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Remembering Hap Arnold on Arnold Drive

Remembering Hap Arnold on Arnold Drive
Hap Arnold’s desk, photo and portrait on display at the Sonoma Veterans Memorial Hall.Photo by Paul Goguen

By BJ Blanchard

Early morning commuters leaving Glen Ellen might enjoy learning their journey down leafy Arnold Drive was not always thus.

For years, the road was a muddy lane used by horse-drawn carriages and wagons traveling from Sonoma to Santa Rosa, and was called Glen Ellen Avenue. Some sepia photographs from those days call it Calabasas Street as it travels through Glen Ellen. Apparently in the 1940s, it was Grand Avenue, and to locals “the back road.” When the track was paved for automobiles it was named Santa Rosa Avenue, and around 1950, it was widened, smoothed out, and renamed Arnold Drive, in honor of Hap Arnold.

Post-WWII babies may not know the name Harold “Hap” Arnold, or why the road is named in his honor. Born in 1886, this Pennsylvania boy was taught to fly by the Wright brothers themselves in Dayton, Ohio. After obtaining his pilot’s license in 1911, Arnold set altitude records and became the first pilot to carry the U.S. mail. A series of crashes caused him to develop a fear of flying for several years, which he overcame with the help of fellow aviators.

The U.S. Army, at that time, had an “air arm” of about 800 planes called the “Army Air Corps.” Hap Arnold saw the benefit of expansion of the army’s air arm from this small force to 300,000 planes and millions of personnel by the end of WWII, creating the U.S. Air Force and building the air power that successfully defeated Germany and Japan, adversaries of America at that time.

Arnold was promoted to fivestar general, the highest rank in the military, for his Air Force accomplishments, in addition to having previously earned the five-star general rank in the army, making him the only military man to hold the five-star rank in two branches of service.

According to the Glen Ellen Historical Society, during the war years, Alma Spreckels, wife of Adolph Spreckels and socialite and philanthropist of the Spreckels sugar empire, made her 2,000-acre country ranch just south of Glen Ellen — now Sobre Vista — available to the troops at Hamilton Air Force Base, in Marin County, for recreation. Hap Arnold attended military retreats here in the peaceable valley’s quiet settings on the Spreckels property throughout the war, and appreciated its tranquility.

In 1943, the Arnolds purchased their own ranch nestled against Sonoma Mountain behind what is now Hanna Boys Center, near the Spreckels’ land, and named it El Rancho Feliz (the Happy Ranch), though it wasn’t until after the war, in 1946, that he and wife Bee could live at Rancho Feliz and begin a mellow retirement.

Hap and Bee enjoyed life in the valley, according to a 1987 Press Democrat article written by Gaye LeBaron titled “Hap Arnold led military retreat to Sonoma Valley.” The Arnolds ate prime rib with friends at the Swiss Hotel on the Sonoma Plaza, and enjoyed a drink at the Toscana Hotel down the street. They enjoyed entertaining too, and over the next four years they entertained guests like Frank Bartholomew of the Buena Vista Winery, Secretary of State George Marshall, General James Doolittle, broadcaster Lowell Thomas, Chief Justice Earl Warren, and others.

Arnold’s retirement here was short-lived, as he died of a fatal heart attack in 1950 at age 63. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

In June 2014, on Hap Arnold’s 128th birthday, the roundabout at the juncture of Agua Caliente Road and the thoroughfare named for him was officially dedicated to the prominent military star who lived up the road. Intended by its designer, Mollyanne Meyn, to be a naturalistic centerpiece with boulders and redwoods, the roundabout is now a monument to Hap Arnold. Some have suggested erecting a flagpole there; others envision a redwood grove in his honor.

Commuting along bucolic Arnold Drive may now remind you of its dedication to the WWII military groundbreaker who is responsible for the U.S. Air Force as we know it today.