San Diego and the Military
Visitors to San Diego will see a lot of things emblematic of the city. The streets and parks are lined with palm trees and lush greenery. Beach culture can be found everywhere from the clothes people wear to restaurant themes. The iconic stamps of popular destinations and events like Sea World, The San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Comic-Con International can be spotted throughout the town. But what is sometimes not as often mentioned is another inescapable part of the fabric in “America’s Finest City” which is just as ubiquitous: the military.
Look into the heavily traveled deep-water port in Coronado’s North Island or to the channels of San Diego Bay, and you’re likely to see massive Navy vessels. Coast Guard activity is always buzzing on the waves, either on patrol or conducting rescue operations. Overhead, fighter jets and assault helicopters regularly zoom past, either in defense posture or in the training of future pilots. Even driving in and out of the city, massive Marine Corps camps edge the highways. And of course, sailors in full uniform mingle with civilians in the street, shopping, dining or enjoying a little nightlife. San Diego’s military ties are part of the city’s lifeblood and contribute greatly to the city’s identity.
The San Diego area started hosting American military bases as early as the 1850s with naval batteries established from Point Loma to Fort Rosecrans in the subsequent decades. The U.S. Navy expanded its activities greatly in the early 20th century, particularly after World War I when global conflicts proved to necessitate a robust presence on the West Coast. Training centers, airfields and naval bases grew exponentially – and with good reason. By the time the 1940s arrived, it was evident that military planners were right to beef up San Diego.
World War II brought the United States into direct conflict with Japan. The attacks on Pearl Harbor proved that America’s Pacific presence was vulnerable. It was during this time that the expansions of old bases and the creation of new facilities went into overdrive. Whether it was the establishment of Navy ports or Marine training bases and even massive recruitment hubs, the war left its indelible mark on San Diego. In fact, Balboa Park itself was converted for the duration of the war into a hospital for wounded soldiers recovering from tours in the Pacific Theater. Today, a Veteran’s Museum memorializes those who served and recovered there, honoring citizens who sacrificed themselves for our freedom.
Bases & Installations
If visitors are driving south on Highway 5 into San Diego through the community of Oceanside, they will be surrounded by imposing Camp Pendleton, a Marine Corps base. This is the premier training ground for amphibious operations in the military. It is here that marines are prepared to serve the Corps and the country, learning techniques for sea-to-shore maneuvers. With 17 miles of coastline, it’s an ideal proving ground for elite marine warriors.
Further south, less than five miles northeast of San Diego’s downtown, is the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. Put to use by both the Marine Corps and the Navy during World War II, the base serves in the advanced training of fighter pilots. In more recent years, it became famous as the “Top Gun” program popularized by the 1986 Tom Cruise movie of the same name. It’s also the home base for the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing – an important part of the West Coast’s air defense. So if you’re seeing fighter jets zooming over the beach, this is where they probably came from.
Probably the most imposing of all the military bases in San Diego is the Naval Base San Diego. Located just south of the Coronado Bridge and the city’s downtown, this is the largest U.S. Navy Base on the West Coast. It serves as the principal host of the nation’s entire Pacific Fleet, with over 50 ships calling the location home. On base, the population is a whopping 20,000 military personnel and over 6,000 civilian workers. Take in a view of the San Diego Bay at any given time, and it’s likely to feature everything from state-of-the-art aircraft carriers to restored 19th-century schooners, which are still used to train sailors.
And let us not forget the contributions of the Coast Guard. Located on the northern end of San Diego Bay, hugging the San Diego International Airport, United States Coast Guard Air Station San Diego is another critical installation for the region. From here, maritime law enforcement operations are launched, including the patrolling of the nearby US/Mexico border. Sea rescues originate from here as well, as specialized fleets of ships and aircraft mobilize any time there is trouble in the area’s waters.
As one can imagine, the huge presence of the Navy, Coast Guard and Marines makes major contributions to San Diego’s overall community. For example, it cannot be overstated how much of an impact it has on San Diego’s local economy. A few brief statistics only begin to reveal the critical importance it commands in the region. It’s estimated about five percent of all civilian jobs in San Diego County are military-related. In fact, between jobs and spending, as much as a quarter of all the jobs here rely on the military presence. Over 15,000 businesses in the county rely on Defense Department contracts.
And with an astounding 100,000 active duty personnel stationed here at any given time, it’s obvious how much everybody from retailers to suppliers counts on military dollars. Hotels, restaurants, car sales – just about every economic sector benefits. On top of that, over 200,000 veterans call San Diego County their home. It’s no wonder that just about everybody in town is either in the military or knows someone associated with the armed forces. As it is often said, San Diego truly is a military town.