Looking bayward from nearly any open spot along the tip of the Point Loma peninsula affords the most spectacular wide-angle view of the San Diego harbor area to be found anywhere. From a promontory at Cabrillo National Monument on a sunny day, even the most insensitive urbanite is usually compelled to pause before the vista for a few moments of silent appreciation.
This sight of the slow-moving harbor, dotted with languid craft of various types, produces a restful aura that is hard to reconcile with the fact that it was once considered a prime point of defense for the San Diego region. The Fort Rosecrans reservation, extending from the road gate below NOSC (Naval Ocean Systems Center) to the end of Point Loma and owned almost entirely by the Navy, contains the seldom-seen artifacts of pugnacious age — concrete gun batteries that once housed weapons ready to defend San Diego against any adversary.
The need for harbor defense on Pt. Loma is obvious in light of its strategic situation. The peninsula is open to attack from both the harbor and ocean side; the crucial defense position of North Island could be quickly easily crippled. The harbor area fortifications were erected as a matter of national defense policy; the fact that San Diego was never attacked was merely historical good fortune.
The defense stations in the area never saw much active duty. Spain’s Fort Guijarros, established about 1800 at Ballast Point is relatively un-lauded in the annals of history, which is not surprising since it was involved in only one reported battle during the some 35 years of its existence. This little known altercation took place in 1803, when the commander of the fort tried to detain a Yankee brig smuggling contraband sea otter pelts out of the harbor; the skirmish that ensued provided a major topic of conversation in San Diego for some time afterward.
Because of this excessive inactivity, the Spanish abandoned Guijarros in 1835, and the pueblo of San Diego later acquired Point Loma through U.S. victory in the Mexican war. The military reservation was established in 1852 and its ownership transferred to the federal government.
Construction of the gun batteries began in 1873, but Congress appropriated no additional funds for seacoast defense for about the next twenty years, so construction was not resumed until close to the turn of the century. About half of the permanent batteries were built after 1936, and most are named after a non-chronological series of the Army’s dead heroes. None of them still contains the guns they were built for, for they have outlived their tenants and survived to serve new purposes. The possibility of utilizing the batteries arose as the Navy acquired Fort Rosecrans from the Army, which had declared it outmoded in 1949. The nature of the batteries today still remains arcane, hidden beneath the hills and bluffs of Point Loma.
Battery Strong, located at the end of a short road leading from Catalina Boulevard, possesses a generous smattering of remnants from its former life. The battery’s grounds are encircled from front to back by a double set of rail tracks for transporting ammunition carts; inside the battery the rails are cemented into the floor, concealing their path to the back of the U-shaped structure. Rooms once used for storing gunpowder and shells are now occupied by a microwave component laboratory with what appears to be (at least to the uninitiated) a great deal of complicated and foreign-looking equipment.
Bud Gorham, an electronics technician at Strong, pointed out most of what is left of the battery’s wartime accoutrements. In addition to the overgrown emplacements for the two eight-inch guns are sockets that once held cables to secure multicolored camouflage netting for concealing the battery. A concrete and wood box holds scraps of gun-cleaning poles; underneath it is a buried tunnel designed to be used by soldiers during an enemy attack. Another invisible tunnel runs beneath the embankment in front of the battery, and the ends of its ventilation shafts can be seen protruding from the top. The guns once mounted here were cut with torches, removed, and sold as reusable scrap.
The battery laboratory usually employs only six or seven people, and that fact, coupled with the relatively enclosed, secluded situation of the battery, might cause many to feel a certain negative sense of isolation. Bud Gorham, however, has an unusual appreciation for his place of employment.
“I enjoy working here. In the springtime it’s really very nice – the prettiest yellow and purple flowers bloom up there on the bank. If you take a walk over the path to the top, you’ll usually see rabbits, some doves or quail.” He points to a pair of water pipes with a pan underneath. “Over there we have a faucet that leaks a little, and the pan is always full, so the birds come here to drink. And of course we can always see the sunsets.”
A scenic viewpoint is also the most interesting feature of Battery Humphreys, situated on the tip of the peninsula and a relatively unaltered structure. Like the others, about all that can be seen of Humphreys from the outside is the concrete-bordered, recessed entrance, the circular slabs that supported the two ten-inch mortars, and the lookout room that tops the hill above the battery. The compartments that were once used as magazines are now storage areas, office space, and computer rooms. Technician Bill Shepherd points out that except for a few modern innovations like paint, linoleum, and fluorescent lights, Humphreys has not been significantly modified beyond the closing of a few tunnels and the renovation of neglected areas.
By far the most impressive thing about Humphreys, which was named for the first commanding officer of Fort Rosecrans, is its location and the view it affords. Separated from the point’s edge by just the width of a small parking lot, Humphreys commands a glittering, almost full-circle portrait of both harbor and ocean, as well as a (usually) spotless sky and the Coronado Islands on the central horizon – an impressive panorama even by Point Loma standards.
To the north of Humphreys is Battery Ashburn, probably the most accessible of the batteries; it even has a sign on Catalina Boulevard announcing its presence. When active, Ashburn’s 16-inch guns (the largest of all of the batteries’ weapons) were capable of propelling a one-ton projectile 25 miles out to sea. Because of the tremendous quakes caused by the guns’ blast, the walls of the battery near the gun sites are eight feet think, to protect its interior as well as to keep the face of the cliff from being blown off. During the first test-firing, with only a half-load of ammunition, windows were shattered up to three miles away, and some public panic ensued, despite advance notice of the intended testing.
Ashburn, 36 feet underground, is now used mainly as an electronics lab, and is considered an ideally stable environment for the development of electronics parts so tiny that many of them must be worked on with the aid of a microscope. The battery has three interior tunnels, one leading to the original living quarters, which are now part of the electronics lab, and one leading to each of the gun sites. The latter two tunnels, dark and noisy with generators, still sport the overhead rail tracks which brought the huge missiles forward to be loaded into the guns. It was first reopened in 1965, and a multitude of snakes, rats, and spiders had to be forcibly evicted before the tunnels could be renovated.
Battery Whistler also represents a field of rather specialized technology, but of a different type from Ashburn’s electronics facility. A separate laboratory occupies Whistler, a 1916 battery of 12-inch mortars that was decommissioned in 1943. Administrative officer Sarah Hopkins began working for the government’s Radio and Sound Laboratory (which later became a part of NOSC) in 1941, and can remember the mortars being test-fired several times. The windows of the building in which she was working were sealed with tape during the firings to prevent shattered glass. After removal by the Army, the mortars were cut up for metal salvage, and the pits in which they had stood were sealed over.
Whistler presently houses the Arctic Submarine Laboratory, an esoteric facility designed to test the effects of Arctic ice on shipboard equipment and materials. Among the features within Whistler is a 75-foot-long experimental pool, 30-feet wide and 16-feet deep, used for “growing” sea ice. Air temperatures in the pool enclosure can be lowered to -40 degrees F., and the ice is produced by means of a cooling coil system on the ceiling. A portable chain saw can then be used to cut out test sheets from the ice, and a huge hydraulic jack rafts, or stacks, them to the desired thickness for testing impact strength. Observation is afforded by a periscope build through the center of the pool and an underwater room with a television camera mounted on its roof. The under-ice successes of the submarine USS Nautilus are partly attributable to the pioneering work conducted in Whistler.
There were four mortars at Whistler; the Arctic pool stands over the former emplacements sites. The thickness of Whistler’s walls serve as protection for a 22-million-volt X-ray machine (shades of sci-fi, it really exists) used for photographing multilayered steel. Tunnels which formerly led to ammunition and gunpowder rooms stretch outward in a confusing maze of control booths, camera alcoves, laboratories, and storage areas. An amazing array of machinery occupies every tunnel and corner; silvery pipes, insulated with fiberglass and asbestos, run across the walls in every direction, along with the old ammunition rails.
Near one of the battery’s cavernous entrances are two pairs of huge wooden wheels, part of an apparatus once used for towing artillery. Called sling carts, they are assumed to have appeared at Fort Rosecrans soon after the Civil War, and were dumped when they became obsolete. The wheels of one cart are eight feet in diameter; the other set is slightly smaller, and both have a large pole protruding from the axle, to be attached to the artillery being towed They present an incongruous portrait of past and present standing alone in the sun, pushed aside by the proliferating mass of scientific equipment threatening to overflow the battery. Whistler, like most of the other batteries, has proved itself most useful since its peacetime reincarnation, and now experiences more active duty than it did in its former life.
Exploring one battery after another evokes the feeling of visiting a world apart, an impression created by the batteries’ concealment, their situations in ravines and under bluffs, their unnaturally cool underground passages, dim and empty tunnels, locked steel doors, and isolating concrete walls. Irrespective of lights and people and the technical nature of the very real work that goes on inside, it is still easy to envision a battery as the perfect place to conduct a variety of secret, demented experiments, construct a bomb, or incarcerate a kidnap victim – impressions dispelled by the reentry into the sunlight, but easily imagined scenarios nonetheless.
This uneasy urge to keep looking over the shoulder is particularly prevalent at Battery Woodward. A long, meandering road leads to a dead end at Woodward, then curves around the back of a bluff to meet itself on the other side. Much of the battery appears unusually decrepit and foreboding, and is unmanned much of the time. Woodward, like most of the batteries, is underground, and only the black steel door is visible from the outside, exhibiting a bit of rust and emitting a faint squeal when opened. The interior of the battery is crowded with equipment used for conducting an intermittent communications experiment with a Navy facility in Hawaii.
Woodward is small and dim, and although it is one of the newest batteries, it already seems more forgotten than the others. The rail tracks which transported ammunition to its 6-inch guns, one near each end of the T-shaped structure, are no longer in evidence. Although the slightly raised, circular gun emplacements can still be seen, most of Woodward remains hidden, windblown and silent.
The last three permanent batteries on Point Loma are inside the boundaries of the Navy’s Submarine Support Facility. Battery McGrath, one of the last lonely vestiges of the Army’s peninsula holdings, is fenced off, locked, and used for storage of “odds and ends,” it is seldom disturbed and apparently houses no activities of interest.
Calef-Wilkeson was a four-gun battery named for an artillery officer, Bayard Wilkeson, who was killed in the battle of Gettysburg. This mark of his distinction was later reduced by half when the battery’s two right-hand guns were renamed for another military officer, John Calef, who died in 1912; the Army’s method of establishing memorials (if it has one) seems unclear.
Submarine Development Group One now utilizes Calef-Wilkeson as divers’ headquarters and a storage and repair area. Most of the activity based there now concerns relatively unglamorous salvage diving. This battery is almost completely above ground, with concrete parapets facing the ocean in front of the gun emplacements, which can only be reached by climbing ladders. On this upper level the open emplacements are connected by narrow tunnels, set into huge bunkers which encased the guns from the top edge of the walls to the ground.
The whole compound of Calef-Wilkeson appears immensely cluttered and confused at first glance, and even more so upon investigation. Although the Navy chief who provided the tour was familiar with the layout of the battery, he still managed to find during our inspection a small empty room that he had not known was there. Chains, wood scraps, oil drums, rusty metal, and an assortment of other junk are scattered liberally about, apparently in a sort of final resting place. The vehicle maintenance area, which uses one of the first two bunkers, is crowded with cars and trucks awaiting repair; an electronics shop, hull renovation shop, and storage rooms manage to fill much of the remaining available space.
The gun emplacement sites and their surrounding areas sport many irregular small steel doors, some leading to vertical shafts equipped with wheels and pulleys too small for ammunition transport, which can only be seen by crouching in precarious balance at the edge of the tunnel and peering straight down. Other doors guard dim rooms which enter the side of the bunker and turn in one direction or the other to emerge at some unexpected spot. From the outside, the interiors of the bunkers appear to have few entrances, most of the doors that are there cover only small openings which lead nowhere. Whether the bunkers conceal more empty rooms, forgotten paraphernalia, or just earth and concrete is open to speculation.
On the subject of tunnels, a technician familiar with the batteries, said, “There are some underground tunnels that no one ever knew existed until they were discovered accidentally. Some would have what appeared to be usable generators and lights; they must have been built by the Army. Sometimes we have no idea why they are there or what they were used for.”
There are mobile batteries, bunkers, plotting stations, and other defense-related structures formerly or presently on the peninsula, but the permanent batteries of Point Loma possess a distinctive antiquity of their own. A feeling of both past and present lingers within their concrete walls, even though the reason for their existence has passed into history.