Historic California Posts, Camps, Stations and Airfields
Fort Funston: Battery Walter Howe

by Gordon Chappell, Regional Historian, Pacific West Region, National Park Service

About 1890 the army engineers planning new defenses of San Francisco Bay proposed to build two mortar batteries on a tract of land between Laguna de la Merced (Lake Merced or, more properly, Lake of Mercy) and the Pacific Ocean, in the southwestern corner of San Francisco. The Spring Valley Water Company, owner of the yet undeveloped land, was amenable to a 'friendly' condemnation suit, and in this manner the government acquired in December 1900 roughly 45 acres at $900 per acre, and established the Lake Merced Military Reservation. However no construction took place until World War I provided the stimulus, when in February 1917 the Engineers commenced building a temporary battery for four 12-inch mortars, with the guns for it to come from Batteries Stotsenburg-McKinnon, Pits 3 and 4. The battery is significant because of its unusual straight line configuration (a result of the practical difficulties of having four crews working simultaneously in a four mortar pit), and because it was the very last mortar battery in service in the United States

Battery Howe apparently retained its mortars until 1945, this "temporary" battery thus far outlasting the armament of many "permanent" mortar batteries Today, however, nothing remains of Battery Walter Howe. It was destroyed when the City of San Francisco expanded it water treatment facilities to the north of the old fort.


ROTC Cadets firing a 12 inch mortar in the 1930's
Photograph courtesy of Brian B. Chin


Model 1890 Mortar on M1896 Carriage
Battery Walter Howe
by Sgt. Maj. (CA) Dan Sebby, Military Historian, California Military Department
Also in February 1917, the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) commenced building a temporary battery for four 12-inch seacoast mortars, with the ordnance for it coming from Batteries Stotsenburg and William McKinnon at nearby Fort Winfield Scott. On 30 January 1919, the battery was turned over to the Coast Artillery Corps by the USACE. The mortar battery, in which the four guns were uniquely arranged in a straight line, was named for Brigadier General Walter Howe who had died in 1915. The only concrete in the emplacement was in the gun platforms; as the plotting room was a wooden building. Battery Walter Howe would retain its mortars in an operational capacity until 1945, and was the last operational seacoast mortar battery in the U.S. Army's Coast Artillery Corps. . This "temporary" battery far outlasted the armament of many "permanent" mortar batteries.


Battery Howe, Circa 1941
Battery Walter Howe
by Justin Ruhge
In February 1917 the Corps of Engineers made available $20,861 for the purpose of constructing temporary emplacements at Lake Merced for four 12-inch mortars to come from Battery McKinnon (pits 3 and 4) at Fort Winfield Scott. Because of its "temporary" nature it actually survived to become the last mortar battery in the United States.
It was not provided with the standard concrete parapets or traverses nor were its magazines covered over in the ordinary fashion. Rather, the entire installation was sited behind a small hill about 30 feet high and the magazines were simply a pair of rectangular buildings, roughly 25 by 60 feet, constructed of reinforced concrete two feet thick.
Aside from these non-permanent aspects, Battery Walter Howe was unique in that its four weapons were emplaced in a straight line at 30-foot intervals, rather than in a square as had been described in foregoing sections of this work. This form of emplacement resulted from a finding many years before that all four mortars in a pit were, as a rule, seldom used. The reason was that the loading process had been found to be a somewhat chaotic affair, with dozens of men trying to handle the four half-ton projectiles rapidly within a small, crowded area. Since no one mortar in a pit could be fired until all four had been loaded and the area cleared, the rate of fire was limited to the rate of loading of the piece or pieces most difficult to reach, and these were invariably the two forward mortars in the square. As a result, it had become common practice, prior to World War I, to use only two of the four weapons in each pit, usually the rear pair; and in some instances the two forward pieces had been inactivated or removed altogether. This very situation, in fact, had made mortars available for construction of Battery Howe, whose weapons were taken from the forward halves of the two pits of Battery McKinnon at Fort Winfield Scott.
The four mortars arranged in a straight line were turned over to the Coast Artillery Corps troops on January 30, 1919. The work to that date had cost $8,356. The concrete work consisted of the platforms only. The plotting room was a wooden building, measuring 12 by 19 feet with a tar and gravel roof, situated about 200 feet to the southeast of the mortars. It contained a 110-degree M 1915 plotting board. Two fire control stations supported the battery. One, designated BCI BISI, was a wooden station located on the left flank of the battery at an elevation of 98 feet. The second, designated B2S2 was a single dug-in type on Sutro Heights at an elevation of 145 feet.
General orders 135, dated October 25, 1917, named the new battery in honor of Brigadier General Walter Howe, Artillery Corps, who had died in 1915.
Battery Howe was removed in 1945. No visible trace of the battery remains.
Report of Completed Works - Seacoast Fortifications
Reports of Completed Works - Seacoast Fortifications: Battery Walter Howe
Other Online or Printed Histories
Harbor Defenses of San Francisco - A Field Guide 1890 to 1950
Search our Site!
Search the Web Search California Military History Online
View My Stats
Visitors since 8 December 1998
Questions and comments concerning this site should be directed to the Webmaster
Updated 23 June 2017