Southern California's own Mediterranean isle of Santa Catalina once served as more than a popular rendezvous for yachtsmen, the rich and famous, and day-trippers on a budget. The 76-square-mile resort played a role in U.S. military history.
World War II transformed Catalina from tourist idyll to military training site. The island closed to tourists Dec. 23, 1941 — about two weeks after Pearl Harbor and the same day a Japanese submarine attacked a ship near Cambria, Calif.
Special commando units used the island to train guerrilla fighters. Twin antiaircraft guns were mounted in front of the famous Avalon Casino ballroom, where a few years before, thousands had danced to the big band sounds of the era, including Glenn Miller and Count Basie.
The circular, Moorish-style landmark, where no gambling was ever conducted, doubled as classroom space for 35,000 merchant seamen. Wrigley Field, where the Chicago Cubs had held spring training since 1921, became an obstacle course and a place where merchant marines put on boxing gloves for hand-to-hand-combat training.
Today, little marks the spot where four branches of the military trained and guarded the California coast from a Japanese invasion. But a new exhibit at the Catalina Island Museum, "From Resort Community to Military Station: Catalina During World War II," explores what wartime Catalina was like for soldiers and civilians. The display is open through the end of the year.
After Japan's surprise attack on Hawaii, the Pacific Coast seemed vulnerable, and with good reason. Soon after Dec. 7, 1941, nine Japanese submarines moved east to target merchant ships off the mainland.
On Dec. 23, the 440-foot tanker Montebello was torpedoed off Cambria. The tanker went down in about 900 feet of water with its cargo: 75,000 barrels of crude oil. As the crew escaped in lifeboats, the submarine surfaced and opened fire with its deck gun. All 38 of the Montebello's sailors survived.
The next day, Christmas Eve, soldiers at San Pedro's Ft. MacArthur watched in disbelief as a torpedo struck the lumber freighter Absaroka in the San Pedro Channel. The jolt knocked loose a stack of lumber, which hit crewman Joseph Ryan in the head and tossed him overboard. He drowned. The ship, badly damaged, limped to shore.
The Japanese sank eight tankers along the California and Oregon coasts in the early months of the war. More than a dozen lives were lost. The first attack on the mainland came Feb. 23, 1942. A Japanese submarine surfaced at Goleta, 12 miles north of Santa Barbara, and fired 13 shells at the Ellwood oil field, causing $500 in damage. Oil field supervisors handed out pitchforks and told workers to defend the beach.
At Catalina, the military began work on an extensive system of observation towers, antiaircraft guns, radar arrays, artillery positions, airships and ocean mines to protect the waters around the island — which, as the song says, lies only 26 miles off the coast.
Hugh Tolford commanded a fleet of Navy blimps that escorted cargo ships and patrolled the coast and Catalina. He remembers floating home to the Del Mar base in the darkness after hunting for submarines.
"It was so top-secret that we couldn't even tell our wives about it," Tolford, of Sherman Oaks, said in a recent interview. But, he said, "We never, ever spotted a Japanese submarine."
As Catalina became an armed outpost, residents who were needed for military-related work stayed put; others gave up their homes for military personnel. Catalina's school and stores remained open, catering to the military.
In mid-1942, the merchant marine training station moved from Port Hueneme (pronounced "why-knee-me") to Catalina. That December, the Coast Guard's second-largest training station in the nation was dedicated in Avalon. Over the next 2 1/2 years, 35,000 recruits would prepare for combat there.
The heroics of the merchant marine were seldom depicted in movies and books, yet it was dangerous work. The sailors trained to load and unload cargo ships, to row and swim through oil fires and to man antiaircraft guns.
They learned to keep afloat by leaping into the sea, taking off their trousers and tying the bottom of each pant leg. They whirled the pants above their heads like windsocks to scoop up air, then used them as water wings. The improvised devices could keep a man afloat for as long as half an hour.
Catalina's coves and rugged interior were used by the Office of Strategic Services, forerunner of the CIA, for top-secret training missions lasting three to six weeks, according to Jeannie L. Pedersen, curator of the Catalina Island Museum.
"Here, with only a pocketknife and canteen, men learned to survive by catching fish, goats and pigs," Pedersen said.
They put their skills to use behind the lines in Burma (now Myanmar) and elsewhere, Pedersen said.
Tolford, 88, a retired Navy lieutenant commander, can't visit Catalina today without remembering the war. The blimps he commanded were equipped with four 325-pound depth charges, two .50-caliber machine guns and newly developed radar to track moving subs under water, he said.
Two pilots and a crew of eight to 10 men rode in 40-foot-long baskets, hanging beneath 280-foot-long, 70-foot-high blimps. They escorted cargo ships and patrolled the coast from Del Mar to Santa Barbara, to Catalina, to Scammon's Lagoon halfway down the Baja California Peninsula, and back to Del Mar.
He particularly remembers a foggy night in October 1944. One of the mammoth airships had come down from Tillamook, Ore. It stopped in Del Mar, then headed to Santa Ana to refuel before moving out to Catalina to begin its 22-hour patrol.
"But after leaving Santa Ana, the chief pilot turned the controls over to the assistant pilot and climbed up into one of the two bunks provided," Tolford said. "When the assistant pilot woke the captain to tell him that they were approaching Catalina Island and asked what should he do, the chief pilot said, 'Take it up and over.' "
The pilot followed instructions but didn't go high enough; the airship hit the Avalon Canyon mountainside. Six crew members and both pilots were killed on impact. Four others survived.
Catalina's war memories aren't all tragic. In 1944, a teenage Marilyn Monroe showed up as a war bride. She had married Jim Dougherty two years earlier, when her name was still Norma Jeane Baker or Mortensen; no one knows for sure.
Dougherty had joined the merchant marine and was assigned to teach sea safety on Catalina. The couple moved into an apartment and spent weekends at beach luaus. After a year, Dougherty was sent overseas and his wife returned to the mainland, where she worked on an assembly line in the San Fernando Valley packing and inspecting parachutes that attached to remote-controlled target planes.
There, a photographer assigned to take pictures of women working in the war effort saw her. She became a model and eventually a legend.