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A California we'd forgotten

Santa Catalina Island Goes to War: World War II, 1941-1945, William Sanford White, White Limited Editions: 116 pp., $25 paper Images of America: St. Francis Dam Disaster, John Nichols, Arcadia: 128 pp., $19.99 paper

May 18, 2003|Jonathan Kirsch | Jonathan Kirsch, a contributing writer to Book Review, is the author of the forthcoming "God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism."

The phrase "island hopping" refers to the grand strategy of the American armed forces in the South Pacific during World War II, but it takes on a whole new meaning in "Santa Catalina Island Goes to War," a charming and illuminating scrapbook of photographs, documents and artifacts from the moment in history when Catalina was suddenly transformed from a tourist destination to a military outpost.

Within two weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, as author William Sanford White shows us, the island was put on a war footing. A blackout order extinguished the lights at the casino overlooking the harbor at Avalon. The "big white steamship" that once carried families on festive day trips was painted Navy gray and now ferried only sailors and soldiers. Where yachtsmen once gathered, young men readied themselves for combat.

The glory of "Santa Catalina Island Goes to War" is in its photographs, which capture the strange blend of lightheartedness and grimness that characterized a nation suddenly at war. We see men lined up at Wrigley Field in Avalon, each one wearing a pair of boxing gloves, as they rehearse for a kind of hand-to-hand fighting that they will never see. A gaggle of starlets disembarks at the Steamer Dock on a USO tour, each one preening for the camera as she imagines herself to be the next Dorothy Lamour. And a dashing Errol Flynn is shown with gun in hand -- he is stalking wild boar, not enemy snipers.

But White reminds us that Catalina was the staging point for a war that was very real. In the sedate waters of Avalon harbor, a towering column of smoke and flame rises to the sky as sailors and merchant seamen practice swimming through an oil fire. A photograph of soldiers in soup-bowl helmets marching down Crescent Avenue in Avalon on Memorial Day 1942 looks as if it could have been shot in some backwater of the South Pacific, which is exactly where some of these earnest young men were destined to fight and die.

White has uncovered some aspects of Catalina's war effort that were once regarded as top secret. He reveals, for example, that some isolated coves were used as clandestine bases by the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA, and he gives us a fascinating inside look at how commandos were taught the skills of stealth and "silent killing." The men who learned to survive on wild goat around Toyon Bay, as he points out, put their skills to use in secret missions in the jungles of Burma.

"Santa Catalina Island Goes to War" is a sentimental effort by a man who knows and loves Catalina. Still, White is wholly successful in fulfilling the noble mission he set for himself: He allows us to glimpse a time and place that would be lost if they were confined to the fading memories of a few aging veterans. At its best moments, in fact, his book re-creates the experience of sitting on a couch next to some beloved uncle or father and poring over a dusty family album whose crumbling pages are an intimate archive of world history.

The same sepia tones that grace the cover of "Santa Catalina Island Goes to War" can be found on the cover of John Nichols' "St. Francis Dam Disaster," a photographic account of what the author calls "the greatest American civil engineering failure in the 20th century." And, like White, Nichols is less interested in nostalgia than in the human face of history.

The 185-foot-high St. Francis Dam was erected in 1928 by the City of Los Angeles in San Francisquito Canyon, at a site near what is now Santa Clarita, about five miles northwest of Magic Mountain. Behind the graceful concave face of the dam was an artificial lake, but the dam keeper, Tony Harnischfeger, was so dubious about the new structure that he built a stairway behind his house so that he could hasten his family to high ground if it failed.

At a few minutes before midnight on March 12, 1928, shortly after St. Francis Dam was filled, Harnischfeger's anxiety turned into a terrible reality. The dam cracked open, and 52 million tons of water poured through the breach. Barely an hour after the dam failed, the reservoir was empty, and an immense outpouring of water and mud was surging across the Southern California landscape to the Pacific Ocean at Ventura, 54 miles away. Harnischfeger, the fretful dam keeper, and his 6-year-old son were the first victims of the disaster -- their bodies were never found. More than 450 people drowned, and nearly 1,000 houses and other structures were destroyed.

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