You Must Remember This: our harbor’s importance during WWll

By NANCY GARDNER

Newport Beach goes to war! I don’t think at this late date that many of us picture our city as a major military presence during WWII, but we were very much involved in the war effort. After Pearl Harbor, the whole country geared up, and here in our harbor? The fishing fleet was out there every day making sure that both military personnel and civilians would be fed, but our role went far beyond that. At least four shipyards began producing military vessels. Victory Shipbuilding Corp., South Coast Shipyard, Peyton Company and Ackerman Boatyard built subchasers, minesweepers, crash boats (used for search and rescue) and harbor tugs for the war effort.

If that was for the big effort, we also focused on our immediate safety since it was feared the West Coast might be invaded. Part of the defensive effort was a series of foxholes constructed along the coastal bluffs, according to my father, and while he was there and I wasn’t, I think at least in some cases it was pillboxes, not foxholes. As an example, go to Lookout Point in CdM and take the stairway that leads from the bluff to China Cove. About halfway down on the left is a sturdy, round object. Pillboxes are placed “to guard strategic structures such as bridges and jetties” and that’s exactly where it’s sited, right above the east jetty looking out over the harbor mouth.  Today it is filled with dirt, but if you climb under the agave protecting the harbor-facing side you can see a slit that could certainly have accommodated a rifle or machine gun. Add a protective lid and its sturdy construction would make it “hard to defeat and require artillery, anti-tank weapons or grenades to overcome.” Ergo: a pillbox.

That wasn’t our only protection, however. The Coast Guard used Newport Beach as one of their West Coast headquarters. You’d think that easy access to the open sea would have been a prime concern when picking a location for said headquarters, perhaps near where it is today close to the channel mouth. Nope. The Coast Guard took over the Collins mansion on Collins Island. Since I am not of a military bent I am too obtuse to see the strategic thinking behind that choice of location, and I would never be so unpatriotic as to suggest there was an element of comfort involved in the decision. Besides, it doesn’t matter. Even though the headquarters was a fair way back, this in no way left the city vulnerable. There were early concerns about an enemy submarine sneaking into the harbor and wreaking havoc on the various islands. To counter this, a submarine net was initially proposed for the harbor mouth. Further thought decided that since this was a harbor for pleasure craft, the channel depth wasn’t that great, and it would have to be a pretty small sub that could get in without either being seen or getting stuck on the bottom. Instead, the Coast Guard placed a barge at the channel entrance. Presumably the Coast Guard personnel on board would notice if a large metallic vessel somehow floated under them, but sub watch was only one of their jobs. The other was to check every incoming boat for saboteurs. Remember, every day members of the fishing fleet would sail out of the harbor to catch fish. There seemed to be a concern that while out there they might be boarded by a saboteur. How the saboteur was going to get within range of a fishing boat without someone on board noticing a surfacing submarine, a lurking enemy destroyer or a floating parachutist is unclear, but anyway, if they did sneak on board the personnel on the barge would discover them. Since regular civilian craft were ordered to stay in port, it was only fishing boats going in and out with one exception: The Navy was buying up private boats and bringing them into the shipyards to be painted regulation grey before sending them out as extra patrol. An incident recounted by my father involved such a boat.

A Naval ensign was bringing a newly purchased boat into the harbor. As he approached the barge, he was commanded to stop, but because he was on official Navy business – and perhaps because of a little inter-service rivalry – he ignored the Coast Guard order and sailed past. To the ensign commanding the Coast Guard barge, this was a gross violation of security – and he may have been a little sensitive that it was the Navy. He commanded several of his crew to follow him into the boat tied to the barge and set out in hot pursuit. On nearing the Navy boat, he once more commanded it to stop, and when his command was ignored he ordered his crew to “Prepare to board!” On hearing this, the Navy ensign commanded his crew to “Prepare to repel boarders!” Who knows what might have happened if the commands had been obeyed, but by this time the crews of both were laughing so hard they were unable to carry out their duties. I am pleased to report that there were no courts martial for this dereliction, but apparently the two ensigns were reassigned to less volatile positions.

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Nancy Gardner, former Mayor of Newport Beach, long-time resident and daughter of Judge Robert Gardner, is a regular contributor to Stu News Newport.


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