Is Camp Pendleton government land or leased from a family?

Dear All-Knowing, All-Seeing One:

I heard from a fairly reliable source, my cousin, a retired USMC Master Sergeant, that Camp Pendleton is not government land but actually leased from a family who has owned the property for many years. I am curious about the details of this lease. It would also be interesting to know about the owners and how they acquired this land. Or has my cousin been out on the rifle range too long?

-- Tankless in La Mesa

If the Marines are renters, I hope they don't expect to get their cleaning deposit back. The place must be trashed by now. But as it happens, the feds have owned Pendleton since 1942, so they can run tanks on the lawn and lob grenades in the living room if they want to.

The Marines have about 300 square miles of floor space out there, just about what we need to keep Orange County and L.A. at bay. Once upon a long time ago, before the military moved in, it was the Rancho Santa Margarita y las Flores, a land-grant rancho. Eventually the land was split into three chunks and came into private hands. It was cow-pie country until 1942.

The farsighted Marine Col. Joseph Pendleton started all the trouble in 1915, when he visited San Diego and suggested they needed a West Coast training base. His lobbying got him MCRD, built during World War I. Now that the Marines had their foot in the door, they started looking around for a big, big hunk o' land for training. By the late 1930s, the frontrunner was charming Kearny Mesa, the rancho officially labeled as too far away.

But, hey, they can change their minds if they want to. The big military brains liked the rancho's ocean access, so they started waving money at the owners. The O'Neills owned a part that ran into Orange County, and they gave the Marines the brushoff. The Baumgartners owned the part around San Onofre and said they'd be glad to rent the land, but they wanted the option to evict the military as soon as World War II was over so they could build a resort hotel on the beach (the Unexploded Ordnance Hilton?). The Floods had the land to the south and couldn't wait to unload the cows and move to San Francisco.

Pearl Harbor galvanized the military into action. They used the War Powers Act to condemn the whole place and take it over. They started moving in before the families even knew they'd lost their land. Naturally the owners took it to court. Naturally they lost. The feds wrote out three very low seven-figure checks and booted out the civilians. The enterprising O'Neills went straight to President Roosevelt and must have presented one heck of an argument, because their portion of the land was removed from the condemnation order.

So, Tankless, I guess Cuz got wind of one little part of the story. He just never heard the updated, kick-'em-out part of the deal. Near as I can tell, the U.S. military "rents" only one training facility. It's owned by the Commonwealth of Virginia, and the feds share it with the state National Guard, a juvenile jail, and some other tenants. It too is prime seaside land. It too is named Camp Pendleton.

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