by James M. Vaughan
Few places in America experienced greater changes as a result of World War II than San Diego. And few events, if any, in San Diego history have had more immediate and more long lasting impact on the people who lived here.
The rapid growth that affected virtually all aspects of life in San Diego received considerable national attention at the time, in newsreels, newspapers and magazines. In January 1942, the National Geographic described and illustrated the events taking place in San Diego in a feature article entitled “San Diego Can’t Believe It.”
Down in the southwest nook of the United States there hums, hammers, and whistles one of the world’s most crowded, most astonishing cities. I mean San Diego, “where California began.” Today her once quiet, sunshiny air is full of dust, smoke, steam, zooming planes, and the roar of gunfire. Without taking thought she sees cubits added to her stature. Transformed, she is, by the fury of men making ready to fight.
San Diego’s military and industrial base was established well in advance of the outbreak of war in Europe in the fall of 1939. San Diego was already known as a “Navy Town” and much of the ship building, repair and service facilities that expanded so rapidly during the war were already here. San Diego’s clear skies had already attracted the aviation industry including such manufacturers as Ryan, Consolidated, and Solar. But the outbreak of war in Europe quickly produced an unprecedented national buildup of our industrial and military capacity, as part of the effort to be the “arsenal of Democracy,” by supplying the Allies in Europe.
The immediate impact of these national agendas on San Diego was staggering. The population jumped from 200,000 to 300,000 in little more than a year, eclipsing the growth forecast for the next two decades. The aviation industry was the driving force as local companies worked around the clock to fill orders. The arrival of workers from across America created an instant housing shortage and changed forever the demographic mix of the county.
If pre-war San Diego was a “Navy Town,” then wartime San Diego was equally an “Army Town.” Camp Lockett in Campo, Camp Callan at Torrey Pines, Camp Elliot in Kearny Mesa and other training bases and defense installations joined the Navy and Marine bases already here. At the peak of the war, more than 70 percent of the land in San Diego County was devoted to military purposes.
If you lived in San Diego during the period of 1939 to 1945, you lived in one of the busiest military communities in the country and your life was affected every day by the wartime conditions. Some experiences were widely shared and common to almost everyone, such as learning to live with shortages, rationing, civil defense measures, scrap drives, bond drives, and Red Cross drives. Other experiences were shared only by smaller segments of the population such as those of Japanese American families who were relocated during the war as potential security risks. For many, the wartime San Diego experience was different, but for most it was also one of the most significant and memorable events in their lives.
In today’s society of television wars, it is difficult to imagine a single event that would so permeate and dominate lives in the same way that World War II altered the lives of its generation. Hopefully, the essays in War Comes to San Diego will preserve and communicate to younger and future generations some of that experience. Hopefully too, like all good history, it will help us to better understand our community and to make better informed decisions as we face new changes being imposed on San Diego by national efforts to downsize the military at the end of the cold war. As this volume indicates, you don’t have to be a historian to recognize that today’s military and defense cutbacks are directly linked to the sweeping changes that San Diego experienced more than fifty years ago when “War Came To San Diego.”