The Military and Yosemite
Yosemite and the United States Navy
David A. Smith, Historian
The Burdick Military History Project
San Jose State University

Subsequent to the cavalry leaving Yosemite National Park in 1913, the military's involvement with the park, with few exceptions, ceased. However, after holding a low profile for twenty-seven years, the United States Army once again returned to the area. In the face of the growing conflicts escalating overseas, 1,600 men of the Fourth Infantry Division under Major Groves arrived 1 May 1940 to participate in exercises within the park. Along with the sixty motorized units brought by the Fourth, 150 motorized units (800) men of the Tenth Field Artillery under Major A. V. Arivie were also present. The operation had two purposes--to break in new equipment, and to give the motor convoys the experience they would soon need. This operation was significant in that it introduced the park to another era of military involvement. The military would not only train in Yosemite during the Second World War, but would also set up a hospital for physical and mental treatment, and use the park for recreational purposes.

When the United States entered the war in 1941, the California National Guard was called in to protect the water supply systems which originated in the park. the northern portion of the park was closed to all visitations save that by National Park Service personnel, California National Guardsmen, fire crews, and San Francisco city officials. National Guard units were specifically ordered to protect Hetch Hetchy and Lake Eleanor Reservoirs whose waters fed the water supply of San Francisco. The National Guard detachment was quartered at Hetch Hetchy and Mather camp, and John W. Bingaman was park coordinator for the operation. The detachment stayed for the duration of the war.

Another unit which maintained a presence in the park during the war was the United States Army Signal Corps which decided to establish two seasonal training facilities in 1942. A large camp was established at Wawona, with a smaller station located at Badger Pass. Other military units from nearby bases were transported into the park for recreation; in fact, military personnel visiting in the park accounted for nearly 11 percent of the wartime visitors.

Of all the military units which either visited or located camps within Yosemite, the most predominate during the Second World War and continuing into the present has been the United States Navy. Originally, this land-locked naval force was assigned the task of converting the elegant Ahwahnee Hotel, in the Yosemite Valley, into a naval convalescent hospital. Curry Company, the owners and operators of the hotel, were losing money maintaining the hotel because of the decline in park visitations during wartime. The Navy thought it an ideal location for a convalescent hospital and filed a condemnation suit in court by which the government was to pay Curry Company $55,000 per year for the use of the hotel and to cover taxes, insurance, and depreciation of property. The owners were not pleased with the sum offered, claiming it to be insufficient to compensate for the loss in revenue they anticipated. Thus, a thirty month court battle began, but in the meantime, the Navy moved into the hotel and the first naval personnel began arriving as early as 30 May 1943; the first corpsmen under Lieutenant William Grimes, H.C., U.S.N., arrived 7 June. On 23 June, the Ahwahnee Hotel ceased operation and the Navy took over the premises. Captain Reynolds Hayden, U.S.N., became head of the hospital, and conversion was well under way when the first patients--forty-nine of them--arrived on 6 July from the Naval Hospital in Oakland, California.

The Ahwahnee Hotel and the thirty-seven acres of ground that it sat upon had to go through extensive changes in order to accommodate naval personnel. The dining room of the hotel, as one might expect, was converted into a mess hall; the lounge was turned into Ward A and was capable of holding 350 men in its five rows of double tiered cots. Other conversions were made on the inside of the hotel; the gift shop became the canteen, the writing room a Protestant chapel, the bar and cocktail lounge was turned into the Catholic chapel, and the manager's suite became the headquarters for the commanding officer.

More extensive changes were made on the grounds which surrounded the hotel. Metal "barrack type" buildings were erected on the lawn outside. These structures housed an auditorium, a pool hall, a bowling alley, a two cell brig, a large washroom, an enlisted men's club, a hobby and craft shop, and the occupational therapy quarters. Still more changes included the conversion of the Park Service's Ranger Club into the bachelor officer's quarters, and the beauty shop into the office of the Civil Readjustment Officer. Though some of the construction was performed by naval personnel, about $108,233 was paid to the Younger Construction Company of San Francisco for additional assistance needed to complete the project.

The original intention of the Navy was to use the hotel as a recovery ward for neuro-psychiatric patients, but it was found that their conditions only worsened while there. The towering cliffs of the Yosemite Valley gave the patients claustrophobia, adding another neurosis to their already complicated ailments. A change-over was ordered, and by 1944, only medical and surgical cases were admitted. To reflect this adjustment, the hospital changed its name from Naval Convalescent Hospital, Yosemite National Park, to Naval Special Hospital, Yosemite National Park.
However beautiful the naval personnel found the valley, it was not particularly the most suitable place to locate sailors. "Yosemite is a beautiful place surrounded by solitude," stated one distressed sailor. In the opinion of the sailors, Yosemite was lacking two vital elements of recreation--women and alcohol. The former proved to be a serious problem. The only women in the park were employees and those who were wives of male National Park Service and Curry Company employees. During the summer month, guards were posted around the beaches to protect the sunbathing females from harassment. There were also a few arrests for rape. Despite the difficulties caused by the lack of women, the problem of alcoholic beverages proved to be more difficult to deal with.

During the war years, Frank Kittredge was the superintendent of Yosemite National Park. Kittredge, a man of high moral standards, tolerated the presence of drink in the park. In the Yosemite Valley, drinks were available at the Yosemite Lodge bar which became a very popular spot for naval personnel. Occasionally, some sailors became a bit too intoxicated and refused to leave at closing time or destroyed furniture. This practice forced Kittredge to close down the bar for the duration of the war. This official removal of alcohol did not deter the innovative young sailors, though. They had friends and relatives bring alcoholic beverages into the valley which they hid among the rocks at the base of the cliff north of the hotel. Sailors could then slip away and have a drink at their leisure. This particular practice, along with pressure from the Navy, persuaded Kittredge to make a compromise; he would allow alcoholic beverages to be sold at the Village Store providing it was drunk on the premises. A screen was wrapped around the front porch of the store and a few chairs and tables were added. This came to be known by the sailors as "Frank's Place."

During its stay, the Navy helped the National Park Service and the Curry Company keep facilities open that would otherwise have been closed. The Lewis Memorial Hospital was staffed by Navy personnel and served both military personnel and civilians. When funding for maintaining the Badger Pass road and skiing facilities was cut, the Navy provided money to keep it open not only for the public, but also for hospital patients and personnel. Another example of the Navy's service to the public came when the sailors stepped in to operate the valley's toboggan run which had been threatened because of the extreme labor scarcity in the Yosemite Valley area during the war Years.

On 25 October 1945, the Navy announced that the hospital was to be decommissioned on 15 December 1945. After its closure, the hotel was handed over to the Bureau of Ships for reconditioning. Damages sustained because of the Navy's use of the grounds were extensive; it took $400,000 and a full year to recondition the grounds and restore the hotel. During the period the Naval special Hospital operated, it had treated 6,752 patients; at its peak, it was treating 853 sailors at once. Of the sailors who were treated, a full 65 percent of them returned to their various duties in the Navy. Though the hospital experienced its share of problems, the project was as successful as suspected, and with the easing of gasoline restrictions, public visitation increased and the park was soon back to its normal pre-war state.

For the next twenty-seven years, the Navy was absent from the park. However, in 1972, the Navy began to aid civilian search and rescue operations in cooperation with the National Search and Rescue Plan, and they have continued this practice to the present. The current presence of military aircraft within the boundaries of Yosemite National Park is not too surprising since they have been there since early in the twentieth century. The first military aircraft to visit the park was an Army Curtis JN4 which was piloted by Lieutenant J. S. Krull. Lieutenant Krull landed his craft in Leidig Meadow in the Yosemite Valley on 27 May 1919. Another aviation milestone was reached when Army Lieutenants Moore and Taylor completed their journey from San Francisco to Yosemite by landing their Curtis HN4s at Wawona on 8 December 1925. They touched down on a 3,000 foot airstrip which had been flagged out in Wawona Meadow. This experiment proved that the region could be serviced by air, and an airline out of Mariposa established regular service to Wawona.

For the next fifteen years, the sight of military aircraft was absent from the area, but with the threat of war in 1940 and the increase of air traffic over the park, it was inevitable that an air tragedy would occur. In fact, two accidents involving military aircraft took place in Yosemite during the Second World War. The first happened in the spring of 1940, when a P-38 "Night Fighter," while on a test flight, crashed near Givens Creek located in the southern area of the park. The wreckage was sighted by a packer in early summers. National Park Service and military personnel were called in to investigate, and the bodies of the pilot and co-pilot, along with valuable instruments, were packed out to Wawona. The remaining portion of the plane was broken up and buried. The second crash occurred on 27 June 1943 when a B-24 bomber collided with Koip Peak, located near the east park boundary. All seven crewmen aboard died in the accident. The wreckage was discovered by a Curry Company employee, and the bodies were packed out by park personnel.

In 1972, the Navy began to aid in civilian search and rescue operations within the park as a part of the coordinated effort between the military and National Park Service created by the National Search and Rescue Plan. The Search and Rescue (SAR) Crew from Lemoore Naval Air Station south of Fresno was assigned the task. Lemoore Naval Air Station was built in 1961, and it has been designated as the Navy's Master Jet Air Station. The operations which take place in the park not only fulfill the Navy's obligation to serve civilians, but it helps train SAR Crews for rescues at high altitudes. Since their first mission in the park on 21 June 1972, the Navy and the personnel at Yosemite National Park have cooperated on 137 search and rescue operations.

The SAR crew is not a separate unit in itself, but is one of the many services under the Air Operations Department at Lemoore. At any one time, the SAR crew typically consists of eight pilots, fourteen crewmen, and four Bell (212) UH1N helicopters. One of the eight pilots is designated as senior pilot and is in command of the crew. One aircraft is served by five men, two of whom are pilots and the others are crewmen. Though the twenty-two member crew creates the basic core of the unit, the personnel on the ground such as mechanics and the air traffic controllers all contribute to the team effort. The members of the crew are rotated into the base regularly on a thirty-six month basis with the exception of younger pilots who only serve a twenty-four month tour. The personnel are trained at the Air crew Candidate School, Pensacola Naval Air Station, if they are to be pilots, or as a rescue swimmer at sea for crewmen. This training can take place at several locations. In the history of the SAR Crew, there have been six senior helicopter pilots. Lieutenant Commander Norman Hicks served during the first years, 1972-76; Lieutenant Commander Scott Gorden served during 1976-78; Lieutenant Commander Arlin Dyer served during 1978-79; and Lieutenant Commander Daniel Ellison served during 1980-82. The current officer in charge is Lieutenant Mike Helms.

A mission is flown into the park only if civilian agencies are unable to respond to the situation themselves. The National Park Service usually phones the naval Air Station to see if a crew is available, but after that contact, they must go through proper channels to request assistance. The Air Force Coordinating Center at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois coordinated the National Rescue Plan, and through their Operations Duty Officer, an evaluation of the situation is made and the recommendation to either launch or stay grounded is passed on to the Wing Commander (Base Commander) at Lemoore. While this is occurring, the SAR Crew prepares to launch so they can achieve a ready status by the time the Wing Commander makes his final decision. This process can take as little as an hour or as long as a day; the ability to dispatch an aircraft depends upon variables such as the availability of aircraft and weather conditions. If Lemoore is unable to dispatch a craft, other military agencies are called upon such as the SAR units from the Army at Fort Ord and the Air Force at Travis Air Force Base.

Once in the air, the aircraft opens communication with the park officials, who direct the crew to the site. Cooperation between the National Park Service and the SAR Crew is enhanced by periodical meetings between the two agencies. This training and discussions insures smooth coordination. Once a pick-up has been made, the helicopter will land in the Ahwahnee Meadow in Yosemite Valley to evaluate the seriousness of the injury or injuries. Minor injuries are treated at Lewis Memorial Hospital in the valley; more serious situations are flown to Valley Medical center in Fresno where an excellent trauma unit is available. This service has been performed between fifteen to twenty times a year by the SAR crew at Lemoore.

Since 1972, the Navy has performed this function of aiding Yosemite National Park, but recent events forced a temporary postponement in this service. During the summer of 1983, the SAR Crew from Lemoore lost two of their helicopters while performing rescue operations in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The unit plans to restore service by the summer of 1984, but until then, the park will have to rely on other units from the Army, Air Force, or Coast Guard should it be necessary for a military SAR unit to serve them. However, when the SAR crew from Lemoore does resume service, it will continue the association of the Navy and Yosemite, and will continue the military's presence in Yosemite National Park.

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Updated 8 February 2016