On a cliff behind Rancho Palos Verdes City Hall, a circle of crumbling concrete lies surrounded by ice plants and weeds. Standing there, 300 feet above Point Vicente, one can look from Santa Monica Bay all the way around to the Port of Los Angeles, and it becomes clear:
This would be a great spot for some big guns.
Indeed it was. The concrete circle and a similar clearing nearby were the foundations for two six-inch-diameter guns capable of hitting targets 15 miles away. Along with an underground bunker with seven-foot-thick concrete walls, they are all that remains of the biggest military installation ever built on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, constructed in 1942 when a Japanese invasion appeared imminent.
It seems odd, as Americans reflect on the bombing of Hiroshima 40 years ago this week, to realize that in the early months of World War II, people on this side of the ocean lived in fear. The attack on Pearl Harbor had decimated America's Pacific Fleet. Palos Verdes residents felt especially targeted because their elevated peninsula was crucial to the region's defense.
"It was the most strategic spot in Los Angeles County," said Don J. Young, an historian who lives in Rancho Palos Verdes.
A lifelong resident of the South Bay, Young has just published a book, "Wartime Palos Verdes," that describes how the 1,500 people who lived on the Peninsula prepared for invasion.
"P.V. GIRDS FOR ALL-OUT DEFENSE," screamed a headline on Dec. 19, 1941, in the Palos Verdes News, a major source for Young's book. The story asked readers to heed blackouts, prepare for air raids and learn how to extinguish incendiary bombs. Save cloth sacks, the story added, because they might be needed for sand bags. Fearing sabotage, the water company said residents might have to boil their water.
Though no invasion occurred, the idea is not as crazy as it might sound today. Less than a week later, on the morning of Dec. 24, 1941, an American lumber freighter, the Absoroka, was torpedoed off San Pedro by one of nine Japanese submarines marauding West Coast shipping lanes. Hundreds of residents spent Christmas day on the shoreline, scanning the waves in vain for signs of enemy subs.
"Japanese subs were active up and down the coast later in the war," Young said, "but never in such numbers." As for the Absoroka, the torpedo left a 35-foot-wide hole in its side and the crew abandoned ship, but its cargo kept the vessel afloat.
During the next year, dozens of defense installations were placed on the Peninsula--"everything from machine guns to field artillery pieces to anti-aircraft guns and searchlight batteries on every prominent headland and point overlooking the water from today's Torrance Beach to Point Fermin in San Pedro," Young writes, adding that the hills often rumbled from the sound of the big guns test-firing.
As the number of military installations increased, so did paranoia about the nearly 200 farmers of Japanese descent who worked on leased land around the bases.
"Nearly every Army facility was surrounded by Japanese," Young says. Some of them had been born on the Peninsula and their children attended Malaga Cove School. But with each American setback in the Pacific, resentment toward the local Japanese increased, and they were shipped off to camps by the end of March, 1942, Young writes. Few ever returned to the Peninsula.
Three Peninsula men died in the war, all in 1945. The father of one of the men designed in their honor the Palos Verdes Memorial Garden, a small park at Via Corta and Palos Verdes Drive North. It is one of several reminders of the war years still visible on the Peninsula that are mentioned in Young's book.
A history teacher at Hawthorne High School, Young got the idea for the book about six years ago after he kept running across such remnants of wartime. He went to the Fort MacArthur Reservation at San Pedro and got a wealth of information from Lyle Jensen, a South Shores resident whose job it was to keep track of former military sites. Young got still more background from old-timers who were taking a course he teaches at Harbor Community College called "World War II in the South Bay."
Then last year, Young learned that old editions of the Palos Verdes News--now known as the Palos Verdes Peninsula News--are preserved on microfilm, giving him enough material for a book. So far he has sold about 150 copies at $6 apiece through Peninsula bookstores--not bad for what he admits is a "narrow-interest book."
Young, who was a 10-year-old living in Inglewood when the war began, said defense installations were all over the South Bay, largely because its aircraft manufacturers were considered likely bomb targets. "Every vacant lot seemed to have a searchlight or anti-aircraft gun," he said.