Balboa Park - The War Years

War Years Exhibit

Balboa Park - The War Years

War Years in Balboa Park and San Diego

Balboa Park was involved in the war effort for both World Wars. Shortly after the first Panama Pacific International Exposition of 1915-1916, the U.S. joined the Allies in World War I and the military took over the park. All three branches of the military (Army, Navy, and Marines) were active in Balboa Park, with the largest presence being the Navy. The various buildings served as barracks and support buildings. Balboa Park's buildings were uniquely sized to accommodate the enormous numbers of troops. The park became a self-contained city/base and all non-military entities were ordered off the grounds. Thousands of recruits, a large percentage of whom could not swim, were trained in Balboa Park. The lily pond was deepened and turned into a training ground for sailors learning to swim and row. It was also used for physical recovery of injured troops.

After the second exposition of 1935-1936, the park was again taken over for military activities when the United States entered WWII. Many of the buildings, including the San Diego Automotive Museum, were an extension of Balboa Naval hospital. Wards were set up for the rehabilitation of the troops and also served as training hospitals for medical personnel. Navy nurses were also housed here. Balboa Park was renamed Camp Kidd and the area was off limits to civilians. Every facility in the park and public spaces throughout San Diego were appropriated by the military. San Diego Bay, Point Loma, northern La Jolla, Tierrasanta, La Mesa and massive tracts of undeveloped land came under federal control.

Lines of nurses dressed in white
Nurses based at Balboa Park

San Diego Changed Forever

World War II completely changed San Diego and its economy forever. San Diego had been a relatively small and quiet city prior to the war.  While San Diego had a large naval airbase and several repair facilities, the population was about 200,000 in 1940. With the concerns increasing about the conflict in Europe and Asia, military operations began to increase even prior to Pearl Harbor. By the end of 1941, the population of San Diego had grown to over 300,000. Tensions increased on the west coast.  After Pearl Harbor, near panic set in as San Diego was as exposed and unprepared as Hawaii had been for the December 7th attack. The concerns were justified as Japan had nine submarines prowling the waters off the west coast from San Diego to Seattle and there were incidents of submarines firing on ships and sinking a ship off of the coast of Los Angeles. There were fears of possible bombing runs by the Japanese coming up through Mexico, fueled by false alarm sightings.  

San Diego went into black out mode in the evenings, including the buildings in Balboa Park.  Keeping our military installations and recovering service men and medical staff safe was the priority. Black tar paper was put on windows to cover any light from the buildings. The windows of this building were actually covered with tar (with a bit still visible in the upper NE corner). Air raid drills and blackouts were held through 1943. Consolidated Aircraft recruited thousands of employees and had to protect itself from enemy attack. Miles of camouflage netting covered the complex, Pacific Highway, and Lindbergh Field. Some nets were painted to resemble city streets and residential rooftops.

Protecting San Diego and Our Coastal Areas

Anti-barrage balloons were installed in Balboa Park as part of San Diego’s early war defense network. The Coast Artillery Barrage Balloon Battalion had balloons near Consolidated Aircraft plant, Lindbergh field, and Balboa Park as a deterrent against enemy aircraft attack. Connected by cables when in the air, the protection of a two mile wide area required 100 balloons. Crews were on 24 hour alert for over a year. The Army's Coastal Artillery Corps set up gun batteries and anti-aircraft guns all along the coastline. Point Loma, Fort Rosecrans, Pacific Beach, and La Jolla had gun installations and radio towers and spot lights to watch for any enemy aircraft. In fact, the radio station at Fort Rosecrans was the radio station that relayed the news coming out from Pearl Harbor immediately after the attack. Due to atmospheric conditions, Fort Rosecrans was the only station to receive the news coming out from Hawaii for the first days after Pearl Harbor. Anti-submarine nets were strung across the mouth of San Diego Bay, and long range artillery was on full alert at Fort Rosecrans and elsewhere along the coast. The tuna fleet of San Diego became the "Pork Chop Express" in World War II. Over 50 tuna clippers became supply ships to haul food, fuel and other needed supplies.


Balloon tethered to the ground
WWII Anti Barrage Balloon in Balboa Park
Men stand on anti-aircraft battery
Anti Aircraft Battery at Fort Rosecrans

Military Camps

Troops crawl up a hill
Troops training at Camp Callan La Jolla/Torrey Pines


As San Diego's military forces and defense industries converted to 24-hour wartime operations, the need for land increased dramatically. Military camps were established to train incoming troops. Over 20 Marine, Navy, and Army bases and camps were established far and wide in San Diego. Gun battery training was located at Fort Rosecrans in Point Loma. Rifle and anti-aircraft-artillery training was conducted at Camp Callan and Camp Matthews in La Jolla and near Torrey Pines. Training was also conducted at Camp Elliott in Tierrasanta, and Camp Kidd in Balboa Park. Camp Gillespie was used for paratrooper training. Camp Linda Vista Green Farm Camp was used for sniper training and Jaques Farm Camp was a tank school. Camp Lockett in Campo garrisoned army soldiers for horse cavalry including the 10th Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers. The navy took over the Del Mar Race track grounds for intensive physical training. The Navy bought the 132,000 acre Mexican land grant ranch north of San Diego called Rancho Santa Margarita which became Camp Pendleton which was used for amphibious assault training. This was crucial since 60 percent of the recruits had never seen the ocean.


Book pages with photo collage
Annual book for Camp Matthews in UCSD area.


Impact on Employment and the Urban Crisis

The San Diego workforce and infrastructure was unprepared for the large numbers of new workers needed for the war effort. Advertisements for workers brought a flood of eager job seekers. This caused shortages of housing, schools, and water. The infrastructure of the city was compromised. New transportation arteries were created with federal funds. When the local water supplies were insufficient to support the troops and populace, the navy sought $7.7 million to build a new pipeline. Many of the job advertisements targeted women who then brought their children with them. The schools became overloaded quickly. School enrollment increased 7,500 from 1940 to 1941. 

San Diego government mobilized city services to support the increase. Transportation services were expanded, and new housing developments were started. New airfields, training sites and laboratories sprang up all over San Diego County. Some more remote locations like Sweetwater Reservoir were ideal for testing secret new technologies.

The massive influx of young military men for training and for recuperation changed San Diego's downtown into a festive area. Men from all walks of life and every state in the union came to San Diego. Tens of thousands of marines, sailors, and soldiers rotated through the city every few weeks. Nearly all entertainment was centered along Broadway and the Gaslamp Quarter. Businesses opened up to support the new arrivals, including uniform shops, parachute fabricators, bars, shoeshine stands, tattoo parlors, movie theaters, souvenir photographers, and restaurants. USO clubs played a large role in providing wholesome distraction in the forms of dances and social events.


Men and women around a piano


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