There is no monument in the Sonoma Valley to Henry Harley “Hap” Arnold, the double-five-star general who fathered the U.S. Air Force and began an all-too-brief retirement on a small ranch hard up against the side of Sonoma Mountain.
You can find a bronze, life-sized statue of Gen. Arnold with a globe of the world at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. The road running up the Valley carries his name, but there is no statue, no sculpted stone, no edifice of any kind in the last place he called home, commemorating the man whose passion, singular vision and rogue nature drove the American military establishment to build the world’s largest and most powerful air arm.
Or there wasn’t. On Wednesday, at Hanna Boys Center, that all changed.
A gathering of local dignitaries, active and retired military service members, retired NASA astronaut Rusty Schweickart, and at least three pilots (flying in formation overhead) paid tribute to the man who created the Air Force after training with the Wright Brothers in 1911.
Wednesday was Hap Arnold’s 128th birthday, and the occasion was the dedication of the now-officially-named Hap Arnold Roundabout, plus the unveiling of a large bronze plaque to be placed in a quiet spot at El Rancho Feliz, the 40-acre retirement spot Hap and his wife, Bee, once owned, adjacent to the Hanna campus.
And while the plaque may have contained the official language of a Hap Arnold memorial, the far more prominent monument was visible at the edge of campus in the middle of the Arnold Drive roundabout.
Until June 25, no one had officially called that large stone tableau a Hap Arnold monument, but in casual conversation the idea had long since taken root. Some suggested embedding five stars around its periphery in honor of Gen. Arnold’s unique rank. Others envisioned a flagpole or a stately tree emerging from the center of the circle.
Popular sentiment for a more public form of recognition seemed to coalesce with creation of the roundabout, and even some critics who early on had lampooned the lavish rockpile in the center of the circle – created by landscape designer Mollyanne Meyn – have come to praise it.
Glen Ellen geologist Jim Berkland even penned a poem distributed at the commemoration, entitled “The Roundabout Way.”
Concluded Berkland’s poem, “And now it seems appropriate/For this geologist/To praise the ‘Talking Rock’ design/At roundabout’s new tryst.
For Arnold Drive is surely blessed/By Mollyanne’s good plans;/And Hap, himself, from up above,/Likes what he hears and scans.”
Robert Arnold, grandson of the general, shared insights about his grandfather, including an explanation of why he chose to retire in the Sonoma Valley. “Hap frequently flew out of Hamilton Field (in Novato),” Robert Arnold explained, so Sonoma was within easy reach. In addition, he and Bee were friends with retired UPI chairman Frank Bartholomew and his wife, Antonia, who owned the nearby Buena Vista Winery.
“Back then,” Arnold recalled, “the whole Valley had the odor of cow manure and hay.”
Guests to the Arnold ranch included many of the world’s famous, including newscaster Lowell Thomas, aviation legend Jimmy Doolittle and Gov. Earl Warren, who spent a long afternoon drinking beer and reminiscing with Hap at a time before Warren was named to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Robert Arnold also shared a story new to many in the audience, concerning two Army aviators who flew up from Hamilton Field and, against Air Force rules, put on an air show in the sky above El Rancho Feliz as Hap and Bee sat on their patio. The two pilots engaged in aerobatics and then a mock dogfight, during which they misjudged distances and collided in midair. A wing fell off one plane, the pilot managed to safely parachute clear, and the fuselage hurtled to earth, missing the Arnold Home by mere yards and exploding into the ground. The other pilot was able to return safely to Hamilton Field.
Robert Arnold relayed that he never learned what happened to the errant aviators, but it was widely assumed they were reassigned to an appropriately remote and dismal post.
Other speakers at the event included 1st District Supervisor Susan Gorin and Stephen Haller, National Park Service historian for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, who recounted how Hap Arnold decided to build the airstrip at Crissy Field just inside the Golden Gate.
Haller also told a story of the time when San Francisco newspapers speculated whether homing pigeons could cover long distances faster than airplanes, inspiring Hap to accept the challenge. He flew to Portland, Oregon, in a De Havilland, where a flock of pigeons was released, but he had problems restarting the plane. Finally taking off 45 minutes after the pigeons, he nevertheless beat them back to San Francisco by about 40 hours.
Known as the father of the Air Force – because his tireless campaigning was partly responsible for the U.S. military finally taking seriously the advantages of military aviation – Hap Arnold set numerous flying records before almost crashing in a Wright C airplane, a model in which six pilots subsequently died. He finally began flying again after encouragement from the legendary pilot Billy Mitchell and quickly spiraled upward into influential positions of the Air Force.
Hap Arnold suffered a succession of heart attacks in his later years and died from one on Jan. 15, 1950, at his home at El Rancho Feliz. He was 63.