San Diego Naval Base, California
While the history of the Navy in San Diego is often framed around the beachfronts of North Island or the rolling hills of Balboa Park, it was a smaller tract of partially submerged marshland that ultimately became what is today Naval Base San Diego, a modern Navy complex and homeport to nearly a third of the Navy’s fleet in the Pacific theater.
Construction of the base almost did not happened.
The 97 acres of the land on which the Naval Base sits today was occupied in 1918 by a coalition of concrete ship building firms known as the Emergency Fleet Corporation, under the single company name Pacific Marine Construction. But Pacific Marine began to lose profits with the conclusion of World War I, and negotiated a return of the land back to the City of San Diego. Meanwhile, the Navy was exploring the small tract of land to establish a west coast ship repair facility and moved on the opportunity to acquire the land. By 1920, the Navy and the Emergency Fleet Corporation had negotiated the transfer of land improvements to the Navy. Still, three obstacles stood in the way of a Navy repair facility: one of the coalition companies, Schofield Engineering Co., still retained an option to purchase the existing plant; additionally, a local shipping board had not granted permission for more construction, and the Navy had not yet passed an appropriations bill to authorize funds to begin work.
Nevertheless, by June, 1920, Congress passed the appropriations bill – $750,000 of which was earmarked for the naval repair base. Still Schofield dragged its heels, reportedly to earn a larger buy-out. At the time, Admiral Roger Welles, then Commandant of the 11th Naval District (today, Commander, Navy Region Southwest), had grown weary of Schofield’s foot dragging, threatened to pull stakes and establish a repair base in San Pedro, California.
His threats worked. On Feb. 21, 1921, Welles assumed formal custody of the property. In May 1921, Commander H.N. Jensen – Commanding Officer of the repair tender USS PRARIE, was directed to moor at the site to establish repair operations. It was Feb. 23, 1922 when acting Secretary of the Navy, Teddy Roosevelt Jr., issued General Order 78 establishing the facility as the U.S. Destroyer Base, San Diego.
During its first years in commission, the base grew rapidly as repair facilities expanded, torpedo and radio schools were established and more shops were constructed. During 1924, the base decommissioned 77 destroyers and commissioned seven.
In 1931, then Captain Chester W. Nimitz – later Fleet Admiral Nimitz – would assume command of the base. At the time Nimitz reported on the “poor condition of decommissioned ships” and was said to have commented on “the inadequacy of decommissioned ships’ outfits and unfinished work as shown on ‘Material Readiness for War’ reports.”
The negative report, with pending cuts in defense spending, soon appeared to edge the Navy toward closing the base. But the Bureau of Yards and Docks rejected the idea of completely closing the base, though it considered a marginal closure, possibly placing the base in an inactive status. Nevertheless, the Navy took no steps to close the base. During the depression it was reported the Navy looked to other federal relief programs to maintain funding of the base. In 1934 the Navy received more than $2 million for dredging projects from the Public Works Administration.
By 1937, the Destroyer Base had added two additional tracts of land and by then its 29 buildings and other improvements amounted to a cost of more than $3.2 million.
The base then expanded heavily during World War II and by 1942, the Navy had added expanded fleet training schools, and an amphibious force training unit. By the following year, it was determined the scope of operations exceeded the base’s basic function as a Destroyer Base. The base was re-designated the U.S. Repair Base, San Diego , a title it retained throughout World War II. Between 1943 and 1945 the newly named base performed conversion, overhaul, maintenance and battle damage repair to more than 5,117 ships. Central to this maintenance were the Navy’s construction and delivery of 155 new floating dry docks deployed to various bases, including three 3,000-ton, three 1,000-ton and one 900-ton floating docks remaining at the San Diego Repair Base. The floating dry docks became the central repair and training facilities on the base which were crucial to the World War II mission.
After World War II, base operations were again reorganized, with a post-war mission to provide logistical support (including repair and dry-docking) to ships of the active fleet. On Sept. 15, 1946, the Secretary of the Navy re-designated the repair base Naval Station, San Diego . By the end of 1946 the base had grown to 294 buildings with floor space square footage of more than 6.9 million square feet, berthing facilities included five piers of more than 18,000 linear feet of berthing space. Land then totaled more than 921 acres (659 land) and 16 miles of roads. Barracks could accommodate 380 officers and 18,000 enlisted men. More than 3,500 Sailors could be fed in the galley at a single sitting on the base.
By 1949, the Navy again sought to save funding by closing facilities, and investigated the closure of either the Naval Station in San Diego, or the Long Beach Naval Shipyard. The City of San Diego continued a campaign to support and retain its Navy facilities and the city chamber of commerce sponsored a report identifying the advantages of the San Diego Naval Station over the Long Beach Naval Shipyard. The ploy worked, and Naval Station San Diego was spared, while the Long Beach shipyard suffered a short closure, until the Korean War.
During the Korean War, the Naval Station was expanded further, to more than 1,108 acres, with a regular workforce of 14,000 workers. During the ensuing years, operations at the base expanded and contracted, as world events dictated, though the mission remained basically the same through the Vietnam War and into the 1980s.
Later, in the 1990s, the Naval Station became the principal homeport of the then U.S. Pacific Fleet when the Long Beach Naval Shipyard was closed for the final time Sept. 30, 1994. Naval Station San Diego was realigned under Commander, Navy Region Southwest and became one in a triad of metropolitan Navy bases that now make up the bulk of the metro area Navy’s presence. With that change, the base became the hub of all Navy port operations for the Region, assumed logistical responsibility for both Naval Medical Center San Diego and the Region headquarters and was re-designated Naval Base San Diego.
A thoroughly modern, state-of-the-art naval facility, Naval Base San Diego is now homeport to approximately 50 ships, including 37 U.S. Navy ships, two U.S. Coast Guard cutters and various ships of the Military Sealift Command, as well as research and auxiliary vessels. Soon, the base will welcome the Navy’s newest and most advanced 21st Century fleet platforms known as Littoral Combat Ships.
Ashore, Naval Base San Diego is also home to more than 100 separate tenant commands and other Navy support facilities, each having specific and specialized fleet support missions. The base is a workplace for approximately 40,000 military, civilian and contract personnel. Additionally, the base has rooms to house more than 4,000 men and women in modern apartment-like barracks, including newer state-of-the-art resident towers planned for construction in the near future.
Naval Base San Diego today is a city within a city, providing the same services as any metropolitan district, not just to its inhabitants – the Sailors and other personnel who call the base its workplace or home – but the pier-side needs of the ships as well. Direct services include power, water and steam; hard and wireless communication lines, repair and training facilities. Support services includes less direct and indirect fleet support: waterfront operations, force protection (security), supply, Navy Exchange and Commissary shopping centers, bachelor quarters, food services, public affairs, administration, transient personnel administration fiscal management, equal employment opportunity, civil engineering, family services, recreation on the base and near various military family housing areas, medical and dental care, religious services, transportation, utilities, legal support, counseling and assistance, facility maintenance, fire protection, educational services, and child care for more than 300 children daily at the base Child Development Center.
The base today runs on a facilities budget of about $34 million annually. Of course, a far cry from the humble beginnings of a small, partially submerged tract of marshland that today has risen to become one of the world’s most modern, naval bases in the world today.