Western Trips

Western Trips

Thursday, August 25, 2011

San Francisco's World War Two Defenses / Protecting The Bay


fishermans wharf san francisco
A vacation or weekend road trip to San Francisco is always a fun time and there's almost an endless list of sights to see. Places to visit in San Francisco are plentiful. Aside from riding the San Francisco cable cars, visiting Fishermans Wharf and just enjoying the one of a kind views there are several unique sites to see that tell the story of the Bay Area's strategic importance during World War Two and how our armed forces protected it. At the bottom of this story I've detailed directions on how to reach several of these historic locations. The history of the Army and Navy in San Francisco Bay during the war years is quite interesting.

Strategic War Industries

San Francisco Bay was a very important area for the U.S. during the Second World War. It not only was a large population center but it also was the home to strategic war effort industries. A similar situation existed in Galveston Texas during the war. While Galveston was certainly not the size of the Bay Area, it's strategic importance was paramount. Galveston had oil to ship to the Allies. Galveston World War two defenses were quite elaborate. Because both of these ports, San Francisco and Galveston, were crucial to our war effort, both had similar defenses against any kind of enemy attack.
marin headlands
Marin Headlands


Many of the troops and supplies destined for the Pacific war passed through San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate on their way to the Pacific Theater. Important military post included Fort Mason, which was the port of embarkation for over a million soldiers during the war, and the Presidio, the headquarters for the Pacific Coast defense. There was also Treasure Island just a few miles east of the city of San Francisco and the Alameda Naval Air Station near Oakland...both important naval bases.

The Kaiser Shipyards in Richmond California, in the east bay area, were building scores of Liberty Ships. There were a total of seven Kaiser Shipyards on the West Coast of which four were in the San Francisco Bay area. The local shipyards also repaired and serviced many of the ships and submarines from the Pacific Theater.

Mare Island on the north side of the bay regularly repaired ships and submarine damaged in the fighting. Port Chicago was a critical ammunition supply depot. Every ship coming and going had to pass through the narrow Golden Gate passage.

Below left is a satellite image of Mare Island and the city of Vallejo California on the north shore of San Francisco Bay. The city and Mare Island are separated by the Napa River.

Protecting the Bay

galveston war defensesFairly similar to how the Galveston defenses were set up, San Francisco had laid submarine nets to keep any enemy subs out of the bay. Mines were laid, aircraft such as the PBY patrolled the coast, picket ships patrolled the coast and batteries were manned at the entrance to the bay on both sides of the Golden Gate. The Marin Headlands on the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge in present day Marin county California is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. This was the site of several military fortifications including Fort Barry and Fort Cronkhite.  Marin headlands, pictured above right.


pby aircraft
PBY-5A
Batteries had existed in the Marin Headlands since 1890 with the intent to keep hostile ships in general out of the bay.

Batteries at Kirby Cove and at Battery Mendell were two of those predating World War One. In addition to these fortifications were observation posts. Probably the most well known battery was Battery Spencer which had been there since the Spanish-American War and all through World War One and Two. Battery Spencer was a concrete reinforced 12 inch gun battery located at Lime Point on the Marin peninsula at the Marin Headland.

The guns of World War Two were stationed all along the Marin Headlands. In fact, a total of sixty batteries and eleven forts were built in the San Francisco area after the end of the Spanish-American War. Battery Spencer just like it's cousins in Galveston Texas were concrete reinforced bunkers.

All batteries were decommissioned during the Cold War however built in their place were anti-aircraft missile launchers. During the Cold War there were eleven Nile Missile launchers in the Bay Area out of more than 300 nationwide built to protect America's cities. Like most technology, the Nike Missile eventually became obsolete. While they were effective in shooting down conventional aircraft they were useless against the new ICBM's produced by the world's superpowers during the 1960's.
battery spencer san francisco bay
Battery Spencer Gun #2


While San Francisco Bay was extremely active all during World Wart Two, the was not the kind of hostile activity nearby as there was in the Gulf  of Mexico. Along the Pacific coast during the war there were three documented assaults originating from Japanese submarines. All of these actually turned out to be more of a harassment exercise than a real military assault.

One was a shelling of an oil facility offshore from Santa Barbara..a launching of a small aircraft from a submarine off the Oregon coast for the purpose of dropping incendiary devices into the northwest forests..and the shelling around midnight at an army post at the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon. None of these three caused a great deal of damage and represented  what appeared to be lone wolf uncoordinated light assaults. All three submarines escaped patrol aircraft sent out after these attacks and they were not heard from again. The situation in the Gulf of Mexico was quite different where German U-Boats had a good deal of success sinking allied oil tankers after they departed the Houston/Galveston area and the mouth of the Mississippi River south of New Orleans.

Additional San Francisco Area Historic Sites

alameda naval air station
Alameda NAS 1940's
There are many interesting places to see in San Francisco and a visit to these historic sites could be a good low cost addition to your California trip planner. If your visit takes you to Fishermans Wharf be sure to see the Liberty Ship Jeremiah O'Brien. The O'Brien was involved during D-Day and is a great stop. You'll also enjoy a tour of the USS Pampanito World War Two submarine also adjacent to Fishermans Wharf.

To visit the site of the old Battery Spencer, the location is near McCullough Rd and Conzelman Rd. in Sausalito very near the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge. Battery Spencer information and directions.

To visit old Fort Barry, the directions from San Francisco can be found on this link.

The directions to Fort Mason can be found on this link.

Another scenic visit to the Golden Gate National Recreational Area is Fort Baker in Sausalito CA. Information and directions are on their link.

Two additional Bay Area sites regarding World War Two and the San Francisco defenses are the U.S.S. Hornet permanently located in Alameda in the east bay and also the Alameda Naval Air Museum also in Alameda.

(Article copyright Western Trips. Photos and images from the public domain)







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