Saturday, June 7, 2014

This is a Navy Town

Hello and welcome back to Old Highway Notes. The last time we were on Highway 101, we were cruising north as the road passed through National City and Napoleones Pizza, where Tom Waits worked as a teenager. Tom Waits made several mentions of the sailors coming in from the Navy base in San Diego to visit his pizza place. The old Highway 101 passes that same Navy base as it continues North.

From National City Blvd the old Highway 101 jogs left toward the coast. It passes under current Interstate 5 before it makes a right turn onto Harbor Blvd. that runs along the inner shore of the massive San Diego Bay. Once on Harbor Blvd, we will shortly come to the US Naval Base San Diego on the left. San Diego is well known today as a Navy town, but that didn't really start to be one until early in the 20th century.

The 1800's

San Diego Bay was used as port dating back to the earliest settlement of the region by Spanish missionaries and cattle raising rancheros. The bay would be where the tall ships would come into trade supplies from Mexico City, Europe, the United States, and other ports up the Pacific Coast. In exchange for those supplies, hides and other California trade goods would be collected for shipping to other parts of the world.

Mexican California of the 1830's, and the sailors who frequented its bays, story is the subject if the book "Two Years Before The Mast" by Richard Henry Dana.  Dana was member of a prosperous Boston family. In 1834, while attending Harvard, a bout of the measles led to vision problems. It was advised that he spend some time at sea to help treat the problem. Presumably the salt air would help with the healing. He was offered a free round trip to Calcutta by a friend who was going to India as a company representative. Instead Dana signed on as a common seaman on as ship called The Pilgrim that was to round the Cape Horn in South America to California. The book chronicles life aboard the early California vessels from the perspective of a lowly seaman. Dana's descriptions of the California of the 1830's as well as his description of life aboard a merchant ship at that time provide some compelling reading. Gutenberg.Org offer several e-book versions for free HERE.

During the mid 1800's San Diego was still a small town. It had a small military presence with a Mexican Presidio located there but it was not particularly a naval stronghold. The United State easily landed at Point Loma in 1846 and took the small town without much resistance in the Mexican American War. Since there wasn't much of a fight put up by the sleepy pueblo, that landing is now barely a footnote in California history. Mostly a center for regional trade, for the rest of the 1800's San Diego was just a small town with a small port. It didn't even have a rail connection to the East Coast until 1907.

Before The World Wars

When the US Navy sailed it's Great White Fleet through San Diego in 1908 they were forced to moor off Point Loma (see map) because the entry to San Diego Bay was too shallow to let them in. A good account of that visit can be found HERE.This caught the attention of the US Navy, since the territorial acquisitions made during the Spanish American War in 1898 had highlighted a need for a Pacific Naval Fleet to serve and defend those territories. By the mid 1910's, the Navy was actively looking to buy shipbuilding facilities in San Diego.

Another important development also occurred near that time. An early airplane designer and flight trainer named Glenn Curtis from New York visited Los Angeles for the 1910 Air Meet held there. Impressed by the weather and the opportunity to develop and fly his planes year round due the mild conditions, he relocated to San Diego later that year setting up facilities on the North Side of San Diego's Coronado Island. In February of 1911, he demonstrated the first practical naval aviation landing onto a ships deck , the cruiser USS Pennsylvania. He had demonstrated a ship board take off late the year before. In 1911, Curtis partnered with Harry Harkness, a New York businessman, to develop the Aero Club of San Diego. They procured 3 acres on North Coronado Island as well as three French built Antoinette monoplanes. With an eye towards the military possibilities of aviation, Curtis also sent a letter to the heads of the Army and Navy offering free training in his first class to interested military officers.  The Army sent three candidates and the Navy sent one. Seen here are from the left, Lt. Theodore Ellyson; navy, Capt. Paul Beck, army; Glenn Curtiss; Lt. G. E. Kelly, army; and Lt. John C. Walker, army.

The World Wars I and II

World War I and it's famous flying aces spurred San Diego's development as a base for the training of those daring young men in their flying machines. The training camp Curtis had started was formally purchased by the US military as North Island in August of 1917 and its airfield, designated Rockwell Field in 1918, was shared by the Army and Navy until 1939. Other bases also sprang up around the San Diego time during the teens. A 1914 Marine barracks was established in Balboa Park during the Panama Pacific exposition while a more permanent base on Dutch Flats on the bay's tideland was procured and developed. The Army in 1916 would set up Camp Kearney 5 miles north of the city which stayed in place  the duration of the war before closing in 1920.

The 1920 acquisition of property from the Emergency Fleet Corporation led to the opening of U.S. Destroyer Base San Diego in 1922. Things got underway quickly as repair facilities expanded, torpedo and radio schools were established, and other facilities were installed. In 1924, 77 destroyers were decommissioned and seven were commissioned.

It was during World War II that he base saw its greatest expansion. Its training facilities, both in the classroom and for amphibious landings were and a growth in shipyard activity earned a renaming by the Navy to U.S. Repair Base San Diego.  A busy repair base it was too. Before the end of the Second World War the base had performed conversion, overhaul, maintenance and battle damage repair to more than 5,117 ships. In addition, many sailors would relocate to the San Diego area after the war because of the mild climate. 
1947 Map of San Diego's Navy facilities (Wikimedia Commons)

1946-1994 Naval Station, San Diego

After WWII, the base was renamed again as Naval Station, San Diego. Its function was to provide logistical support, maintenance and repair to ships of the active fleet. Wikipedia reports:
By the end of 1946 the base had grown to 294 buildings with floor space square footage of more than 6,900,000 square feet (640,000 m2), berthing facilities included five piers of more than 18,000 feet (5,500 m) of berthing space. Land then totaled more than 921 acres (373 ha) and 16 miles (26 km) of roads. Barracks could accommodate 380 officers and 18,000 enlisted men. More than 3,500 sailors could be fed in the galley at a single sitting on the base.
It would continue in that function for decades. With so many sailors in town, both from working on the ships as well as taking liberty while their ships were serviced, the area around the base attracted a lot of businesses of questionable repute to entertain the young men that were out on the town. One old timer called it an "adult-oriented carnival" around the base. Tattoo parlors, bars, and hourly-rate motels all were represented. With Tijuana as the main competition for the sailors dollars, it was the wild place that Tom Waits sang about in his song "Ghosts of Saturday Night (After Hours at Napoleone's Pizza Parlor)".

1990-Present Naval Base San Diego

In the 1990's several changes would come to the San Diego area and the base itself. The city had always had a certain tourist element, as some sailors would visitors while in port. like many communities the city of San Diego began to actively court tourism in order to diversify its military based economy. It had a lot to offer but the seedy raunchy side needed cleaning up to make the area an appealing destination. At the same time the base was growing and changing yet again. Again from Wikipedia:
Later, in the 1990s, the Naval Station became the principal homeport of the then U.S. Pacific Fleet when the Long Beach Naval Shipyard was closed for the final time on 30 September 1994. Naval Station San Diego was realigned under Commander, Navy Region Southwest and became one in a triad of metropolitan Navy bases that now make up the bulk of the metro area Navy’s presence. With that change, the base became the hub of all Navy port operations for the Region, assumed logistical responsibility for both Naval Medical Center San Diego and the Region headquarters and was re-designated Naval Base San Diego.

A view of Naval Base San Diego in 2012 (Flickr/CC)

Naval Base San Diego is still a vital part of the city of San Diego as well as a key component in US West Coast defense and Pacific Ocean operations. It is the largest Naval base on the West Coast and is the principal home port of the Pacific Fleet, consisting of 54 ships and over 120 tenant commands. The base is composed of 13 piers stretched over 977 acres  of land and 326 acres of water. It's on base population is 20,000 military personnel and 6,000 civilians. On a personal note, I would like to thank each and every one of them, as well as all members of the US military past and present my gratitude for their service on my behalf as a US citizen.

Playlist Addition

This weeks addition to our Highway 101 playlist is a 1996 CD released by the United States Navy Band featuring Sea Chanters Chorus. It is boldly marked in the liner notes NOT FOR SALE so I have no idea how it ended up in the used CD bin at the library book sale, but I'm glad it did. It features two live performances by the band and the Chorus collected from several shows in 1993. The strange thing is that even though the liner notes for the CD say that it's not for sale, it was available on both  iTunes and Amazon.

Album: . . .From the Sea US Navy Band

  • Four Ruffles & Flourishes & Hail To The Chief 0:45 
  • Who's Who In Navy Blue 2:46 
  • Jack Tar March 2:21 
  • American Sailor March 2:50 
  • Waves Of The Navy 1:44 
  • Navy Log 2:13 
  • We're The Guys Who Shoot Supplies 1:28 
  • Four Ruffles & Flourishes & The Honors March 0:43 
  • Bluejacks On Parade 2:03 
  • Men Of The Navy 2:40 
  • Before The Mast 1:59 
  • Song Of The Seabees 1:31 
  • We Are The Navy 3:03 
  • All Hands March 3:15 
  • Four Ruffles & Flourishes & The Flag Officer's March 0:20 
  • Anchors Aweigh 2:45 
  • Song Of The Jolly Roger 2:10 
  • Blow The Man Down 1:47 
  • Captain Paul 1:38 
  • From Boston Harbor 2:22 
  • Haul Away Joe 1:53 
  • High Barbary 1:44 
  • Blow Ye Winds, Swansea Town 2:47 
  • Eternal Father 0:54 
  • The Glory Of The Yankee Navy 3:23  
When I looked at YouTube for some representative videos to share with you, I found very little featured in this set. I did make you a playlist of the few tracks I could find. As a bonus I included at the end of the playlist a documentary of sorts about the jazzy side of Navy band music. It talks about Sam Donahue's US Navy Band of the Liberation Forces from 1945 and the US Navy Band Commodores of 1976, two of the finer Navy Jazz combo's of the 20th century. I hope you like it, if you make it that far, there is some tasty swinging jazz playing on that one.

Well that about does it for this weeks Old Highway Notes. If you served at Naval Base San Diego, or one of its previous designations we would love to hear from you. Was it as wild a town near this base as reports would have us believe? Did you enjoy serving in the San Diego area? And if you are old enough do you remember Highway 101 passing the base?  Join us next week a we return to the East Coast and continue to explore Florida heading North on Interstate 95. In two weeks, it's back to Chicago for more blues on Route 66. We will be back here in San Diego just three short weeks from now to explore some more about this city on old Highway 101. We hope you will join us. Until we meet again, I wish you fair winds and gentle seas.

Mileage Stats

Route 66: 0 Miles/1 State/549 Tracks/98 Videos/24 Posts
Highway 101: 13  Miles/1 State/484 Tracks/161 Videos/18 Posts
Interstate 95: 77 Miles/1 State/11 Tracks/40 Videos/6 Posts

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