The link between a California military base and Chuck Berry’s ‘Run Rudolph Run’

In 1958, Chuck Berry came out with a Christmas song called “Run Rudolph Run,” which has become a perennial favorite and has been played all over the radio every December since.

But the song’s connection to March Air Force Base near Riverside has not been realized before now.

In the fourth verse of the song, it says, as many of you will remember:

“Said Santa to a girl child, ‘What would please you most to get?’

‘A little baby doll that can cry, sleep, drink and wet.’

And then away went Rudolph, whizzin’ like a Saber jet.”

It just so happens, on March 11, 1949, the Riverside Daily Press reported that the newest jet in the United States air fleet was officially named the “Sabre” by the 94th Fighter Squadron, 1st Fighter group, at March Air Force Base. The North American Aviation F-86 jet fighter received the name after a vote by the men in this fighter group. (Note, the spelling of the actual jet name was slightly different from the one in the song lyrics.)

The Sabre name was one of 79 ideas submitted by the men at March. The name chosen was proposed by Lt. Kenneth E. Skinner. It was based on the jet’s super thin wings and the fact that it could fly at the speed of sound.  As a matter of fact, the F-86 had shattered the world speed record the previous September, flying 670.9 mph.

The 1st Fighter group was the first operational unit to train on this jet, which was quite an honor. The first contingent of 15 arrived at the base in early March 1949.

The Sabre was the United States’ first swept wing fighter jet. It was proven over the skies of Korea during the Korean conflict that the Sabre could take on the Soviet MIG 15 in high-speed jet dogfights. Of the pilots who made “ace” status during the Korean conflict, all but one did so in the Sabre.

Unfortunately, Lt. Skinner was killed in a car accident on Highway 60 near Cucamonga on Dec. 11, 1948, before the Sabre name was selected. Skinner was just 23 years old. He enlisted in the U.S. Air Corps in 1943 and served the final two years of World War II. After Skinner was discharged from the service, he began attending Chico State College, taking pre-medical coursework.

In 1944, Skinner married Cleo Skelly, of Chico. Unfortunately, Cleo died suddenly in 1947, at 21 years of age.  After the death of his wife, Skinner reentered the Air Force to complete his college training and gain his pilot’s license. Skinner was buried next to his wife, Cleo, in Chico Cemetery, his role in naming the Sabre forgotten. But we are reminded of the Sabre name every Christmas, when we listen to “Run Rudolph Run.”

Thanks to my husband, Mark, who pointed out the mention of the Sabre in the Chuck Berry song when I told him about this story.

If you have an idea for a future Back in the Day column about a local historic person, place or event, contact Steve Lech and Kim Jarrell Johnson at

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