The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 2000, Volume 46, Number 4
Gregg Hennessey, Editor

Book Review

Raymond G. Starr, Book Review Editor

The History of the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego.

By the Marine Corps Recruit Depot Museum Historical Society and Meredith R. Vezina. San Diego: MCRD Museum Historical Society, and Escondido: Heritage Press & Productions, 1997. Photos, maps, notes, bibliography, index. iv + 172 pages. Paperbound.

Reviewed by Robert M. Witty, Executive Director, San Diego Historical Society; author of Marines of the Margarita: the Story of Camp Pendleton and the Leathernecks Who Train on a Famous California Rancho (1970).

The commandant of the Marine Corps, in the foreword to this book, states that the Marine Corps has done two things for this nation: it has won battles and made Marines. A list of what the Marines have done for San Diego would be substantially longer. For eighty years, it has added to the local economy. And now, with the dismantling of the Naval Training Center, we are newly aware of how the creation of military installations in earlier years has served to preserve public land and open space in this now overly-populated region.

This history of the Marine Corps Recruit Depot is also a reminder of how warm the ties once were between San Diego and the Marines.

Credit for founding the Marine Corps Base — it was not designated the Marine Corps Recruit Depot until 1948 — goes largely to one man, Congressman William Kettner, but it would not have happened without the perseverance of Colonel Joseph Pendleton, who become its first commanding officer and later a general and the namesake of Camp Pendleton.

Recurring problems with Mexico during the presidency of Porfirio Diaz alarmed President William Howard Taft, and in 1911 he dispatched a newly activated regiment of Marines to San Diego for deployment to Mexico. They bivouacked at what is now North Island, but tensions eased in Mexico before the Marines could cross the border. Marines were brought back to San Diego in 1913 and 1914, from whence they were dispatched to Mazatlan and Acapulco, and in 1915 in Guaymas, although they never engaged in conflict.

The tie that eventually bound the Marines to San Diego was the peaceful Panama-California Exposition. On December 10, 1914, the Marines were assigned to Exposition duty, setting up a model camp in Balboa Park. Popular with the public and with San Diego’s civic and political leaders, the Marines remained in Balboa Park — except for their excursions into Mexico — until the Marine Base was opened in 1921.

The base’s handsome Spanish colonial revival architecture with its red tile roofs, courtyards and 1,000-foot arcade, is also tied to the Exposition. The architect, Bertram Goodhue, was responsible for convincing the Exposition’s planners to choose that style of architecture. Goodhue had earlier designed the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and Rice University, and later the Los Angeles Public Library and the California Institute of Technology.

In the months leading up to World War II, there was an explosion of activity at MCRD, as there was throughout San Diego. San Diego’s population grew from 200,000 to more than 300,000. After Pearl Harbor, the flow of recruits into MCRD surged, with 18,000 arriving in one month.

The Marine base, like many military bases, was as active at the end of a war as at the beginning. The end of World War II brought hundreds of thousands of Marines home, and San Diego became a major separation center, with Navy transports unloading troops at the foot of Broadway nearly every week. By the end of 1945, some 24,000 Marines had been separated at the base. Some 350,000 Marines, or 75% of the corps, returned to civilian life.

Future wars were not far off, Korea being followed by Vietnam, and Marines have been involved in conflict some where in the world ever since.

Although the mid-50s to early 60s were relatively quiet years, the authors mined some interesting nuggets from the pages of the San Diego Union. Samples:

  • Go-go girls have been banished from clubs on all Navy and Marine Corps bases in San Diego — June 16, 1967.
  • Opposing groups of students demonstrated at San Diego Diego State yesterday after two Marine Corps recruiters set up an information table — May 4, 1967.
  • A general court martial has been recommended for a Marine Vietnam veteran who allegedly beat six recruits in the head and face with a coat hanger for taking too long with the meals. — June 16, 1967.
  • A 17-year-old Marine AWOL from San Diego has sought sought and received sanctuary in the Unitarian Church. — April 6, 1969.

The chronicle of MCRD’s history is a lively memory book for any Marine who ever trained there and an important chapter in the history of San Diego. It is essential to understanding how San Diego came to be the city it is today. Many of the base commanders stayed on in San Diego after retirement, or came back, and became active in San Diego’s civic, social and business life. Among them were Lt. Gen. Leo D. Hermle, Maj. Gen. Lowell English, Lt. Gen. Thomas Wornham, Maj. Gen. Bruno Hochmuth, Maj. Gen. Kenneth J. Houghton and Lt. Gen. Victor Krulak, whose son, General Charles C. Krulak, rose to become commandant of the corps and wrote the foreword to this book.

Meredith Vezina, as well as the MCRD Historical Society and others who helped bring this richly illustrated book to fruition deserve credit for an important contribution to the history of our region.