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Marin Headlands barracks preserve the Bay's WWII history

San Francisco is the city of the Summer of Love – a place famous for peace rallies and liberal politics. So, a newcomer to the Bay Area may well feel confused at the number of forts and military bunkers clustered around the Golden Gate.

Until recently, large parcels of land in San Francisco and northward, in the Marin Headlands, belonged to the army — which was charged with protecting what was then the west coast’s most important port.

Today, that land is part of the National Parks system, and the military relics therein provide a three-dimensional display of the history of seacoast defense in this country.

In the mid-nineteenth century, when the U.S. army took power from the Mexicans, it started to put up castle-like brick forts to guard the mouth of the Bay, but during the Civil War, those proved to be imperfect. As war raged on the East Coast, they crumbled under fire from ironclad battleships. As a result, here on the Pacific, the army built earthwork defenses instead.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the army was constructing concrete batteries with pits to fit bigger, more powerful guns. Only the half-ton shells were stored underground and brought up to ground level by a hand-cranked hoist, which, as park historian Stephen Haller explains, “took a lot of cranking … because it had to be geared down, way, way down, so that the strength of two people could lift the shell all the way to the top.”

Airplanes came into use during World War I, so the next generation of gun batteries moved completely underground, just before World War II, to escape detection from the air.

The advent of nuclear warheads and long-range missiles then made the underground batteries obsolete. The Bay Area at one time was host to twelve nuclear missiles, located from the Marin Headlands down to Pacifica. The nuclear missiles were removed in the early 70s. Today only the disarmed batteries and bunkers remain – around 40 of them filling the hills around the Golden Gate.

Inside s Marin Headlands gun battery

Hikers enjoying the fresh air and views from the trails above Fort Cronkhite can see the old wooden army barracks lined up near the beach. They’ll also find some of the bunkers built into the many hills. But unless they time it right, visitors may never know exactly what went on underground at this former military outpost.

Park  historian Stephen Haller and retired park ranger John Martini lead a group of young campers inside Battery Townsley, one of the largest in the Headlands.

“So, what you’ve got to do is stay together. Remember it’s going to be a little dark until your eyes get used to it,” Haller cautions. “Make sure you’re looking down, [so] you don’t trip over stuff.”

In echoing rooms linked by concrete hallways, the lights are dim. It’s cold. A track-and-pulley system along the ceiling; it was used to carry shells to the outside door. There a former gun pit has filled with water and become a pond for breeding newts. The group stops to look at a disarmed shell.          

At 2,000 pounds, the shell weighs as much as a small car and fits a 16-inch gun barrel. The guns here at Battery Townsley never fired on enemy ships during World War II – they never came close enough to be a threat. But the soldiers did do a lot of target practice, sending shells 25 miles out to sea.

“You could hear it all over the Bay Area when these guns fired,” says retired park ranger John Martini, who now directs restoration of Battery Townsley, as a volunteer.

“The nearest neighbors were either soldiers who had no say, or they were cows on the other side of the hill,” Martini says. “Oral history with some of the ranchers is the cows would not give milk for a couple of days every time they had target practice.”

About 150 soldiers lived inside the battery, underground, full-time. They worked in forty-eight hour shifts and took turns sleeping on steel bunks hung from the walls on chains.

“Because every time the guns fired, it was such a powerful shock wave it would rip the beds off the walls, so the beds had to be chained up and latched down every time they fired a bullet,” explains Martini.

Shooting giant slugs at a 50-foot-long target raft had more to do with mathematics than marksmanship. It depended on a network of observation posts located at different heights, to see above and below the fog. With bearings from three different telescopes, the plotters could triangulate.

“They would figure out where the ship, if it stayed on that course, was going to be, say in another minute,” says Martini. “And they would relay that information up to the guys at the gun, with some variables corrected. Wind direction, atmospheric pressure, temperature of the magazines where the gunpowder was … all these things were figured in, by hand; aiming points were given to the gun, and the men in the plotting room would say, ‘Okay, at the mark, fire!’”

However, without actual enemy ships to shoot at, Martini says life inside the batteries grew dull for the soldiers.

“Right after the attack on Pearl Harbor, there was the adrenalin, that they really thought they might get action. By the time you got to 1943 and the Japanese were being pushed way back, it was obvious it wasn’t going to affect them here,” he explains. “That was the most boring time.”

That is not to say, however, that the soldiers were idle. When not firing the big guns, they were painting and polishing, taking inventory, and maintaining hydraulic and electrical systems. During their free time, soldiers could read in their bunks, play cards, listen to the radio, or step outside, behind the battery, to smoke.

The tour stops again inside one of two cavernous gunpowder storage rooms. Martini reads a message that a soldier left on a wall, in chalk, in 1940. His note about the “lot” is still here.

“‘Lot number 4353,’ which is this room, ‘of 1940: 150 cans,’” reads Martini. “The cans weren’t like little cans; the cans were like garbage cans, made of aluminum, and inside these very fancy aluminum cans was the powder for firing the gun.”

That gunpowder was powerful enough to punch a solid steel, one-ton shell to the horizon.

“Each can had about 200 pounds of powder in it. What is that, about 30,000 pounds? No smoking anywhere in here,” Martini says. “They didn’t even wear shoes in here, because old-fashioned soldiers’ shoes, they had nails in the bottom. They wouldn’t even wear metal belt buckles, just because they were so concerned about sparking.”

Today that chalk message – and the whole room – bear traces of the vandalism that’s been a problem in the bunkers since the park service took over in 1972, as historian Steve Haller explains.

“Where John was just showing you the 1940 chalk work – somebody’s put some graffiti over it. Now graffiti once covered this entire room, and you can just barely make out just some of the faint ghosts of the graffiti that it took endless amounts of sweat equity to remove,” Haller says. “But you’ll also see over here, of course, we didn’t remove it, because removing the graffiti would have removed the historic chalk marks of the soldiers from World War II.”

By 1994, the army had handed over the Marin Headlands, all of the Presidio and Fort Mason to the National Park Service. The land is now available for anyone – including vandals – to explore. Many more stories lie in these open lands, waiting for new generations of explorers to uncover them.

If you want to see the underground life of the Golden Gate Recreation Area, join a weekend tour. Battery Chamberlin, in the Presidio, is open on the first Saturday and Sunday of each month, from 11am to 3pm. You can tour Battery Townsley, in the Marin Headlands, on the first Sunday of every month between 12 and 4pm. Check the National Park Service website for more information.


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