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
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.