USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts & Sciences > Blog

July 27, 2012

Military History of Catalina Island

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — dtellez @ 7:15 am

Today, most people would classify Catalina Island as a vacation destination, a unique blend of adventure, sport, romance, and history. But beneath the aura of the sleepy beach community lies a rich military history, filled with top-secret operations, strategic surveillance posts, and intensive, elite training. Dating as far back as the Civil War, Catalina is no stranger to military involvement. Army, Navy, Air Force, and Cost Guard operations were all carried out across most of the Island.  Some structures still exist today as a glimpse into Catalina’s military history.

Behind the boating, fishing, and other water related activities that attract so many visitors to Two Harbors, persists a piece of Civil War history, Union Army barracks once occupied by the 4th California Infantry. As the westernmost site of the war erected in 1863, the Santa Catalina Island barracks were strategic in the Union’s guard of the harbor from Confederate privateers and pirates. Additionally, the volunteer infantry helped maintain the safety and integrity of the mining industry that flourished on the Island. In 1864, eighty-three soldiers were stationed in the area. Some speculate that these men were sent by the Bureau of Indian Affairs under the ulterior motive of surveying the Island as a potential reservation for combative Native Americans captured during the war. Upon the soldiers’ arrival, the Army ordered all civilian inhabitants to evacuate from the Island, but soon after they rescinded the order. Prior to the Army’s establishment, during the 1860’s mainly miners and ranchers inhabited the Island, some of who had lived on Catalina for over a decade. After the Army’s abandonment of the barracks, they served as the housing for film crews during the making of movies in the 1920’s and 30’s. Finally, in 1951, the barracks fell into the hands of Isthmus Yacht Club.

The present day Civil War barracks in Two Harbors, which now serves as the Isthmus Yacht Club. Photo: Dawnielle Tellez

It was not until the second World War that the Island was heavily utilized by the military. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, security, military presence, and heightened fear of attack were felt across Catalina. The Coast Guard issued identification cards to all residents, the San Pedro Channel became a designated control region for military purposes, and steamer service ceased preventing tourists from visiting the following summer. Navy Underwater Demolition Teams, precursors to the Navy Seals, trained on the island. UDT squads served mostly in the Pacific Theater; notably in the epic Battle of Peleliu, where despite the war’s greatest bloodshed, not a single member was lost. In addition, the US Maritime Service based its training camp in Avalon. Some merchantmen were lucky enough to rub elbows with Norma Jean Doughtery, a model later known as Marilyn Monroe, who was married to a USMS member. Also stationed on the Island were the Coast Guard training camps. Dominating the Isthmus and West End of Catalina, the US Coast Guard established multiple sentry and surveillance posts, ceased yachting, and underwent two months of intensive training.

Navy UDT crew training on Catalina Island in 1944. Photo from

Hidden among steep valleys and within the interior of the island were top secret military camps. The Army Signal Corp was based at Camp Cactus, where up to 60 men operated newly developed radar to detect Japanese warplanes. Additionally, the Office of Strategic Services, that laid the groundwork for the Central Intelligence Agency, operated on Catalina for several years, performing training raids on other parts of the Island. They specialized in surveillance, sabotage, and covert warfare, later serving behind enemy lines in Burma and China gaining intelligence for the Indian and British armies.

Despite the upheaval of military activity, civilian life did not differ drastically from that on the mainland. Catalina residents took part in wartime, gas, and food rations. Distinct differences, however, were evident at times. Some recall the tense moments during mandatory blackouts to help prevent night attacks and the trailing of US Air Force avengers, mine sweepers, and submarine chasers after each passenger voyage across the channel. Even with the strong precautions taken, the enemy crept ever closer to Catalina’s shores. Japanese submarines were spotted as close as 5 miles from the Island.


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Editor’s note: The ENST Catalina Island Internship at USC Dornsife is offered as part of a summer internship program offered to undergraduate students in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. This course takes place on location at the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island. Students investigate important environmental issues such as ecological restoration, protected-area planning and assessment, and invasive species management. During the course of the internship, students will work closely with USC faculty and staff scientists from the Catalina Island Conservancy to support ongoing conservation and management programs being implemented on the island. Instructors for the course include David Ginsburg, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies, Lisa Collins, Lecturer in Environmental Studies, and Tony Summers, Invasive Plant Program Supervisor from the Catalina Island Conservancy.