yards north of the roundabout. The property is no longer in the family, but the general’s grandson, Robert Arnold, has lived in the Valley for 25 years and has many wonderful memories of visiting his grandmother at the ranch. Arnold died of a heart attack on the property in 1950, and his wife stayed on there until her death in 1978.

“In the old days, people knew who he was,” Robert Arnold said, “But that’s fading now.” Outside of the veterans community and a few old timers, he believes most people have no idea who Arnold Drive was named after. When he read about the roundabout, it occurred to him that a marker would be a great idea. “It would make people ask, ‘What’s that about?’ and create some curiosity.” He said the general’s house used to be visible from the air and was used as a marker.

“This would be in the middle of the road, it would be high contrast, it’s a nice idea,” Arnold said. So he talked to some vets in the community, asking them, “Here’s an idea, what do you think?” And so the movement started and Gorin was approached. “If everybody thinks it’s a great idea, great. And if not that’s OK too,” Arnold said. He added that he and his family are forever proud and appreciative that Arnold Drive and Arnold Field are named after his grandfather.

Letter writer Poore, who spent 25 years in the Air Force, adamantly backs the idea. “The Air Force as it is today would never exist without Gen. Arnold. For that reason, I am proud to have sent the letter,” he said. He believes there is a very high probability that the marker will come to be. Asked who would pay for it, he added, “I think there are a lot of people who would be willing to contribute. Most of the vets organizations will look into it and we could approach the Air Force as well,” he said.

Arnold Drive stretches the length of the Valley from Sears Point to Glen Ellen. It was previously called Grand Avenue, and was renamed Arnold Drive in 1950 after the general’s death. El Rancho Feliz is on Arnold Drive, just north of Hanna Boys Center.

Arnold was a pioneer in aviation who was originally taught to fly by the Wright Brothers in 1911. A graduate of West Point, he studied the science and technology of flying and is credited with advances in the military aircraft of his day. Many historians have referred to him as the father of the Air Force.