Clovis resident Len Santi was one of the first airmen to be stationed at Cannon Air Force Base in the 1940s. CNJ staff photo: Eric Kluth.
By Darrell Todd Maurina: CNJ staff writer
Like many Clovis residents, Len Santi came to town with the Air Force.
In fact, he was one of the first 150 people assigned in 1942 by what was then the Army Air Corps to help convert an old civilian airstrip into Clovis Army Air Base.
Santi, a New York City native, had just been offered the opportunity to play minor league baseball when he was drafted into the military. After basic training, the Army Air Corps sent him to Clovis as part of a unit assigned to build a base that would train bomber pilots.
As an airman used to urban life, Santi said he’ll never forget seeing the wide-open spaces of New Mexico when he arrived.
“We were standing at the gate, supposedly, but there was no gate. There was just a shack in the middle of the road and a sheriff on horseback provided the only security there was,” Santi said. “We 150 men had to protect the base as best we could.”
Santi and the rest of the unit set to work building barracks and other buildings, but conditions were primitive. While bomber crews shuttled in and out of Clovis every three months to train on the B-24, B-17, and finally the B-29 bombers, Santi stayed in Clovis for the duration of the war and saw things slowly improve.
“The first two years were a hellhole; the sand and wind were blowing like mad,” Santi said. “Back then all the farmers were dryland farmers and without water it was really hard to keep your land from blowing away.”
Blowing dust wasn’t the only problem. As winter approached, Santi — who by that time had been promoted from staff sergeant to warrant officer — had become the billeting officer in charge of officer housing. That meant he had to deal with a whole new set of problems.
“In the wintertime, these buildings were poorly constructed and hard to heat,” Santi said. “The base commander was getting complaints from the officers that their rooms were cold and had no heat.”
Some checking by Santi discovered that the problem wasn’t just bad construction. Keeping the buildings heated was the duty of a squadron whose members weren’t very interested in filling the heating stoves with fuel.
“They would be playing games with dice and not doing their assignment the way they should,” Santi said.
Further investigation showed the problem wasn’t just laziness. In the segregated military of the 1940s, the squadron was entirely composed of black airmen who weren’t happy about the discrimination they faced in the Southwest from fellow citizens in the country they were fighting to defend. Finally, the entire squadron went on strike.
“Their reasoning was they were tired of being pushed around, especially in the theater. They wanted to sit in the same seats with the white people,” Santi said. “Washington, D.C., ordered the commander of the base to stop that practice (of segregated theater seating) and that ended a lot of the problem.”
While many of the airmen assigned to Clovis left as soon as the war was over, Santi said he fell in love with the community despite the blowing dust and harsh conditions.
“I spent 25 years in New York, and I’ll tell you this: New Yorkers don’t trust anyone,” Santi said. “Down here, it was marvelous to see these farmers, six to 10 farmers, working together to help each other … I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”
Santi had begun attending Ranchvale Baptist Church while stationed in Clovis and eventually married the daughter of a local farmer. After the war, he farmed for a few years, entered the civil service, and returned to Clovis after some time out of state.
“(Clovis) was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Santi said.