Since its beginning, the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at San Diego, California has been surrounded by the Spanish heritage of Southern California. Among the more conspicuous are place names such as that of San Diego itself, and the picturesque architecture of the permanent buildings on the Marine base. This is a consequence of California's earlier years under Spanish influence. In the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, which ended the United States-Mexican War, Mexico ceded a large block of territory, including California, to the United States, and San Diego began to achieve importance as an American port city of major military importance.
Located only twelve miles north of the Mexican border, and with the southernmost deep water harbor on the west coast of the United States, the San Diego area presented itself to the strategic planner as a favorable site for an advanced expeditionary base. Convenient to the Pacific approaches, San Diego could also serve as a port of embarkation for forces needed in the South and Central American areas as well as in the Orient.
The contact of United States Marines with San Diego, California first occurred on July 29, 1846 when men of the Marine Detachment from the Sloop-of-War Cvane landed to raise the first American flag on the Plaza of Old Town(1) After that brief episode, Marines took part in shore activities of the Navy, in the San Diego area, both during and following the Mexican War. The Marines gave support to General Stephen Watts Kearny throughout his occupation of the southwest as he waited for the Mexicans to come to terms. From that time until 1911, however, there is no record of any Marines performing duty ashore in San Diego. In March 1911, the 4th Provisional Marine Regiment(2) landed at North Island in San Diego bay, under the command of Colonel Charles A. Doyen(3). The Marines established a military camp and named it Camp Thomas in honor of Rear Admiral Chauncey Thomas, Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet. Formed for possible need as a result of the civil disorder in Mexico in 1910, the 4th Marine Regiment and Camp Thomas disbanded in June, 1911 when political stability appeared to be reestablished south of the border(4). The officers and men that had been pulled together to form the 4th Provisional Regiment returned to their regular bases and units(5).
Camp Thomas did not again serve as a camp for Marines in San Diego. North Island, however, did lend itself once more as an area of cantonment for the 4th Marine Regiment. Political turmoil erupted again in Mexico and on 14 April 1914, the 4th Marine Regiment reformed to be prepared for service if needed. Reorganized at the Puget Sound, Washington, and Mare Island, California Navy Yards in April, 1914, the regiment, this time under the able command of Colonel Joseph H. Pendleton, USMC(6) embarked in the USS South Dakota, West Virginia, and Jupiter and proceeded to the Gulf of California as a show of force. As an acceptable degree of stability returned to the Mexican government, the need for the Marine presence diminished. On 1 July 1914, the regiment again sailed for home but this time not to be disbanded(7). On 6 July 1914, the 4th Marines arrived in San Diego harbor and on the 7th and 10th of July again landed on North Island(8). Colonel Pendleton followed the precedent established in 1911 and named the new camp area Camp Howard after the incumbent Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet, Rear Admiral Thomas 13. Howard. From that date to the present, Marines have been stationed in San Diego. North Island, however, did not continue as their base location.
As the military alertness caused by the Mexican political situation of 1914 faded, other historical events occurred which affected U. S. Marines in Southern California. The Panama Canal had been completed and opened for ship movement on 15 August 1914. To mark the occasion, the cities of San Diego and San Francisco planned major events to commemorate the start of a new era of intercourse between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. San Francisco opened the Panama-Pacific International Exposition and San Diego the Panama-California Exposition. The Commandant of the Marine Corps ordered the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines to exposition duty at San Francisco and the 2nd Battalion to the Panama-California Exposition located at Balboa Park in San Diego. The 1st and 2nd Battalions each consisted of 11 officers and 240 enlisted Marines in contrast to present day Marine Battalions of approximately 1400 officers and men. Each of these units received orders to establish and maintain model camps and to provide in various ways Marine Corps exhibits as part of their displays.
Colonel Pendleton deployed the 4th Marines as he had been directed. The first unit, the 2nd Battalion, left Camp Howard on 11 December 1914. The final movement of troops occurred on 17 December as the last unit, Company 28, reached Balboa Park. Company 28, like the other companies of the 4th Marines, consisted of 3 officers and 95 men and effected the crossing of San Diego bay without difficulty(9). Colonel Pendleton and his staff moved across San Diego bay on 22 December and established the regimental headquarters in the Science and Education Building. The next day the 1st Battalion sailed for San Francisco on board the USS West Virginia. With all Marines departed, Camp Howard on North Island closed and for all future consideration ceased to exist(10).
On 19 December 1914, Colonel Pendleton reported by telephone to Marine Corps Headquarters, in Washington, D.C., that the Marine Barracks, San Diego had been established on that date. With the subordinate units geographically spread throughout California, Colonel Pendleton kept the regimental headquarters separate from the base at that time. Major William N. McKelvy, Commanding Officer of the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, became the first commanding officer of Marine Base, San Diego(11).
As 1915 began, the Marine Corps installation in San Diego still existed in a temporary status. No land had been acquired for the establishment of a permanent base and apparently no one within the Navy Department, at that time, expected such a move. With Colonel Pendleton the senior officer at San Diego, this matter proved too important to remain ignored or forgotten for long. Impressed from the beginning with the suitability of the area as alocation for an expeditionary base, Colonel Pendleton began a campaign to enlist aid and support for his goal of establishing such a base in San Diego(12).
San Diego Congressman William Kettner's(13) home stood on Horton's Hill overlooking a less than lovely section of the San Diego bay coastline known locally as "Dutch Flats". This could be best described as a low-lying, odorous, flat, tidal marsh, inundated at high tide, open to the sun at low tide, and upon which grew certain varieties of plants and insects. Congressman Kettner found this view from his window a sorry sight to behold(14). This convenient circumstance served to assist Colonel Pendleton in his efforts to establish a marine base in San Diego. Congressman Kettner had been elected to the House of Representatives in 1913, and since that time had been very actively lobbying for increased Naval construction for the San Diego area.
While home in San Diego, in September 1914, Congressman Kettner met the impressive and persuasive Colonel Pendleton. At a dinner meeting at the U. S. Grant Hotel, Pendleton remarked that he felt San Diego to be ideally suited for the establishment of a Marine Corps Expeditionary Base. He further suggested North Island as a perfect site(15).
Although he had been active in search of appropriations for the development of harbor improvements and coal and fuel stations for U. S. Navy ships located in the area, Kettner had not considered the idea of a marine base in San Diego. Kettner envisioned his home above a busy military base instead of a smelly tidal marsh, and suggested "Dutch Flats" instead of North Island. After an exchange of views on the matter for several weeks, Colonel Pendleton promised his support for the establishment of the base at "Dutch Flats" if Kettner would lend his support in the U. S. House of Representatives(16). Pendleton further agreed that he would undertake the difficult task of convincing the Commandant of the Marine Corps who, up to this point, had not been informed of the proposal for the base development.
Major General George Barnett, the Commandant of the Marine Corps(17), did not appear overly enthusiastic when first informed of the San Diego base recommendation. General Barnett considered the Recruit Training Depot at Mare Island in San Francisco Bay, with its easy supply line, adequate to the Marine Corps Pacific Coast requirements,
...Another thing, we can get all sorts of supplies much better at San Francisco, where the depot is located. Again, I think, except for climatic conditions, that San Francisco or Mare Island would be a much better place, because it is nearer the base of supplies...(18)After visiting San Diego and several other proposed sites, and after Colonel Pendleton had used all of his persuasive powers, General Barnett reported to the Naval Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives on August 26, 1915,
...Climatic conditions in San Diego are particularly suitable for an advanced base for an expeditionary regiment or brigade to work outdoors the year round, and San Diego, being the southernmost harbor in the United States on the Pacific Coast, is particularly well situated for such a post...(19)
Major General Barnett had made his San Diego visit at the direction of the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Secretary Roosevelt ordered that the Commandant study several proposed sites for establishment of a west coast expeditionary base to match the east coast base at Quantico, Virginia. The Assistant Secretary envisioned a marine base on the west coast from which rapid response could be made to troubled areas to Latin America where political instability seemed to be the way of governments. Upon returning to his headquarters in Washington, D. C., the Commandant joined Congressman Kettner and Colonel Pendleton in convincing Secretary Roosevelt of the desirability of San Diego for an advanced base(20).
The full support of the Assistant Secretary of the Navy did not guarantee that the base would be built. It took time to convince the House Naval Affairs Committee of the merits of the plan. Precedent required that recommendations for base establishment must come from the Secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels(21). The Secretary had not seen fit to include the marine base on his list of recommendations so additional effort had to be exerted to obtain support(22).
Congressman Kettner spent considerable time and effort in persuading colleagues on the Naval Affairs Committee of the need for the marine base. Governor William Stephens(23), a member of the committee, assisted Kettner in obtaining the full support of nineteen of the twenty-one members for Kettner's proposed base establishment bill. When Secretary Daniels heard of this, he let it be known that he supported the need for a San Diego marine base,
..It would be a very desirable piece of property for the Navy to own, because we ought to have a marine base at San Diego...(24)
On 5 January 1916, Congressman William Kettner introduced his legislation in the House of Representatives. Known as the Kettner Naval Base Bill, the document called for the purchase of land on the San Diego bay shoreline to be used for the establishment of an Advanced Marine Corps Expeditionary Base. San Diego citizens, through local newspapers, learned that the bill seemed sure to be given favorable consideration and would result in an economic boost to San Diego. This could also mean improvements which would in Kettner's words, "...render very sightly a part of the San Diego bay front that is not at present especially attractive..."(25)
Although assured of support from other members of the committee, Kettner still had obstacles to overcome before passage could be accomplished. A major barrier existed in the attitude of Admiral Frederic R. Harris, the Chief of the Bureau of Yards and Docks, Navy Department. The Admiral did not favor the project and as a result of his attitude the bill made little headway until after the Naval Affairs Committee visited San Diego and viewed the site for itself. Upon their return to Washington, D. C., Mr. Lemuel P. Padgett, Chairman(26), and Mr. Thomas S. Butler(27), the ranking Republican member, stated that the committee stood more strongly in favor of the proposition and so informed Admiral Harris. This added the required strength and from that time on the matter progressed rapidly(28). Passage of the Kettner bill occurred and its provisions were incorporated into the Naval Appropriations Act of 29 August 1916.(29)
The bay front property required for the marine base in the "Dutch Flats" tideland consisted of 232.24 acres of reasonably dry land and an additional 500 acres that would have to be dredged and filled. The San Diego Securities Company owned the dry acreage and had set the cost of that property at $400,000(30). After meeting with the San Diego Chamber of Commerce representatives, the Securities Company agreed to sell the property for $250,000(31).
Lieutenant Ernest Swanson, Officer in Charge of the San Diego Naval Recruiting Station, and representing both the Federal Government and the Marine Corps, announced in May 1917 that the money for purchase of the "Dutch Flats" tideland had been deposited in his name(32). The money, in the amount of $250,000, went to Mr. George Burnham, President of the San Diego Securities Company on 15 June 1917(33). Mr. Burnham had been of much assistance to Congressman Kettner in lobbying for the passage of the Kettner bill in Washington, D. C. and accepted the check with a sense of pride in his having been a part of the force causing this development to begin(34). As William Kettner had said,
...George Burnham, with his magnetic personality and persuasive qualities, aided me materially. He spent much time in Washington, assisting in the passage of this legislation through the House and Senate...(35)
With the purchase of the 232.24 acre tract completed, the city of San Diego took steps to fulfill an earlier agreement for additional land. As an incentive to the Navy Department, the officials of San Diego had formally offered to donate an additional 500 acres of municipally owned tidelands adjoining the purchased land upon completion of the initial sale. Secretary Josephus Daniels acknowledged receipt of that offer for the Navy in November 1915(36). The title search of the 500 acres turned out to be a lengthy but successful one. The United States District Attorney, Albert Schoonover, and San Diego City Attorney, T. B. Cosgrove, cleared the title for the required land. This permitted the completion of plans for the base development, and the granting of construction contracts to begin.
The U. S. Army Corps of Engineers for California's southern district assumed jurisdiction over the reclamation project and assigned Captain Charles T. Leeds to supervise the operation(37). The work contract had been awarded to the San Francisco Bridge Company, with an agreed upon contract price of 13.9¢ per cubic yard. The dredge Oakland began operation late in 1917, with an established rate of approximately 200,000 cubic yards of material each month. By the time of the official groundbreaking on 2 March 1919, the dredging operation had been 78 per cent completed(38).
On 2 March 1919, the House of Representatives Naval Affairs Committee visited the Marine Camp in Balboa Park and the Advanced Base Station on "Dutch Flats". Groundbreaking ceremonies formally marked the construction's beginning and various speakers gave speeches as befitted the occasion. San Diego Chamber of Commerce President, Melville Klauber, spoke of the past and future work on the Marine Base(39). Naval District Commandant, Rear Admiral Jaynes, introduced Congressman Padgett, handed him a gilded shovel, and invited him to do first honor. When Congressman Kettner rose to speak, the applause increased in respect for his efforts. In part, Kettner said,
...This (the base itself) is my baby and I want it to stand as a monument of my works in Congress for the City of San Diego...(40)