Fortress Catalina: Catalina joins the war effort

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Catalina’s iconic Country Club was used as a hospital by the U.S. Maritime Service during World War II. Except for the war years, the venue was also used as the clubhouse for the Chicago Cubs until 1951. Photo courtesy Catalina Island Museum

The coronavirus has plunged Catalina Island into a crisis not seen since World War II. Much like today, the island underwent dramatic changes for those who live here, almost overnight. To recall those days, the Catalina Islander is reprinting the series “Fortress Catalina: The Island at War.” The following originally appeared in the book “Mysterious Island: Catalina,” by Jim Watson.

For nearly a year after the attack on Pearl Harbor and in the face of a prohibition on all tourism to the Island (and therefore the primary means of making a living), the handful of residents that remained on Catalina led a Spartan existence.

Supplemented by whatever savings they had, residents turned to Victory gardens, hunting, fishing and the gathering of wild fruit to make ends meet during that bleak year of 1942. All the while they endured frequent air raid drills and nightly “blackouts” where the slightest sliver of light emanating from their homes would earn them a visit from the local Block Warden.

Desperate to pump economic life into his little colony on the Pacific, and mindful of Catalina’s strategic value to the war effort, Philip Wrigley approached the varied branches of the U.S. military and offered them a place to set up operations.

First came the United States Coast Guard, which turned the Isthmus into a training station boasting more than 150 permanent officers, instructors and support personnel. Collectively, they mentored up to 90 recruits at a time in the laws of the sea and the weapons of war. It was the first military installation on Catalina Island since the Civil War.

Out in the hills, it was the U.S. Army Signal Corps that put together a series of gun emplacements, bunkers and a tiny village of barracks, mess halls and latrines known as Camp Cactus, much of which survives to this day, albeit in an advanced stage of decay.

Their job was to act as point men for the entire West Coast of the United States to (hopefully) detect the

approach of enemy ships and submarines. Many were the lonely soldiers who passed the long, magical night beneath the Ben Weston stars or amid a chorus of crickets on the windswept headlands of China Point. These silent sentries vigilantly peered out to sea in search of any flash of light or any 3 a.m. glimpse of the conning tower of an enemy submarine.

But these coastal guardians didn’t have to rely solely on their eyes to spot the enemy. They were aided in their efforts by that most secret and revolutionary technology known as RADAR. Used to great advantage by Britain’s Royal Air Force during the Battle of Britain, RADAR technology was being put to good use in America as well and it is believed that Catalina Island was one of the first locations where it was used by U.S. forces.

The most prominent and visible branch of the military on the Island during the war was the United States Maritime Service, that branch of the government charged with running the nation’s merchant fleet. Colloquially known as “Merchant Marines”, the officers and crew that propelled these ships around the world were in short supply in the opening salvos of the war and in October of 1942 the Maritime Service opened the Avalon Training School, effectively taking over the entire town of Avalon for their purposes.

Hotels, including the luxurious St. Catherine Hotel at Descanso Beach, were the primary living quarters for these trainees and various locations around town were converted to training facilities.

Part of the training “fun” for these cadets included learning how to swim through burning gasoline—a show they put on in the waters of Descanso Bay.

Dick Kellogg was one of those trainees and remembers well his turn at learning this skill. “You might think offhand that you could never do such a thing,” said Dick. “They taught you to push the oil or the gasoline away from you. To this day I can still taste the gasoline in my mouth and all over my face and in my eyes.”

Maneuvers were conducted up at the golf course, Stewards Department trainees learned their maritime culinary techniques in the kitchen at the St. Catherine and Engine Department trainees practiced on a fully operational reciprocating steam engine located in Descanso Canyon.

Although U.S. Navy crews known as the Navy Armed Guard actually operated the guns aboard our merchant ships during the war, it was incumbent upon the semi-civilian Merchant Marines to also learn how to defend those ships should the Armed Guard be incapacitated in battle.

To achieve these ends, Casino Point bristled with a battery of 20mm anti-aircraft guns and non-firing 3-inch and 5-inch artillery put there for training purposes. Those awkward-looking cement pads that one still sees around the seawall at the Casino are the remnants of those gun emplacements and occasionally a SCUBA diver will still come up with a spent shell or two.

While most Islanders were quite aware of the presence on the Island of the Coast Guard, the Army Signal Corps and, of course, the Merchant Marines, it wasn’t until after the war was over that they learned of a fourth group with whom they had unwittingly shared their island home.

By its very nature, this particular organization had kept its presence completely secret from everyone, save those who had a “need to know”…

NEXT WEEK: THE MYSTERIOUS O.S.S.

Fortress Catalina: Catalina joins the war effort