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First Line of Defense Exhibition Draws Large Crowds During its Opening Weekend

THE CATALINA ISLANDER

Added Friday 14 December 2012 at 1.37 am

First Line of Defense: Catalina Island and World War II, an exhibition currently on view at the Catalina Island Museum, has uncovered a chapter of island history that has been so closely guarded and secretive that even island residents and military trainees who lived and trained on the island knew only fragments of an historic period in which they participated.

“We were not told of any other wartime activities occurring at other locations on the island,” Richard Kellogg, a trainee at the time, recently stated.  Kellogg, who served in the merchant marines and was stationed on Catalina Island during 1943, repeated what the entire American public was often told:  “Secrecy is the name of the game during war.”

Kellogg, who operated engine room machinery, said that the exhibition came as a revelation, revealing to him for the first time “what actually happened on the island during World War II.”

A picturesque island only 26 miles off the coast of Los Angeles, Santa Catalina had attracted thousands of tourists after the chewing gum magnate William Wrigley, Jr. virtually bought the island in 1919.  With the declaration of war in 1941, its strategic importance was recognized immediately by the military.  But Philip Wrigley, who inherited the island from his father, lobbied hard for the island to become a hub for military training.  It seemed perfect for both the army and navy.  Vast expanses of gently rolling hills dominate the island’s interior, and these remain largely undeveloped to this day.  And the island’s extensive coastline is dotted with secluded inlets of deep water.  But the island had a further advantage.  Much of its small civilian population could be easily evacuated and the island controlled entirely by the military.  

In complete contrast to its carefree origins, California’s “magic isle” quickly became a closely guarded military encampment.  Film footage only recently restored and now shown for the first time documents the strenuous regimen of military training.  Men can be seen swimming through waters aflame with burning oil or jumping from enormous towers clutching their life vests. 

But the military also moved many of its most secretive projects to the island.  One of the most compelling areas of the exhibition focuses on the origins of the Office of Strategic Services – the famed OSS – which eventually gave birth to today’s CIA.   Recently declassified documents and photographs reveal the earliest and secret training of this most covert branch of the U.S. military, revealing its origins in this moment of Catalina Island history.

First Line of Defense: Catalina Island and World War II is on exhibit through April 28, 2013 at the Catalina Island Museum.

The Catalina Island Museum is Avalon’s sole institution devoted to art, culture and history.  The museum, its digital theater and store are located on the ground floor of Avalon’s historic Casino and are open 7 days a week, from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. For more information, the museum may be reached by phone at 310-510-2414 or at its website: CatalinaMuseum.org.