Soon after the U.S. entered World War II on Dec. 7, 1941, residents and tourists on Santa Catalina Island swapped rumors of a Japanese attack. The island, they worried, would become a staging ground for an invasion of the mainland United States. Gripped by fear, Avalon promptly emptied of tourists. Many residents fled, too, and soon the Coast Guard had closed the San Pedro Channel to most vessels. Authorities declared the island a Federal Military Zone. Catalina's tourism-dependent economy ground to a halt.
In response, the island nimbly reinvented itself as a training camp for spies, commandoes, merchant marines, Coast Guard recruits, and other uniformed service members. Vacant hotels became barracks. Empty marinas, yacht clubs, and even the Chicago Cubs' spring training ballpark were transformed into simulated warzones. Engineered by the Wrigley family, which controlled much of the island, the tactic saved Catalina from economic disaster.
The island's wartime service -- the full extent of which was until recently unknown -- is the subject of "First Line of Defense," a new exhibition at the Catalina Island Museum in Avalon. Curated by John Boraggina, the exhibition explores the island's top-secret wartime history through recently declassified documents, private correspondence, photographs from the museum's collections, and rare film footage from the National Archives.
Some of the exhibition's revelations have surprised the island community, said Gail Fornasiere, a museum spokesperson.
"We have been told that there were rumors and evens some suspicions over the years, but nothing was confirmed until our exhibition," she said, referring to the extensive clandestine operations carried out on the island. "Many islanders who were kids in Avalon during this period have been out to experience the exhibition."
As the exhibition details, the island was home to several distinct military installations.
Avalon witnessed the most dramatic transformation. Where crowds once swung to big bands and watched the Chicago Cubs warm up for their summer campaign, young men now swam through burning oil and learned to fire anti-aircraft machine guns as part of their training regimen for the U.S. Maritime Service. The empty beds of the resort town's tourist hotels became barracks for merchant marines, who went on to staff the ships -- often the target of submarine attacks -- that supplied the Allied war effort.
On the other end of the island, the Coast Guard made the narrow isthmus now occupied by Two Harbors its training base. On land leased from the Wrigleys' Santa Catalina Island Company, recruits learned a battery of skills, from shooting to chemical warfare defense. On the water, they practiced learned how to handle small boats. It was also at Two Harbors that the United Services Organization (USO) tested programming in front of Coast Guard servicemembers before bringing the shows overseas.
Islanders then and now were well aware of these highly visible training facilities. But other parts of the island were home to more clandestine endeavors.
Tucked into a gully on the island's windward side, the U.S. Army Signal Corps' Camp Cactus hosted top-secret radar technology designed to detect Japanese ships and aircraft. If its radar detected an imminent invasion, a direct link to Fort MacArthur in San Pedro would give American forces their first and likely only warning. Its powerful anti-aircraft guns would also serve as Southern California's first line of defense.
Hidden behind Mont Orizaba and accessible from Avalon only by a 14-mile dirt road, Camp Cactus was shrouded in secrecy. But the island's most clandestine operations belonged to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and special-operations forces like the Navy SEALs and Army Special Forces (Green Berets).
The OSS on Catalina
Formed by President Roosevelt to conduct missions behind enemy lines, the top-secret OSS found in Catalina an ideal training facility. While still located close to Los Angeles, the island was secluded, separated a twenty-mile-wide channel off-limits to most vessels. Its temperate waters provided a place to practice amphibious assaults, and the rugged interior tested recruits' physical stamina and simulated the terrain OSS operatives would encounter in East Asia.
At three locations on Catalina -- Toyon Bay, Howland's Landing, and Fourth of July Cove -- OSS recruits practiced their unique, muscular style of spycraft.
Commandos from the OSS's Special Operations branch, nicknamed the "Bang Bang Boys," endured a five-day survival exercise on the island's rough geography. Using only a knife and fishing wire as tools, the men were expected to survive on the island's feral goats, wild boars, and marine life. They could never be spotted by any military personnel.
Another exercise sent recruits in the OSS's Maritime Unit on raids into mock-hostile territory. Entering Avalon underwater with a SCUBA-like breathing apparatus, the commandos were ordered to capture the town's post office or bank by scrawling an X on the building. The soldiers guarding the harbor were not forewarned, and if detected the OSS recruits risked being shot on sight.
Knowledge of the OSS's activities and even its presence on Catalina Island was a closely guarded secret until the federal government recently declassified documents related to its predecessor agency.
Following the government's action, Robert E. Carter, who commanded OSS forces on the island, gave the museum his private collection of correspondence and photographs, a rich source of details about OSS training methods.
"First Line of Defense" runs through April 28. The Catalina Island Museum, located on the ground floor of the historic casino building, is open every day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
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