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Defenses along the Pacific Coast of the United States
by Mark J. Bernow
Coast Defense Study Group

Separated from other nations of the world by large bodies of water, the United States relied on emplaced guns to defend its coastline against foreign invasion. By denying potential enemy fleets easy access to its ma-jor ports, a successful deterrent to invasion was created. Although the Navy has played a key role in this defense, it is the massive fortifications manned by the Army that has come to symbolize that policy. Inheriting a long standing defense tradition and a small body of works from its Euro-pean colonial days, the fledgling American government soon began what was to be the first in a se-ries of national fortification construction programs in 1794 and continued them into the 1940s when the entire concept of coastal defense gunnery became obsolete. Many of these works, now stripped of their ar-mament, remain today as a mute testimony to days gone by. This book briefly covers the history of American coast defenses around the Pacific and describes what can be seen today.

Early American Harbor Defenses 1794-1850

The United States had a small body of defensive works when it gained its independence in 1781, but these were either incomplete or in poor condition. In 1794 and in 1807, war scares caused Congress to appropri-ate money for construction of fortifications to guard key east coast harbors. These have been labeled the First and Second Systems. However, once the threat of attack subsided so did interest in building for-tifications and the uncompleted works were allowed to deteriorate. Built mostly of earth with some masonry backing and designed to hold smooth-bore Colombiad cannons, these structures were neither uniform nor durable. Subsequent construc-tion and erosion have all but destroyed these works. A few examples do remain, most notably Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland, Fort Mifflen near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Fort Washington near Washington DC in Maryland.

In 1816 Congress appropriated over $800,000 for a new fortification program, which became known as the Third System and was to be the most ambitious American program to date. Begun under peaceful conditions after the War of 1812, the works were built more methodically and were more permanent in nature than those of the previous systems. President James Madison appointed a Board of Engineers for Forti-fications headed by Simon Bernard, a former officer in Napoleon's army with vast fortification experience and knowledge. The Board visited potential sites and pre-pared plans for the new works. Its first report in 1821 duly noted that the Navy was the foremost defender of the nation's shores and established a fortification program that re-mained the backbone of American coastal defense until well into the latter part of the 19th Cen-tury. The original report suggested 50 sites. By 1850 the board had recommended nearly 150 more be built. In all, the board suggested building at 200 Atlantic and Gulf coast sites and 20 Pacific coast sites. The main-stays of the defensive works were the large masonry structures built to house many guns in their vertical faces. Some of these structures became famous during the Civil War. Fort Sumter, Fort Mon-roe, Fort Jeffer-son, Fort Pulaski, Fort Pickens, Fort Moultrie, Fort Jackson and Fort Morgan all were built under this pro-gram. Smaller works were built to guard less important harbors. The larger works, principally around the major harbors, were largely replacements for earlier works.

Early Pacific Coast Harbor Defenses 1791-1865

European exploration of the section of the North American Pacific coast which would eventually become part of the United States began in 1542. Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo charted the California coast and landed in San Diego Bay. For the next 200 years the area would be the destination of maritime adventurers and explorers, but it took an active interest by Russian exploration parties from Alaska to prompt Spanish officials into sending a colonization party to California in 1769. A mission and a Presidio (garrison) were established in 1770 at San Diego Bay. Explorers from that party discovered San Francisco Bay in 1771, and a Presidio and a mission were established there in 1776. By the turn of the century there were 21 missions, 4 presidios and 4 pueblos (towns) in Alta California.

Continued concern over incursions by Russian and British explorers, many of which were thinly disguised military expeditions, prompted the Spanish government to construct emplacements for guns at the entrance to San Francisco Bay in 1791 and the entrance to San Diego Bay in 1797, but these soon fell into disrepair and were essentially abandoned after Mexico became independent from Spain in 1822.

With the discovery of the mouth of the Columbia River by Robert Gray in 1783 and the publicity from Lewis and Clark expedition of 1805-06, the United States also lay claim to an area already jointly claimed by Spain, Russia and Great Britain. Great Britain had added her claim to the Pacific Coast areas by virtue of several cartilogical expeditions in the late 1700s. The development of the fur trade strengthened Britain's claim to the area during the 1820s and 30s, but the events of the 1840s brought the Oregon and California areas under American control. Increased migration of Americans into Oregon brought about the settlement of the boundary between Canada and America on the 49th parallel in June of 1846. A month earlier the war between Mexico and the United States started over the annexation of Texas. In June of 1846, anxious Americans precipitated a revolt in Sonoma. The mastery of the Californian ports by the American Navy assured American control of California during that war. The territory was officially added to the United States in 1848.

Army engineers surveyed the coastline for defensible harbors in 1850 and noted only four large usable deep-draft harbors: San Diego Bay, San Francisco Bay, the mouth of the Columbia River and the Puget Sound. Land was reserved for military purposes around the first three of those harbors during 1849-1852, but actual defenses were only constructed at San Francisco beginning in 1853, to guard the Navy anchorage located there. The brick and mortar fortress at Fort Point and the gun batteries on Alcatraz Island were essentially complete by 1860, but further major construction was interrupted by the Civil War.

The Post-Civil War Period 1860-1885

The American Civil War saw some of the most mo-mentous advances in the history and development of warfare. Advances in weaponry, especially the rifled gun, practically rendered the massive fortresses of the Third System obsolete overnight. The masonry forts proved to be vulnerable to the new cannons and were difficult to repair. Defenders learned early in the war that parapets built of sand and earth were quicker and easier to build and repair, as well as more resistant to cannon fire. Soon, both sides were erecting earthen forts and batteries to protect vulnerable harbors, gener-ally forsaking the older masonry works. In addition, the war saw the first large scale use of underwater mines as a supplementary part of harbor defenses. The Civil War brought hurried construction of temporary earthen batteries at San Francisco Bay and at the mouth of the Columbia River. This was more to dissuade Britain from taking undefended real estate then to defend from possible Confederate attack.

Following the war, the United States was not in a po-sition to rebuild its harbor defenses. Some of the Third System fortifications were repaired and some additional detached batteries with earthen parapets and bricklined magazines were constructed. Land around the Puget Sound was finally reserved for defenses in 1866, but no funds were available to build them. During the 1870s, a large number of works were begun under a pro-gram which included large caliber mortars and submarine mines in the defenses. On the West Coast, a few new batteries were built at San Francisco and one started at San Diego, but the program was soon curtailed as the new ordinance could not be constructed in enough quantity and many of the new fea-tures were not implemented. Most of the defenses were generally abandoned during the 1870s and 1880s as the Army did not have enough manpower to garrison the nearly useless old guns.

Modern American Harbor Defenses: The Endicott Program 1885-1910

During the years following the termination of the har-bor defense construction in the 1870s, several critical advances took place in the design and construction of heavy ordinance, which allowed for the construction of longer ranged weapons. Coupled with these developments was a growing alarm in the military over the lack of effective harbor defenses. In 1883, the Navy began a new construction program for the first time since the close of the Civil War. The Navy's new ships were de-signed to be offensive rather than defensive weapons. The change in naval policy, along with the advances in weapon technology, called for a new system of coastal defenses which would truly guard the harbors. This would free the Navy for its new role, which it could only perform if it had secure home ports and was relieved of defensive duties. In 1885 the President appointed a joint Army, Navy and civilian board headed by Secre-tary of War William C. Endicott to recommend action. In the 1886 report, the board painted a grim picture of existing defenses and recommended a massive $127 mil-lion construction program of breech-loading cannons and mortars, supported by floating batteries, torpedo boats, rapid fire guns, submarine mines, machine guns and electric searchlights for some 29 sites around the coast-line. In 1888 Congress created the Army Board of Ordi-nance and Fortification to test weapons and implement the new program. In 1890 funding for construction of a more modest building program began under the direction of the Army Corps of Engineers.

The new guns, unlike the massive vertical walled gun concentrations of the Third system, were dispersed over a large area in widely separated concrete batteries with underground magazines and earthen and concrete parapets, designed to blend in with their surroundings. In addition, electrically controlled mine fields were also installed at many locations. Recognizing the growing importance of the role that coast defense was playing in military policy, the Artillery branch of the Army was divided into heavy and light units in 1901, with the Coast Artillery Corps officially being formed in 1907.

On the Pacific Coast, new gun emplacements were constructed at San Diego, San Francisco, the Columbia River and, finally, at the entrance to Puget Soundóafter the authorization of new drydock facilities there in 1890. Begun in 1890, most of this construction was completed by 1910. Many new buildings and other facilities were also built at this time.

Modern American Harbor Defenses: The Taft Program 1910-1917

In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt convened an-other board, this one under his Secretary of War William N.Taft, to review the progress on the earlier board's pro-gram and to update it, as a number of new developments had taken place in the intervening 20 years. Most of the changes recommended by the board were purely techni-cal; such as adding more searchlights, general electrifi-cation of all aspects of harbor defense including lighting, communications and projectile handling, and, most im-portantly, a more sophisticated aiming technique. The Board also recommended the fortification of key harbors in the newly acquired territories of Cuba, the Philippines, Panama, and Hawaii. Not included in the report, but added to the building program were defenses for the newly constructed deep water harbor facilities of the city of Los Angeles and some additional works at San Diego and in the Puget Sound. The Taft program fortifications differed slightly in battery construction and had less numbers of guns than the Endicott program forts. The two programs, although not fully realized, still gave the United States a coastal defense system that was unex-celled by those of any other nation by the end of World War I.

The years after the turn of the century were very productive in the design and building of naval guns and gunnery. By 1916, several foreign battleships could outrange by a wide margin any existing harbor defense weapon in the United States. Moreover, the newer high angles of fire nullified the advantages of the disappearing carriages that most of the heavy weapons were mounted on. Consequently during the war, many of guns were removed from the Endicott fortifications and some, espe-cially 8" rifles and 12" mortars, placed in new railroad car carriages for use overseas. Many Coast Artillery units were used to man these and other field pieces in Eu-rope. At home, the coast artillery posts often served as enlistment and training centers for those going overseas.

The Post-World War I Period 1918-1938

As the Army was demobilized following the end of the war in 1918, the armed forces entered a period of aus-terity. Many of the now outdated coast defense forts were put on caretaker status, maintained by only a small number of regular soldiers, and often only used as summer train-ing camps for reserve, guard and ROTC units. New longer-ranged 12" and 16" ordnance for sea-coast armament were designed by 1919, supplimented by existing 16î naval guns made available as the result of naval reductions due to the Washington Arms Limitation Treaty in 1922. A number of new harbor defense plans were drawn up, but few new batteries were actually built during the this period, due to cutbacks in military spending. Only one new 12" long-range gun battery was constructed on the west coast during the 1920s, that being Battery Elmer J. Wallace at San Franciscoís Fort Barry.

Instead of emplaced guns, mobile guns left over from the war were utilized as supplemental fire-power to the existing guns. 12" mortars, 8" ri-fled guns on newly designed railroad carriages were sta-tioned at coastal defense sites. In the late 1920s Los Angeles received two 14" M1920 railway guns (only 4 of these guns were built) which remained there until the end of the Second World War. During WWI, the United States had purchased from France a number of 155mm GPF tractor drawn guns, which were later made in the U.S. as the M1918. In the late 1920s, these were pressed into a coastal defense role. To increase the accuracy of these guns, they were mounted on easily built circular concrete "Panama" mounts, which were named after the area in which they were first developed. Many of these M1918 GPF guns were stationed on the Pacific coast.

The growing importance of aircraft as an offensive weapon resulted in the formation and training of specialized Coast Artillery Corps anti-aircraft artillery units during this period. A number of antiaircraft guns were installed at most harbor defense reservations during the late 1920s.

The World War II Construction Programs 1937-1948

A new program was initiated in the late 1930s to rearm the American coastline with long range 16" weapons from existing Army and Navy stocks. These guns would be emplaced in new batteries which would have substantial overhead protection. Two 16" prototype batteries were con-structed at San Francisco from 1937 to 1940, and a few other batteries were constructed during this time. A new full construction program was authorized by Congress in September of 1940. The program was based on harbor defense recommendations made in 1923 and was planned for some 33 harbors along the coasts of North America and other strategic islands. The new fortifications were built using two standardized designs, a twin gun 6" battery (or in some cases a 8" battery) and a twin gun 16" battery (or in some cases a remodeled 12" battery), along with their supporting base end sighting stations. When America entered the war in December of 1941, a large number of mobile weapons were rushed to both coasts for temporary use. The new construction program went into high gear in 1942 with construction at the five principle harbors along the Pacific coast, on Oahu Island, Hawaii, and at several locations in Alaska. Batteries of new 90mm guns were added to the program as anti-motor torpedo boat (AMTB) units to further protect the harbors. However, after the Battle of Midway in June of 1942, the possibility of a Japanese attack on the American mainland diminished rapidly. The new construction program was curtailed in 1944 (several planned batteries were cancelled and other construction projects were stopped short of completion) and halted altogether in 1948.

It was apparent that the day of seacoast artillery was past, outdated by the airplane, the missile, and new amphibious landing techniques. By 1950, almost all of the big guns were scrapped, all the harbor defense commands dismantled and the Coast Artillery Corps abolished as a separate branch of the Army. The old coast defense reservations were either converted to other uses by the military or declared surplus. The Army eventually declared surplus all of the San Diego (1957), Columbia River (1947) and Puget Sound (1955) military reservations.

Air Defense Artillery 1950-1974

In the years following the Second World War, the Army was demobilized, the seacoast artillery was dismantled and the coastline of the United States was only protected by the Navy and the remains of the Coast Artillery Corps. During these years a new surface-to-air missile defense system was being developed, code named Nike after the Greek Goddess of Victory. The deterioration of relationships with the Communist governments in the post-war years soon prompted a re-evaluation of American defenses. The National Security Act of 1947 created the Defense Department as we know it today, made the Air Force a separate Armed Force and established the Joint Chiefs of Staff. On July 1, 1950, the Army was reorganized. There were to be three arms, Infantry, Armor and a consolidated Artillery (which included all Field, Antiaircraft and ex-Coast Artillery units), plus 14 services. The antiaircraft defenses of the Army would be administered by the Army Antiaircraft Artillery Command (ARAACOM), which would be under the operational control of the Air Force. The Army would organize, train and equip these units.

In 1949 there was only one operational AA battalion. ARAACOM worked to prepare some 66 AA battalions to defend 23 priority locations. The units were to be armed with 90mm and 120mm AA weapons (later 75mm ìskysweeperî guns were also used) while the Nike missile program was being brought on line. Beginning in 1952, the first of the Nike defenses became operational. The Nike batteries represented the next phase in the evolution of American coastal defenses, defending America from attack through the air and was developed during the years 1945-1951. The batteries consisted of a launch area and a radar control area. Where feasible, existing Army and Air Force facilities were used. Thus, the old harbor defense reservations at San Francisco and Los Angeles were used for Nike missile launch sites and command posts. As these sites were prepared ARAACOM ìconvertedî units from gun AA units to missile Air Defense units. Nike defenses were located at the following areas on the continental Pacific Coast: Los Angeles, San Francisco, near Hamilton AFB, Seattle, the Hanford Nuclear Research facility and Fairchild AFB near Spokane. The first operational missile system was known as Nike-Ajax, which had a range of about 25 miles. In 1957 ARAACOM became the Army Air Defense Command (ARADCOM) as all of the Armyís air defense units were now missile battalions. During the years 1962-1968, Nike Ajax was replaced by the larger, more powerful and nuclear warhead capable Nike Hercules, which had a range of over 80 miles. As these were more powerful weapons, less launch sites were required for these missiles and only about 1 out of 4 of the existing Nike-Ajax sites were converted for use with the Nike-Hercules. Nike-Hercules defenses were also located at Anchorage, Alaska, Fairbanks, Alaska, and on Oahu Island, Hawaii, however these units were not under the command of ARADCOM.The Nike program was discontinued in the mid-1970s, superseded by further advances in weapons development. There was no further need for Army defense installations near the coast and almost all of those reservations were also declared surplus.


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