Seventy-four years ago, the question on the mind of everyone in San Diego was, Could it happen here?
Dec. 7 marks the anniversary of Japans surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. The U.S. naval base near Honolulu was bombed for almost two hours, killing more than 2,000 Americans and wounding 1,000 more. Eight battleships and more than 200 aircraft were damaged or destroyed.
Congress declared war on Japan the next day and, within a week, Japans allies, Germany and Italy, declared war on the United States. World War II, which had raged for more than two years in the pages of Americas newspapers, had come to its shores.
There was no doubt that San Diego was a prime military target. A principal staging port for troop, supply and naval convoys in the Pacific, the city was also home to Consolidated Aircraft, where B-24 bombers, PBY reconnaissance planes and aircraft parts critical to the war effort were manufactured.
Blackouts went into effect immediately, and soon camouflage netting covered airports, military bases and the Pacific Coast Highway. Residents kept buckets of sand in their homes to smother fires in case of enemy bombing.
On the Point Loma peninsula, the soldiers at Fort Rosecrans were put on 24-hour alert. Bayonets, gas masks and ammunition were issued. The men of the 19th Coast Artillery set up machine guns from the World War I era, the only anti-aircraft weapons they had available.
Japan was known to have two massive battleships, each carrying nine 18.1-inch guns with a range of 28 miles, and no weapon in the Fort Rosecrans arsenal could challenge them. The U.S. Army rushed plans for two guns, 68 feet long, that could fire a projectile 16 inches in diameter at a target up to 26 miles away.
Construction for the weapon known as Battery Ashburn included a giant casement of reinforced concrete, covered by tons of earth, to protect it from a direct hit by enemy battleships or aircraft. When the 46-ton guns were transported to Point Loma, the solid rubber tires of the tractor-trailers carved three-inch ruts into the asphalt roadway.
Battery Ashburn was completed in 1944, as was Battery Humphreys, two 6-inch guns with a range of 15 miles. They joined Battery Strong and Battery Point Loma (installed in 1941), Battery Whistler (1918), Battery McGrath (1900), and Battery Calef/Wilkeson (1898) in the arsenal of coastal defenses.
Its a useful reminder that the war on terror is not our first rodeo.
The southern end of Point Loma was first made a U.S. military reserve in 1852, three years after the discovery of gold in California. It would have been sooner, but the commission sent to plan the Pacific Coast defenses was delayed after many of the enlisted men deserted to the gold mines.
Today the batteries of Fort Rosecrans are part of the Cabrillo National Monument, site of the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, where World War II signal crews used lights and Morse code to contact ships coming toward San Diego harbor. If the ships responded with the correct code, submarine nets at the harbor entrance were lowered to allow them to proceed. We always screen visitors during wartime.
Point Loma, for all its tourists and whale-watching and coin-op binoculars pointed at spectacular views, is a somber place. On the hill high above the Pacific, 50,000 veterans are buried in the Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, their white headstones facing the ocean or the bay, silently watching.
Dec. 7 reminds us that danger can be closer than we think. And that the U.S. defense budget is high for a reason.
Shelley is a writer, speaker and columnist in Los Angeles. Reach her at Susan@SusanShelley.com or follow her on Twitter @Susan_Shelley.