Archive for the ‘San Diego history’ Category

Ohr Shalom in last stages of preservation campaign for old Temple

August 12, 2010 Leave a comment

Ohr Shalom preservation campaign speakers: Rabbi Scott Meltzer, Supervisor Ron Roberts, SOHO's Bruce Coons, Councilman Todd Gloria, and congregants Jose Galicot, Luis Maizel and Raulf Polichar

SAN DIEGO (Press Release)–Nearly 100 elected officials, preservationists and business leaders from both sides of the U.S./Mexico border gathered Wednesday morning on the site of a historic preservation project at the corner of Third and Laurel streets in Park West.

The attendees came from nearby businesses as well those in Baja California to support the final fundraising campaign to complete the renovation of what is now known as  Ohr Shalom Synagogue, an iconic landmark of San Diego built as Temple Beth Israel in 1926 and designed by notable architect William H. Wheeler.

Luis Maizel

“Make it Your Business to Make History” fundraising campaign, spearheaded by Luis Maizel, president of LM Advisors, was created as a way to involve the greater San Diego community in contributing to the expensive restoration endeavor. Only $600,000 remains to be raised for the $4 million construction project.

Maizel applauded the congregation in raising more than $3.6 million to date almost exclusively from the 350 Ohr Shalom members, adding, “It is now the turn of businesses and neighbors to aid in this effort.”

Maizel used the analogy of a marathon to explain how far they have come.

“When this project was first proposed, we knew it would be like running a marathon. But 26 miles in a long way,” he said to the audience of who gathered in the courtyard outside of the building that is currently under construction.

As a crane carried building materials over the outdoor patio, Maizel said they are now at mile 22. “We are tired and we are sore. But we will finish this race with the help of our friends and neighbors.”

San Diego County Supervisor Ron Roberts

County Supervisor Ron Roberts, San Diego City Councilmember Todd Gloria, and Bruce Coons, executive director of Save Our Heritage Organisation, along with Luis Maizel, president of LM Advisors, Raulf Polichar and Jose Galicot took turns addressing the guests, stating the importance of supporting the efforts to complete renovation of the architectural jewel.

Supervisor Roberts, a former architect, began by remarking at the brave efforts of Ohr Shalom to tackle the renovation project once it became known that the building was scheduled for demolition.

“I applaud those who favor saving, and renovating, important parts of San Diego’s history,” said Supervisor Roberts. “I especially cheer those like the Ohr Shalom congregation who actually go out and raise the dollars to turn a vision into reality. The entire San Diego community will be enriched by supporting the completion of this important renovation.”

Bruce Coons, executive director, Save Our Heritage Organization

Coons paid tribute to various community members who helped to preserve the temple building after Beth Israel sold it to developers Peter Janopaul and Anthony Block, including Polichar who led efforts to obtain the building for Ohr Shalom Synagogue and Jewish Historical Society of San Diego leaders Stan and Laurel Schwartz, who mobilized a successful campaign to have the structure declared an historic monument by the State of California and placed on the national register.

“For the last eight years, Ohr Shalom has proved to be an excellent guardian of Wheeler´s work, and their efforts should be commended by the community at large,” Coons said.  

City Councilman Todd Gloria

Councilman Gloria thanked the Ohr Shalom congregation for its care of less fortunate people in his district through a variety of social service projects, and for making its meeting facilities available to the general community.

“As a third generation San Diegan, I’ve seen many buildings in our community lost because of the lack of appreciation for their historic significance,” said Gloria. “This isn’t just restoring a building; we’re preserving an important part of our neighborhood’s history for the greater good of the community.”

Reflecting the community spirit of the project, Rabbi Scott Meltzer reiterated that the Ohr Shalom building will continue servicing the entire community as a meeting center and as a resource for the entire community once the renovation is complete.

“The intention is to bring the building back to its original glory. That meant erasing the footprints of time, but to also add seismic protection and water intrusion prevention,” the rabbi explained.

Continuity between the Reform Congregation Beth Israel, which is now located in the University Towne Center area,  and the Conservative  Ohr Shalom Synagogue was represented by the presence of Jerry Goldberg, an attorney who previously served as president of Beth Israel  and who is the uncle of Rabbi Meltzer.

“The painstaking combination of the old and the new was a challenge for Zagrodnik & Thomas Architects and Swinerton Builders,” Meltzer said, referring to the architects and builders in charge of the restoration project, “and it is evident now that it will be beautifully accomplished.”

Raulf Polichar, former Ohr Shalom Synagogue president

Polichar said that refurbishing the building meant undoing some of the “modernization of 1950 to reveal the original beauty.”  Additionally, the structure was reinforced for earthquake safety and to bring it in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.   The stage inside the old Temple Center, or social hall, was removed, and a small meeting room and new kosher kitchen constructed in its place.

Galicot told of visiting a museum in Israel where Jewish communities were represented by lights on a map.  Many  lights went out in the 15th century because of the Expulsion from Spain and Portugal and in the 20th century because of the Holocaust.  

Jose Galicot

But, now in San Diego in the 21st century, “here we are turning on lights,” Galicot declared.

Attention to detail and historic accuracy were of essence. All renovation work was approved by the Historical Resources Board at the City Planning Department and is in compliance with The Secretary of the Interiors’ Standards for Rehabilitation.

Guests were able to tour the restored areas and marveled at the dazzling stained glass windows and domed sanctuary.

Rabbi Meltzer in Ohr Shalom's refurbished sanctuary August 11, 2010Ohr Shalom Synagogue is one of the foremost examples of Mediterranean Revival, an American architectural style that caught momentum in the mid-1920s.Architect William H. Wheeler was commissioned for the construction of the property by Congregation Beth Israel, who initially occupied the premises.Stained Glass in Ohr Shalom sanctuary

Stained Glass in Ohr Shalom sanctuary

Wheeler delivered a synagogue with a classic Moorish style dome, high ceilings above a majestic sanctuary, and stained glass windows with medieval, Islamic and Jewish motifs.

Ohr Shalom Congregation took possession of the building in 2002, committed to preserving the historic landmark.

The renovation project began in January and entailed complete repair and repainting of the façade, a structural seismic upgrade to comply with current building codes, and removal of wood panels lining the halls, in order to reveal the original stucco.

The stained-glass windows were shipped to Iowa for specialized restoration, and a replica of the original raised- paneled doors is being custom made by hand in California.

Preceding based on material provided by J Simms Agency, which is coordinating the “Make It Your Business to Make History” campaign for Ohr Shalom Synagogue, and augmented by event coverage by San Diego Jewish Press editor Donald H. Harrison

Re-opening of Cosmopolitan Hotel in Old Town to recall various religious denominations of 19th century San Diego

July 7, 2010 Leave a comment

SAN DIEGO (Press Release)– The grand opening of the Cosmopolitan Hotel & Restaurant in Old Town San Diego State Historic Park will be commemorated with a free public festival on Saturday, July 10, featuring an open-air night-time circus.

The day-long event will begin at 1 p.m. with live entertainment including strolling actors, musicians on stage, and more.  Circus performers will be throughout the park during the day to bring a festive, celebratory atmosphere to the center of Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. There will be stagecoach rides, horse saddling and tacking lessons and other activities for the entire family.

At 4 p.m. merchants in the Old Town San Diego State Historic Park have arranged for a multi-denominational blessing ceremony on the steps of The Cosmopolitan Hotel with a  Kumeyaay sage ceremony and blessings from religious institutions that were part of the history of Old Town San Diego.  The blessing ceremony will be followed by dignitaries from the California State Parks in Sacramento and others addressing the significance of the structure that was originally built in 1827 as the home of Don Juan Bandini.

Included among the presenters will be San Diego Jewish World editor Donald H. Harrison, who will discuss some of the Cosmopolitan’s historical connections to San Diego’s pioneer Jewish community.

Sponsored by Fiesta de Reyes, the Zirk Ubu circus will take the stage at 8 p.m. in the center of the state park, performing 19th century-inspired acts such as an aerial tissue dance, acrobatics, fire breathing, juggling and sword swallowing.

“This festival is commemorating the completion of a three-year, multimillion-dollar restoration,” explained Cosmopolitan proprietor Joseph Melluso. “We wanted to celebrate the hard work that everyone has put into this project with a festival that all of  San Diego will enjoy.  We hope everyone will come out and celebrate The Cosmopolitan’s return to glory.”

Visitors will be able to dine at The Cosmopolitan Restaurant that day and enjoy its American regional cuisine with a special menu for the grand opening.

The Cosmopolitan Hotel and Restaurant is part of Fiesta de Reyes, operated by Old Town Hospitality Corp. on behalf of California State Parks.  In addition to The Cosmopolitan, Fiesta de Reyes boasts the alfresco Casa de Reyes restaurant in a lush garden setting, Barra Barra Saloon, and 17 specialty stores.  For more information call (619) 297-3100 or visit

The Cosmopolitan is the only hotel in Old Town San Diego State Historic Park and is surrounded by museums, historic buildings and quaint shops, overlooking a central grassy plaza. The Cosmopolitan has both indoor and courtyard seating in its restaurant, 10 boutique hotel rooms on the second level, along with private dining rooms for special occasions.  The historic indoor saloon will feature 19th century recipes showcasing bourbon and whiskey and will soon be launching The Cosmopolitan Whiskey Club with priority access to special events, travel tours, discounts, history lessons and much more.

There is free parking available in the Caltrans parking lot on Taylor Street in Old Town for this event.  For more information about Old Town’s Cosmopolitan Hotel and Restaurant, visit

Preceding provided by the Fiesta de Reyes

Tessie Sonnabaum, lady of big hats, smile and heart, laid to rest

June 24, 2010 1 comment

By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

SAN DIEGO—At gravesite services for Tessie Sonnabaum at the Home of Peace Cemetery on Thursday, June 24 , I couldn’t help but observe that she was known for her big hat, big smile, big laugh….

“And her big heart,” added Leah Fradkin, the rebbetzin of Chabad of Scripps Ranch.

How true.

Sonnabaum died June 19 at the age of 90 and was buried next to her husband, Irving, who at age 84 had predeceased her in 1997.   Rabbi Yonah Fradkin, rabbi of Chabad of Scripps Ranch (home of the Chabad Hebrew Academy) officiated, assisted by sons Elie and Moti, both of whom are rabbis, and other members of the Lubavitcher movement, including Rabbi Zalman Carlebach of downtown San Diego.

Rabbi Elie Fradkin is spiritual leader at Chabad of Coronado, the city in which Tessie and Irving Sonnabaum lived and worked for many years as the proprietors of Jake’s Clothing Store on Orange Avenue.   Cecile Kipperman, whose “Kippy’s” still is located on Orange Avenue, was among the mourners at the gravesite services.

The families that owned these two stores anchored the small Jewish community in Coronado, and, as Rabbi Yonah Fradkin observed, they helped non-Jews in that suburb on the west-side of San Diego Bay to understand the goodness of the Jewish people.  

Today, serving as director of the regional Chabads in San Diego, Rabbi Yonah Fradkin said he wondered what Tessie and Irving might have thought to see that the young rabbi whom they had helped get settled in San Diego County more than 40 years ago has a son who today has his own congregation in Coronado.

Irving Sonnabaum was the kind of man who made sure that a man’s clothing looked good on him—quietly tugging at a friend’s sleeve or collar out in public  to make sure it laid exactly right, Fradkin recalled.  And Tessie was the kind of woman who always sought to help other people—“how can I help you?” being her approach toward all.  Her watch phrase was the Yiddish expression “zei gezeundt, herst!” be in good health, now!

With son Stan and two grandchildren in attendance, Rabbi Fradkin recalled that until Alzheimer’s Disease robbed Tessie of much of her memory, she almost single-handedly made the Hallmark Card Company a wealthy concern, so determined was she to personally communicate best wishes on  the birthdays, anniversaries and special occasions of her friends and acquaintances. Another son, who lives in the Los Angeles area, is Jack.

Among the mourners were Pessie Sonnabend, a Holocaust survivor from the coal-mining area of  Niemce, Poland, who was married to Irving’s first cousin and who was aided in adjusting to American life by the Sonnabaums after arriving in San Diego.  Another present was Gussie Zaks, longtime leader of the New Life Club of Holocaust Survivors, as well as former San Diego City School Board Member Sue Braun, and Tifereth Israel Synagogue Sisterhood members Phyllis Spital, Binnie Brooks and Judy Morganstern.

Known for her happy laugh, Tessie had been honored by the Tifereth Israel Sisterhood as a “woman of valor,” one of the highest salutes the organization renders to its active members.

Spital recalled taking walks with Tessie along Orange Avenue in Coronado and being stopped seemingly every few feet to be greeted by delighted passersby.   Tessie would carefully introduce her to each one of them. 

She also recalled Tessie’s trademark beautiful hats and her blue house in Coronado.

Sue Braun said after the formal services that she and her husband, Dick, had met the Sonnabaums in 1964 when they moved to Coronado. “Dick took his uniform over to Jake’s, not knowing anything about Irv and Tessie.  We were living right around the corner from them.  Tessie and Irv befriended us right away.”

She said often they would be joined for simchas at the Sonnabaum house by Rabbi Monroe Levens and Lillian Levens, rabbi and rebbezin of Tifereth Israel Synagogue when the congregation was located at 30th and Howard Streets.  “Our kids grew up with Uncle Irv and Aunt Tessie,” Braun recalled. 
After the Brauns moved to the Del Cerro section of San Diego, they transplanted from the Sonnabaums’ garden some pink geraniums that still flourish, as do the Sonnabaum rhubarb plants.

At the end of Tessie’s life,  she lived in a nursing facility for Alzheimer’s patients.

“I’ve been told that the last thing that goes when someone gets dementia is the strongest part of their character—that’s the thing that hangs on the most,” Braun said.  “Tessie’s sense of humor never ever left her.” 

Braun said she and Spital held a small birthday party for Tessie every December 25 – “we would bring a cake to the nursing home, and gifts.”   Braun said that “I would have to think of things to say—jokes—to hold up my end, because Tessie had this sense of humor. She would laugh so much, and she never, ever lost that sense of humor. That’s the thing that stayed. She was always finding things funny.   You know what, the staff loved her!”

Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World

Old Louis Rose might have kvelled over National City Marine Terminal

May 17, 2010 Leave a comment


Michael Caswell describes automobile logistics at National City Marine Terminal

 By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

NATIONAL CITY, California – Observing the National City Marine Terminal from the top deck of M.V. Jean Anne, a 13,000-metric ton ship that transports automobiles and other cargo between San Diego County and the Hawaiian Islands, I could imagine four 19th Century San Diego pioneers standing there with me and nudging each other with excitement over what lay spread out on the asphalt below.

Thousands of automobiles—which entrepreneurs and land developers Louis Rose, Alonzo Horton and the brothers Frank and Warren Kimball might have called “horseless carriages”—were lined up in rows on the 125-acre facility.  Those cars facing south had just been taken off the 580-foot Jean Anne on that  Thursday, May 13,  and were bound either for large automobile-carrying trucks or  for a special car-carrying train  of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad, which would convey them to the American Southwest.  Those cars facing north were about to be loaded onto the Jean Anne for shipment to Hawaii.

“Well, you boys got the railroad business,” I could imagine Rose and Horton telling the Kimball Brothers, owners of the National Ranch property that subsequently was developed into modern-day National City.   “We’ll just have to hope some benefits will come to our areas too.”

While the Kimball Brothers were promoting National City as the ideal terminus for a railroad, Horton had been pushing the area that became today’s downtown San Diego.  Rose, meanwhile, had been campaigning for his township of Roseville, which today is part of modern Point Loma.

While the three areas on the northern, central and southern portions of San Diego Bay had rivaled for the economic benefits that a railroad terminus might bring, their respective advocates knew that if San Diego Bay became the chief port in Southern California to handle both rail cargo and ship cargo, it’s future as a West Coast trading center would be secure – and all of them would benefit.  So they cooperated in an effort to have a railroad select San Diego as its West Coast destination, while rivaling over just where in San Diego the actual terminus should be located.

Known for his optimism about San Diego County’s future–“Just wait awhile and you will see” was his motto–Rose might have  kvelled along with his friends and rivals over the National City Marine Terminal. To their 19th-century eyes, all that activity with those new-fangled “cars” might have seemed a miracle, but in reality, as impressive as it is, it falls far short of their dreams.  The Burlington Northern Santa Fe carries the automobiles to the greater Los Angeles area, from whence the automobiles are transferred  to other trains on a variety of routes, some going east and some going north.  

As the Kimball Brothers, Rose and Horton had envisioned the San Diego region’s future, trains from this area would have gone on a direct route to the East Coast across the southern tier states.   In their dreams, San Diego would have become the gateway to the U.S. East Coast for Asian and Latin American goods, while for U.S. goods, San Diego would become the access point to all the foreign ports on the Pacific Ocean.

Such was not to be, for reasons both of politics and geography.  The powerful Northern California-based owners of the Central Pacific and Southern Pacific Railroads did not want to see San Francisco challenged by San Diego as a prime port on the Pacific Coast and exercised considerable political clout in Washington D.C. to prevent that from happening. 

Geography aided the cause of those “Big Four” railroad moguls Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Mark Hopkins and Charles Crocker, while dealing a major blow to the San Diegans.  The steep and difficult terrain east of San Diego such as the Carrizo Gorge and the chasm at Pine Valley persuaded the 19th century engineers it would be easier to run a transcontinental railroad to the Los Angeles area and build a port at San Pedro than to attempt to engineer a transcontinental railroad directly to and from San Diego.

Today, the twin ports of San Pedro and Long Beach do a thriving container business, able to transfer cargo containers from ships to railroads and vice versa.  In contrast, there are very few cargo containers in San Diego.  Dirk Mathiasen, the vice president for operations of the Unified Port of San Diego, says rather than compete for that business, San Diego markets itself as a “non-containerized niche port.”  “We are doing specialized cargo, very few containers, and we have skills and talents down here that you won’t find at a container port such as ro-ro (roll on, roll off) capabilities…”

The Jean Anne is such a roll-on, roll-off ship, capable of carrying as many as 4,000 automobiles at a time, but more often configured in such a way as to carry 2,500 vehicles and a variety of other kinds of non-containerized cargo, ranging from carnival rides to 100-ton transformers.   Michael Caswell, Pasha’s Senior Vice President of Operations, says the ship with 400,000 square feet of deck space, also has carried  modular homes, office buildings, 100-foot yachts and “just about anything we can lift up to 120 tons.”

MV Jeanne Anne at National City Marine Terminal

A visit to the Jean Anne is like a visit to a 10-story parking garage, only this one floats.  The top three decks of the ship can be raised or lowered like shelves in a cabinet in order to better accommodate variable loads.

Cars and cargo are loaded  onto Jean Anne in reverse order of the ports on which the ship will call in Hawaii – that is, cars bound for the port Jean Anne will visit first are loaded onto the ship last, so that they can be off-loaded without having to move any of the other cargo around.

Automobiles therefore are clustered in groups at the National City Marine Terminal to they can be placed on the ship in logical order.

From the deck of Jean Anne on May 13, one could see at the far southern end of the pier another ship, a Hoegh Autoliner, which had unloaded Hondas for transport on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe.  That railroad company recently spent $25 million to upgrade its facilities at the National City Marine Terminal, according to Mathiasen.
Besides handling its own ship’s operations, Pasha with a $20 million yearly payroll in National City serves as an agent for Honda and almost every other foreign automobile manufacturer in the world that offloads its cars at San Diego.  In the current year,  approximately 250,000 vehicles are passing through the terminal, but more than 400,000 have passed through here in better economic times.   If there is an economic surge, that number could grow to 500,000.

Besides moving the cars from one conveyance to another, Pasha also performs a variety of “value-added” tasks for the car manufacturers.  For example , workers may install radios on the cars, or make certain that up-to-date owner manuals are placed in the glove compartments. 

Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World.

San Diego’s Historic Places: San Diego Automotive Museum

May 2, 2010 Leave a comment

Ken Colclasure and Louis Mattar car that had everything

By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

SAN DIEGO—There are many automotive museums around the world, interpreting their missions in a variety of fashions. Some collect, wanting to obtain representative automobiles of every make, nationality, or year. Others love to show the marriages of art and technology, form and function, and marketing and self-perceptions all shaping people’s love affairs with their cars.

Elements of these themes are presented at the San Diego Automotive Museum in Balboa Park, but anyone reading the carefully researched, easily understood narrations that accompany each exhibit soon realizes that the museum gravitates towards the human stories behind the cars and the industries that they engender.

Ken Colclasure, a teacher with the San Diego Community Colleges and former auto mechanic who is responsible for researching and writing many of the narrations, says he likes to explore the question of “what is the social impact that cars have for all of us?” He’s particularly interested in the American story, which he describes as “unique and unending.”

“You could build a certificate program around the history of the automobile and its impact on our lives,” he says. “Almost any direction you look, you see that the automobile has had some effect.”

Three exhibits that were on display in January of 2010 illustrate the kinds of stories that Colclasure likes to tell. Cars and other artifacts coupled with strong narrations illustrated the dreams of Louis Mattar, Preston Tucker and Ed Fletcher.

Mattar and two friends drove in 1952 roundtrip from San Diego to New York – a total of 6,320 miles—without ever stopping. How is this possible? Their 1947 Cadillac, on which Mattar had spent five years and $75,000 to specially modify, was refueled three times while in motion by a gas truck. Appliances that people need for daily life were packed under the removable back seats, the dashboard and into a small utility trailer. Although it kept moving, the car could be driven slowly enough to permit people to go back and forth to the trailer.

“During their trip Louie and his co-drivers had all the comforts of home, although space was limited. The equipment in the back seat includes an electric stove, a refrigerator, washing machine, chemical toilet and ironing board, medicine cabinet and a kitchen sink. All of these appliance could be stored under the backseat cushions. Up front in addition to the many switches and dials surrounding the dash board, a nationwide mobile telephone, a tape recorder, a public address system for speakers on both the trailer and the hood of the car, and a Turkish water pipe.

“On the right running board is a shower and at the rear taillight is a drinking fountain. The car holds 50 gallons of reserve water, and 25 gallons in the trailer. The trailer also holds 225 gallons of gas, and 10 gallons of oil in addition to a dining area at the end.”

Many of the modifications were intended to permit on-the-go maintenance. Tires could be changed from a moveable platform that attached to the car, while panels on the hood could be folded up to permit maintenance even while the car was in motion.

The “car that has everything” was the subject of a 1952 Life magazine article. Mattar could have sold his creation for a tidy fortune, but money wasn’t what he had in mind. He explained: “If I sold that car and put all the money in the bank I wouldn’t meet the important people I do; that’s worth all the money in the world.”

The legacy of Preston Tucker became known to many Americans in 1988 when Jeff Bridges starred in the movie, Tucker: The Man and His Dreams. At the museum, near one of the 51 automobiles he produced forty years earlier, is an advertising poster for that movie. It declares: “When they tried to buy him, he refused; when they tried to bully him, he resisted; when they tried to break him, he became an American legend – the true story of Preston Tucker.”

Colclasure smiles indulgently at the Hollywood hype. “The story, if you watched the movie, was that major manufacturers forced him out of business, calling the government in on him to investigate his securities. The other side of the story was that he over-reached himself and was pulling in money based on nothing. The truth probably was somewhere in between.”

Tucker had revolutionary ideas and was dismissive of the major car manufacturers whom he accused of building “junk.” Colclasure marveled that Tucker “built in safety features at a time when Ford and GM didn’t want to touch them.”

The Tucker had three headlights, two in their usual positions and one in the middle. Said the narration: “The Cyclops eye headlight was just of several safety features that were placed in the Tucker. The dash area was padded; windshields could be popped out, and all the controls were grouped in front of the deriver. “The area ahead of the front seat, called the safety chamber, was a large carpeted box that front seat occupants could drop into if a crash was imminent. Tucker had considered safety belts but they were abandoned because designers figured they might imply his car was unsafe….”

Colclasure said he once came across a statistic, circa 1970, that 60 percent of the economy was somehow related to the automobile –whether it be the plants that built them, the gasoline companies that nourished them, or the highway builders who helped them have places to go.

San Diegan Ed Fletcher didn’t build automobiles. He built one of the nation’s most unusual roads to accommodate them. The “Plank Road,” as it was known, can still be seen today along Highway 8 in southeastern California near the Arizona border.

For this exhibit, the museum includes a hand-cranked Model-T Ford, a documentary film, a large blow-up photograph of the road, circa 1920, and some planks laid out in the style of the road. But it is the narration that helps us understand the extent of Fletcher’s accomplishments.

During the 19th century, San Diego had rivaled unsuccessfully with Los Angeles to become the western terminus of the southern transcontinental railroad. With the onset of the automobile in the 20th century, Fletcher decided San Diego could become the western terminus of a highway system built for automobiles, which were growing in popularity. To prove San Diego’s utility, a race to Yuma was arranged between a car leaving Los Angeles a day earlier and San Diego. The San Diego car won, although it had to be dragged through the Imperial Sand Hills with a team of six horses. Obviously everyone couldn’t bring six horses along with their car – so how could 6 ½ miles of the sandy desert be navigated? Fletcher decided to build a plank road.

According to the narration: “With local newspapers supporting the plan, Fletcher raised the money to pay for 13,000 planks plus the freight to ship them from San Diego to Holtville, California. Meantime (Imperial County Supervisor Ed) Boyd and his constituents persuaded the Imperial County Board of Supervisors to appropriate $8,600 toward construction expenses. L.F. (Newt) Gray, a local man chosen to supervise road building, dug a well at the western edge of the sand hills and found water. Gray’s Well as the spot has become known served as the work camp. With great fanfare the first planks were laid on February 14, 1915, and for the next two months a combination of volunteer and paid workers hauled lumber and laid down two parallel plan tracks each 25 inches wide (with) cross pieces underneath….

Work ended April 4, 1915, and the following week 35 cars loaded with 100 riders, “gaily traveled the plank road and declared it a success.” However, the road deteriorated under the combined assault of winds which blew sand across it, and maintenance crews which scraped the sand off it. The California Highway Commission built a new plank road in 1916, this one 8 feet wide with turnouts every 1,000 feet to permit cars to pass from the opposite direction.

One time, 20 cars proceeding in one direction encountered a lone car coming in the opposite direction. “Whether through timidity or stubbornness the driver refused to back up to a turn out behind him. Finally the party took matters in hand; they lifted the car, set it on the sand while the women proceeded to advance the caravan.” Once they had passed the other car, it was “lifted back on the road and all continued on their way.” The turnouts were marked with posts stacked with tires to make them visible from far away.

Despite the romance and adventure of the Plank Road, it really was not practical. Sand frequently covered it, rendering it inoperable. Engineers studied the pattern of the sand hills’ movement and concluded that a road could be safely built atop a high embankment. “The new road, 20 feet wide, officially opened August 12, 1926…”
Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World.  This article appeared previously on

Another paradigm for historians: Jewish life on the West Coast

May 1, 2010 Leave a comment
By Joellyn Zollman

Jews of the Pacific Coast: Reinventing Community on America’s Edge. Ellen Eisenberg, Ava F. Kahn, and William Toll. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2009, 309pp.

SAN DIEGO–The New York Jewish experience has long served as the template for understanding American Jewish history. In Jews of the Pacific Coast, historians Ellen Eisenberg, Ava F. Kahn and William Toll reinvent the template. Instead of assuming that all of American Jewish history is, at some level, patterned after or derivative of the New York Jewish experience, the authors approach the Pacific Coast as a blank slate. They explore how Pacific Coast reality and mentality influenced Jews, and how Jews, in turn, impacted the Pacific Coast.

The resulting book is a regional history of Jewish life in California, Oregon and Washington from the original Gold Rush era settlements through the 1980s. It is not a chronicle of events, individuals, or communities in these states, but rather a thoughtful analysis of the interplay between community and region.

Eisenberg, Kahn and Toll are well-suited to craft a regional history of Jews on the Pacific Coast. Each historian has made significant contributions to the scholarship on western Jewish history, with several books and articles to his/her credit. Collectively, they are a western Jewish history powerhouse. The choice to co-author the book is an intriguing, unusual move for historians working in Jewish studies. It would be much more typical to produce a collection of individually authored essays. In this case, three esteemed historians collaborating to (re)consider regional history adds weight to the resulting scholarship.

The choice to speak in one voice also establishes them as a voting block in the ongoing debate regarding regionalism in Jewish Studies. Scholarly opinions vary regarding the significance of place in American Jewish history, the correct definition and scope of regionalism, and its usefulness as a tool for analysis.

In his study of southern Jews, for example, Mark Bauman found that Jews living in that region had more in common with co-religionists in any other region, save the northeast, than they did with southern white Protestants.[1] Is there, then, a southern Jewish identity? Historian Deborah Dash Moore has suggested that more than north, south, east and west, American Jews are products of “urban regionalism.” It’s their city dwelling that defines them more than the position of that city on an American map.[2]

Eisenberg, Kahn and Toll assert that traditional, old school regionalism has and does play a determinative role in western American Jewish history: “We argue that the timing of the settlement, and the social, political, religious, ethnic, and economic climate of cities and towns profoundly influenced regional identities for Jews and other westerners”

However, they are also careful to point out that modern Jewish identity is multi-layered, and informed by a variety of factors including history, geography and culture. The authors do not place a limit on the number of hyphens in an individual’s identity: “Individuals could embrace their identities as western Jews while at the same time identifying as Russians, Oregonians, Zionists, merchants, and even former New Yorkers.”

Using regionalism as an interpretive lens allows Eisenberg, Kahn and Toll to explore different dimensions of western Jewish life. For example, their research demonstrates that from the very first Gold Rush era settlements, western Jews lived in communities that were racially, ethnically and religiously diverse. San Francisco, Seattle, Portland and Los Angeles were home to a wide variety of people, including, for example, Asians, Mexican Hispanics, American Hispanics, and Native Americans; Catholics, Mormons, and Buddhists. Historian D. Michael Quinn called the region “the inverted image of the Protestant mainstream”

The authors suggest that the remarkable distinctiveness of Pacific Coast Jewry can, in part, be attributed to its place in the western spectrum of race, ethnicity and religion. From the time that they settled in the western United States, Jews were considered part of the Anglo community. This is in contrast with their more fluid racial identity in the south and on the East Coast during the same period, the nineteenth century.[3] Along the Pacific Coast, Asians, Hispanics, and Native Americans were the deemed and demeaned “other.”

In such an environment, Jews were not only welcome to set up their own religious communities, but also to assume positions of civic leadership and responsibility in the larger community. Dozens of Jewish men held offices in local government, and Jewish women lead community-wide settlement work and philanthropy in Pacific Coast cities at the turn of the century. These trends, a predilection toward political office and a leadership role in secular philanthropy, continue to characterize western Jewry through the present day.

The swift integration of Jews into western communities did not stumble with the arrival of immigrants from Eastern Europe at the turn of the century. In fact, the authors suggest, that this gigantic wave of immigrants, who so profoundly altered American Jewish life on the East Coast, did not remake western Jewish communities. Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe came more gradually and in smaller numbers to the cities on the West Coast.

More influential in the west, particularly in Los Angeles and Seattle, was the smaller wave of Sephardic immigration that occurred in the early 20th century. Again, the western Jewish experience has been characterized by diversity, this time within the Jewish community, that yields a unique historical reality. Diversity continues to characterize Pacific Coast cities. The authors point to the significant populations of Israeli, Persian, Russian and Latin American Jews as key to understanding contemporary western Jewish identity.

West Coast cities have been remarkably welcoming places for Jews to live, conclude Eisenberg, Kahn and Toll. At times, this enthusiasm for Pacific Coast residency resembles boosterism. This is particularly notable in the book’s treatment of anti-Semitism, which is often couched in oddly cheerful or defensive terms. In the introduction, the authors write, “While southern, eastern, and midwestern Jews faced heightened anti-Semitism beginning in the late nineteenth century, Jews of the West continued to celebrate their high level of inclusion and civic prominence. 

A few paragraphs later, they acknowledge an increase in anti-Semitism in California in the early 20th century, which, they argue, can be traced to the large number of midwesterners with prejudiced attitudes who moved to the area, Later, more detailed, discussions of anti-Semitism in the body of the book follow the same pattern and tone: There is anti-Semitism here, but it’s not as bad as other parts of the country. When it does flare up, as in the interwar period or the postwar period, it can often be traced to “newcomers.” There is a disappointing reluctance to put aside the good news in favor of discussion and analysis of native anti-Semitic impulses.

Still, the research is both thoughtful and challenging, an engaging combination that leaves the reader wanting more. How, for example, did the actual western landscape shape the actual western Jewish landscape? In other words, how does material culture, including synagogues, camps, museums and ritual objects, look when viewed through the regional lens?

The book opens with a discussion of the famous stained glass window at Shearith Israel in San Francisco, which depicts Moses delivering the Ten Commandments from El Capitan. Did Bay Area churches or Buddhist centers feature variations on this theme? This is a provocative piece of material culture, deserving of closer analysis. The book would benefit from more considered examination of the physical landscape of western Jewish communities.

In addition, though the book includes the broad term “Pacific Coast” in its title, it is really the history of four major urban communities on the coast: San Francisco, Los Angeles, Portland, and Seattle. So, local readers looking to gain insight on the San Diego Jewish experience should approach the book with appropriate expectations. San Diego is a sidebar here. Still, it is an interesting exercise to read the book with San Diego in mind, testing the conclusions of the authors in the narrative of San Diego history.

Jewish history is never just one story. By considering Pacific Coast Jewish history as part of the larger narrative of western history, Eisenberg, Kahn, and Toll reveal important characteristics of western Jewish life. At the same time, the authors are aware of the larger narratives of American and Modern Jewish history that impact all American Jews. This does not mean that they always give adequate weight to each narrative. This is a book focused on regional identity, after all. As a result, though the tone sometimes resembles cheerleading, the book succeeds in making the case that regional realities have impacted Jewish identities on the Pacific Coast.

[1] Mark K. Bauman, The Southern as American: Jewish Style (Cincinnati: American Jewish Archives, 1996) 30.

[2] Deborah Dash Moore, William Ferris, et al. “Regionalism: The Significance of Place in American Jewish Life,” American Jewish History 93:2 (June 2007) 115-117.

[3] For a discussion of Jews and whiteness, see Eric L. Goldstein, The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006.


Joellyn Wallen Zollman holds a Ph.D. in Jewish history from Brandeis University. She has taught courses in Modern Jewish History, American Jewish History, and Religious Material Culture at SDSU and UCSD.

San Diego’s Historic Places: Veterans Memorial Museum hosts exhibit on Japanese-American members of the Armed Forces

May 1, 2010 Leave a comment

Traveling exhibit of the Japanese American Historical Society of San Diego

By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison


SAN DIEGO—Probably no event has seared into the consciousness of the Japanese-American community more painfully than their forced relocation from their homes on the West Coast of the United States to internment camps in the interior of the country during World War II.

This is the central portion of an exhibit at the Veterans Memorial Museum in Balboa Park that compellingly examines the 20th century history of Japanese American soldiers from San Diego.  The portable exhibit will remain through Memorial Day (May 31) and then be returned to the archives of the Japanese American Historical Society of San Diego.

Although the exhibit covers more than 100 years, conceptually it is book-ended by the experiences of Navy cook Sago Takata, who was one of 60 men killed in 1905 when the USS Bennington’s boilers exploded in San Diego Bay, and those of Lt. Cmdr. Craig Osaki, who at the end of the 20th century was an expert in the Iraq War on the use and repair of robots to remove enemy-planted explosive devices.

A few months after Japan’s military forces bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, notices were posted on telephone poles and on walls in San Diego neighborhoods where Japanese Americans were known to live. Families were given one week to pack their belongings and prepare for relocation to the interior. Initially most families from San Diego were taken to the Santa Anita Race Track, where horse stalls served as their temporary homes until an internment camp at Poston, Arizona, could be readied.

Poston was one of ten major internment camps built by the United States government. “From August 1942 until Poston closed in late 1945, the families attempted to live normal lives under circumstances that were anything but normal,” the narrative said.

San Diegan Tetsuzo Hirasaki had been a close friend of the city’s chief librarian Clara Breed. Using a sharpened bed spring, he carved for her from mesquite wood a nameplate that she proudly displayed on her desk at the San Diego Public Library. Instead of being sent to Poston with the rest of his family, Hirasaki’s father, Chiyomatsu, had been sent to camps in North Dakota and New Mexico. The family asked Breed, who wrote a column, to do what she could to help reunite them.

At first, the military was not interested in enlisting Japanese Americans, considering them too great a security risk. Although Mas Tsuida was a seafaring fisherman, the Navy had no desire for his skills. Eventually, however, the U.S. Army created a segregated unit, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, for Japanese Americans willing to fight in the European theatre against Nazi Germany.

After joining, Tsuida was sent to Fort Reilly, Kansas for his basic training. One day he and all the other Japanese-American soldiers were “herded into a single barracks surrounded by military police with machine guns at the ready,” the exhibit related. “President Franklin D. Roosevelt was visiting the base and the MPs were protecting him from those questionable U.S. soldiers.” Afterwards, Tsuida was sent to Naples, Italy, and would fight in Italy and France. He was injured in the October 1944 battle in which the 442nd was sent into the Vosges Mountains to rescue the “Lost Battalion,” which had been surrounded by the Germans. The 442nd was successful, but not without sustaining heavy casualties. At war’s end, Tsuida returned to his life as a fisherman.

Other Japanese-American soldiers had their basic training at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, where those from the mainland United States found themselves thrown in with Japanese from Hawaii, with whom a fierce rivalry initially developed. However, as an exhibit photograph of San Diegan Sam Yamaguchi wearing Hawaiian garb illustrates, the two groups were molded in a single unit.

Among San Diegans fighting in World War II were Yasuichi ‘Jimmy’ Kimura, who used to drive a truck on local vegetable farms before his family was relocated to the internment camp. In the Army, he drove trucks and performed maintenance on them in both the European and North African campaigns. He was awarded a purple heart with an oak leaf cluster for wounds sustained during the rescue of the “Lost Battalion.”

After the war, the services of Japanese-Americans were called upon as interpreters and in other capacities in the occupation of Japan and of Okinawa. San Diegan Francis Tanaka, who later would become a physician with Scripps Mercy Hospital, served as a medical interpreter on Okinawa in 1945 and 1946. Shizue Suwa, a lieutenant junior grade in the Navy nurse corps, was stationed in occupied Japan.

When the internment camps closed in late 1945, Japanese-Americans moved back to San Diego. Those whose family members had served in the military were eligible for veterans’ family housing. The exhibit extensively quotes from Grim The Battles, a 1954 memoir by Daisy Lee Worthington Worcester. Arriving at the Frontier Housing Project in the Midway District of San Diego, a group of Japanese-American families encountered the hostility of Anglo families already living there.

“The Japanese sat in chairs along the walls, heads cast down as if to avoid hostile glances but not enabling them to escape low murmured expressions of hatred. An emergency meeting of the tenant council was held that evening,” Worcester wrote. One woman who served as secretary of the tenant council threatened there would be “a dead Jap” before morning if any of them were placed in the unit where she lived. “The meeting lasted until midnight. There was not one person who did not take part in the discussion. I witnessed a miracle that night—the miracle of serious people thinking and feeling together, striving to be above all good Americans and decent human beings.” The upshot was that there was a complete turnaround, including by the woman who had made the ‘dead Jap’ threat. The tenants decided to oppose any discrimination on the basis of race or creed or color. Additionally, they formed a committee to welcome each Japanese-American family to the complex.

Although the war was over, the experience of the internment camps continued to have its influence on the Japanese-American community. The exhibit notes that the 1951 Korean conflict “brought a whole new generation of Japanese Americans into the military…. These Japanese American youths had spent their formative years in internment camps and most had watched their parents lose everything during World War II. Nevertheless, they served when called upon…”

Among San Diegans who went to Korea was Jim Yanagihara who served in a mobile hospital unit such as that made famous by the television series M*A*S*H. “As part of the multinational United Nations force, Yanagihara came into contact with soldiers from other countries and he had high praise especially for the Ethiopian soldiers. He recalls ‘I was really impressed by these soldiers. They never complained.’”

The comment can be juxtaposed with the forward to the exhibit on Japanese-American soldiers, which explained: “Two Japanese words provide a running theme for this exhibition and describe the motivations for Japanese-Americans to serve. One is giri meaning duty, and the other is gaman, which means to endure….”

These concepts were tested in the Vietnam War, when like other young men in the United States many questioned the justness of that war. However the Japanese Americans “did not find it easy to openly express their thoughts. Nearly all had an uncle, brother or father who had been interned and who had served with distinction during World War II and Korea…. Many of those who served in Vietnam were born in the U.S. internment camps.”

Alan Hayashi, who was born in the Poston, Arizona camp, was drafted into the Army in 1969 after graduation from San Diego State University. He “received the bronze star for actions to cut the supply chain known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail near Da Nang, as well as many other commendations from the United States and the Republic of Vietnam.” He commented that he was “raised with the value of loyalty to my country.”

Among the first San Diegans killed in the Vietnam War was Sgt. Shugi Julio Kaneko, whose family were Japanese Peruvians who, at the suggestion of the American government, were sent to an internment camp in Texas to possibly be traded for U.S. prisoners of war held by Japan. However, his family was not needed for such an exchange and they eventually settled in San Diego. Unlike the Japanese-Americans who eventually received a U.S. government apology and $20,000 as redress for their wrongful internment during World War II, the Japanese-Peruvians never were eligible for the award.

Although San Diegan Robert Ito didn’t serve in Vietnam—his draft number having never been called – he remembered vividly stories told to him by San Diegan David Uda “about the racism and the mean-spirited attitudes of his fellow U.S. soldiers,” according to the narration. “When U.S. helicopters flew over, he would dive in the brush for the cover because he (having Asian features) didn’t want to be mistaken for the enemy….”

Containing criticism as it does of the actions of the American government, the exhibit demonstrates that the Veterans Memorial Museum is not only a repository for the memoirs of San Diegans who served in the military but also is an institution willing to examine controversies affecting the military. This makes the museum an even more valuable resource in a city of proud military tradition. Elsewhere in the museum, there are exhibits about San Diegan experiences in different branches of the military, on different fronts and in different wars—providing a kaleidoscopic introduction to the U.S. military experience.

Speeches by veterans about their individual experiences often enliven visitors’ experiences at the museum.

Outside the museum, there are some permanent memorials, including monuments with the names of San Diegans who died in the Vietnam War. Moved from its original location in Old Town San Diego to the Veterans Memorial Museum, these plaques constituted what was considered the first-in-the-nation memorial to Vietnam Veterans, erected even while controversy about the war raged.

In a park leading to the museum’s front door, there is a sculpture by Robert Henderson of a B24 Liberator Bomber which as noted on a plaque had an impact both on the outcome of World War II and the development of San Diego’s industrial sector.

“The airplane was designed by Consolidated Aircraft Corporation where more than a third of all B24sx were build during World War II,” the plaque reports. “At the peak of production more than 45,000 San Diegans worked at Consolidated building the B24. Other San Diego manufacturers brought the number even higher. Subcontractors included Rohr Industries in Chula Vista, Ryan Aeronautical Company and Solar Corporation both in San Diego. The B24 Liberator was flown by all branches of the U.S. military and by every major ally during World War II. Altogether, 19,256 liberators of all types and models were built. The Consolidated B24 Liberator was the most mass produced American aircraft of all time.”

Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World.  This article previously was published on

Roseville has its La Playa Trail marker again

April 29, 2010 3 comments

San Diego City Councilmember Kevin Faulconer is surrounded by Cabrillo Elementary School students of 1934 and 2010 as he unveils La Playa Trails plaque in Roseville. Photo: Matt Awbrey

 By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

SAN DIEGO—The intersection which Jewish settler Louis Rose called 1st and Main Streets back in 1869  as of Thursday, April 29, bears a plaque  recognizing it as the place where the community of Roseville began.  Today Roseville is a section of Point Loma, a neighborhood in the City of San Diego.

The plaque at what is today the renamed northeast corner of Rosecrans Street and Avenida de Portugal by the Union Bank building was unveiled by San Diego City Councilmember Kevin Faulconer, whose 2nd Councilmanic District includes the 30-block-long, 8-block-wide Roseville community.  He was accompanied by five octogenarian alumni of Cabrillo Elementary School who, back in their student days in 1934, participated in a similar ceremony. They included Edwinna Goddard, Bernice Hollerbach, Mary Correia Martin, Angie Vierra Mauricio and Rita Bellatori. County Supervisor Greg Cox participated in the speech making.

Both the 1934 ceremony and this one 76 years later included the dedication of a time capsule to teach future generations.  The problem was that following widening of Rosecrans Street decades ago, the location of the time capsule became a mystery.  So to make up for it, members of the La Playa Trail Association decided to include in the current time capsule materials of relevance then and now. 

For example, there was a copy of a press release and photo from the 1934 dedication and an invitation to the 2010 event.   There were books about the Kumeyaay Indians who have lived in San Diego since before the times of recorded history, about Point Loma’s history since Portuguese explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo waded ashore in 1542 and claimed the area for Spain, and various articles, photographs and historical pamphlets about Point Loma’s rich history.

“History is rich along La Playa Trail,” commented Patti Adams, past chair of La Playa Trails Association, emceeing the event.   Markers including the one dedicated on Thursday are engraved with the image of a carreta—a Spanish ox cart—and an Indian, the latter acknowledging that “the Kumeyaay people, who lived here long before anyone else sailed into the bay, used it as their path to the beach,” according to Adams.  This one also bore the legend:  “La Playa Trail–An ancient Kumeyaay path that became the oldest commercial trail in the Western United States… La Playa Trail Assn. 2010.”

As author of Louis Rose: San Diego’s First Jewish Settler and Entrepreneur, I had the opportunity to tell the assemblage that Rose had grown up in Neuhaus-an-der-Oste, a river near Germany’s Elbe River, on which there was a continuous volume of commercial shipping.  When Rose immigrated to the United States, he settled first in New Orleans, along the banks of the Mississippi River, another important commercial river. 

When he arrived in San Diego in 1850, he wondered why the city was located below  Presidio Hill instead of the banks of San Diego Bay.   The answer was that Spaniards had chosen Presidio Hill because it could be defended, was near the freshwater San Diego River, and had two Kumeyaay settlements nearby with residents who could potentially be converted to Christianity.  When   Mexico became independent of Spain, the soldiers who lived in the Presidio moved down the hill to the area that we today call Old Town and that’s where San Diego sprung up.

Rose and his wagon train friend James Robinson assembled land along the bay, Robinson dying before they could complete their plans to build the town. When at last Rose laid it out four years following the end of the Civil War, another town – Horton’s Addition—was being built along another portion of the bay. Alonzo Horton proved himself to be the more astute and energetic developer.  Today his area is downtown, and Rose’s area is one of the nicest residential and boating neighborhoods of San Diego.

With the five participants of the 1934 ceremony leading –and schoolchildren from three current classrooms at Cabrillo Elementary School following—the three stanzas of the Cabrillo School Song then were sung:

“My name is Juan Cabrillo/and I sail the seven seas/ My ship is strong and beautiful’/ I sail whenever I please/ Of all the shores that I did see/ on San Diego Bay/ Point Loma points the way,” it begins somewhat historically.

“Hail to Cabrillo!/ The school we love the best./ Rah! Rah Cabrillo—the finest in the west/ Oh, we work so hard and play so hard/ To win the games for all/ The other schools do very well/ But we’re the best of all.

“We work so hard and play so hard/ To win the games for all/ The other schools do very well/ But we’re the best of all!”

County Supervisor Cox, indicating the five members from the 1934 ceremony, said that their presence “tells me what Point Loma is all about: family, history, and continuity… I am very proud to be here as part of this historic event today…”

Noting that the new monument will have a time capsule, he predicted unlike its predecessor, “this one looks pretty substantial: I don’t think anyone will lose the time capsule in this monument.”

City Councilmember Faulconer revealed that in 1934, Point Lomas charged 10 cents per person to attend the ceremony dedicating the old marker, so as to pay for it.  “I’m glad to see that today it is already paid,” he said.

Another of six markers along La Playa Trail had been dedicated in 2006, but whereas this one is on a sidewalk, the one in the Midway Section of town (near the Sports Arena) was along a center strip on a busy highway.  “We were dodging cars,” Faulconer recalled. This monument, a safe distance from the road, likely will attract “Point Lomans and City of San Diego residents alike who care about their history.”

Adams said that one of the next projects expected to be completed  will be historic murals on the side of Gus’s Subs and Pizza at 1166 Rosecrans Street near Byron Street. 

Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World

San Diego’s Historic Places: 19th Coast Artillery at Cabrillo National Monument

April 27, 2010 Leave a comment

Woman and 16 inch gun are shown in top photograph. A 16-inch practice shell is shown below

By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

SAN DIEGO—It is commonplace to see elementary school classes walking through Cabrillo National Monument on history field trips. But similar field trips to Cabrillo may also be appropriate for high school trigonometry classes – especially for those students who wonder, “What’s the point of this stuff? When would we ever use it?”

Members of the U.S. Army’s 19th Coast Artillery studied their trigonometry because their lives—and the fate of the City of San Diego—depended on it. In the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, soldiers at Fort Rosecrans (which then included Cabrillo National Monument) kept careful watch on the Pacific coastline seeking to protect San Diego against Japanese naval attack.

The perceived danger was not at all far-fetched. An exhibit in a former radio station building at Cabrillo National Monument makes clear that “San Diego was a prime military target.” The city was home to ship repair yards, supply depots,  and  “served as a principal staging port for troops, supply and naval convoys in the Pacific.” Furthermore, it was home to Consolidated Aircraft which manufactured “B24 bombers, PBY reconnaissance planes and aircraft parts critical to the war effort.”

On the evening of February 23, 1942, “a lone submarine crept close to shore and fired at an oil installation near Santa Barbara, 200 miles north of San Diego,” the exhibit reported. “While the attack caused little damage, the next night jittery troops imagining Japanese aircraft over Los Angeles fired 1,440 rounds at non-existent planes and the morning newspapers reported civilian sightings of Japanese tanks in Malibu Canyon.”

This over-reaction might have been laughable had it not resulted in the U.S. government taking “a drastic and unfortunate step –Americans of Japanese ancestry, many of them enthusiastic patriots, were sent to internment camps for the duration of the war,” the exhibit acknowledged.

Japan had 72,000-ton battleships like the Yamato and the Musashi with guns that could fire shells 18.1 inches in diameter a distance of 28 miles. In comparison, the United States battleships of the Iowa class displaced only 58,000 tons. Their guns fired 16-inch shells a distance of 20 miles. A 16-inch shell weighed 2,300 pounds, “the equivalent of a small car,” according to the exhibit.

At the beginning of the war, the biggest guns in Fort Rosecrans’ arsenal fired only 8 inch shells with a range of 20 miles—no match for the Japanese battleships should they ever come. Eventually, the United States decided to build for Fort Rosecrans a pair of guns capable of firing 16-inch shells 26 miles—artillery that was equivalent to the guns on the Iowa-class battleships and which were capable of challenging even those of the Yamato and the Musashi.

These two guns measuring 68 feet long were installed in 1944 as Battery Ashburn. The exhibit informs that “at 46 tons a piece they were so heavy that when transported to Point Loma the solid rubber tires of the tractor-trailer carved three-inch ruts into the asphalt roadway.”

Artillerymen had to imagine during practice that an enemy vessel was spotted in motion off the coastline. To determine the target’s exact and predicted locations, the soldiers of the 19th Coast Artillery used triangulation—an important component of trigonometry. At two “base-end stations”—which were a known distance apart—soldiers used an azimuth to determine the angles from their positions to the target. Then, with knowledge of the length of the line AB (the distance between the two stations) and the angles A) and B), the artillerymen could compute the exact distance from the guns to the target. They would take these measurements several times in order to predict the enemy ship’s exact course.

Before aiming the guns, they also would factor in such mathematical variables as wind speed and direction, air temperature, pressure, humidity, muzzle velocity and the ark of the projectile. Spotters would watch the shell fall, and if it failed to score a direct hit on the target, would estimate the distance by which it missed – to be factored into the next shot.

San Diego and Point Loma never came under attack but nevertheless artillerymen occasionally became jittery. Fishing boats were sometimes identified as possible enemy vessels and tracked. And, on occasion, repetitive spray from whales was mistaken for machine gun fire.

Although tensions were high at the beginning of the war, as the United States and its allies began to win more and more battles in the Pacific and advance on the Japanese homeland, tensions on the American mainland eased.

Fort Rosecrans was considered a “good duty station” during the war because the weather was usually nice and it was possible for soldiers to go into town when they were off-duty. When they weren’t reading manuals or less instructive kinds of material, troops amused themselves with baseball games and other athletic activities at Fort Rosecrans, and one group of 19th Coast Artillery soldiers kept a dog named “Red” as a mascot.

Like his masters, Red protected his base from “enemy” attack—but in Red’s case, the enemy was anyone not wearing the uniform of the 19th Coast Artillery who tried to use the latrines in his unit’s barracks. Although the uniforms of U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Army were similar, the story is told that Red never failed to distinguish the two – and woe to the Marine who tried to enter the barracks unescorted.

After the war ended, the guns of Battery Ashburn as well as the smaller guns of batteries that surrounded Fort Rosecrans were dismantled and sold for scrap.

Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World.  This article appeared previously on

Roseville section of San Diego to reinstall historic marker on La Playa Trail

April 26, 2010 Leave a comment

SAN DIEGO (Press Release) — Members of the La Playa Trail Association will place a monument at 10:15 a.m., Thursday, April 29, at the corner of Rosecrans Street and Avenida de Portugal to mark the location where the town of Roseville was founded in 1869 by Louis Rose.

The monument duplicates one that had been erected in 1934 to mark the spot where Rose had hoped to move the commercial center of San Diego from the Old Town area.

Guest participants in the ceremony will be San Diego City Councilmember Kevin Faulconer, San Diego County Supervisor Greg Cox, and journalist/ historian Donald H. Harrison, editor of San Diego Jewish World and author of Louis Rose: San Diego’s First Jewish Settler and Entrepreneur.

La Playa Trail Association  Co-chair Klonie Kunzel collaborated with architect Richard J. Lareau to design the marker funded with a grant from the Ellen Browning Scripps Foundation, the Point Loma Foundation and District 2 City Counciman Faulconer.

The La Playa Trail runs from Ballast Point, which once housed the Spanish Fort Guijarros to Mission San Diego.  Markers pictured an Indian vaquero and a Mexican carretta.

The Roseville monument orginally stood a block away from Thursday’s ceremonial site at Rosecrans and Bryon Streets.

When the original 1934 marker was dedicated, the ceremony was attended by local school children.  This will occur again with classes from the Cabrillo Elementary School.

Preceding based on material provided by La Playa Trail Association