Balboa Park

The 'First' San Diego 
Naval Training Station, 1917

In its 70-plus year history, Naval Training Center, San Diego has been the home to more than 2,000 recruit companies and thousands of students, both men and women. Millions of Sailors have entered the gates as civilians and left weeks later as sharp, well-trained Sailors in the world's greatest Navy. But when did it all begin? The commissioning was in 1925, but what events led up to the commissioning? Who were the people instrumental in bringing history to San Diego?

Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.In 1915, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels visited the training station at Newport, Rhode Island. What he saw were predominantly uneducated Sailors who had no skills or trades. He realized Naval education was inadequate and teamed with then Assistant Secretary Franklin D. Roosevelt to help strengthen the Navy. Daniels was adamant that the Navy begin incorporating trade schools for Sailors to learn skills.

The only training facility on the West Coast was Yerba Buena (Goat Bay) near San Francisco. Daniels made an inspection of Yerba Buena to seek a location for a Naval repair yard. While at Yerba Buena, he noticed many training problems existed. The Golden Gate area was continually covered with fog, making sailing difficult and the cost for coal was extremely high. To Daniels, the existing training problems surpassed other current interests.

Congressman William Kettner.Enter Congressman William Marion Kettner. He was a San Diego-elected official who took a personal interest in bringing the Navy to San Diego. He would prove to have a powerful and persuasive voice with the Committee on Rivers and Harbors. Prior to his congressional appointment, Kettner was lobbying diligently to get the harbor dredging project in San Diego approved by Congress.

With America entering World War I, their efforts to bring a training station to San Diego were put on hold for almost 10 years. However, in 1915, San Diego was the scene for the Panama-California Exposition, an elaborate affair that brought revenue to the city. The exposition was held in Balboa Park and certain buildings were built specifically for the function.

The exposition ran for two years and many distinguished officials visited San Diego, including former President Theodore Roosevelt and future president Franklin D. Roosevelt. While here, the latter encouraged San Diego to find a home for the Navy and the Marines. By the close of the exposition, San Diego was in an economic setback and this gave Kettner some fuel to fight for military bases in San Diego.

Kettner thought an area near the bay called "Dutch Flats" would be the perfect location for the Marine Corps Training Facility that Colonel J. F. Pendleton had mentioned.

In 1916, the Nayv agreed to purchase 232 acres of land for $250,000 from San Diego Securities Company. In addition, the city voted to contribute 500 acres next to this land. The vote was 40,288 to 305. This would be the beginning of the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego.

But Kettner wasn't content. He still wanted a Naval Training Facility in San Diego.

"I have always been very fond of the Navy and had a dream for a long time that San Diego could be made a Naval port," wrote Kettner in a 1923 biography, 'Why it Was Done and How.'

Although World War I had disrupted the establishment of a training facility in San Diego, the Navy accepted a temporary offer to train at Balboa Park, in the same buildings as the Panana-Pacific Exposition. An aerial photograph taken in 1917 showing recruits on the parade field at Balboa Park.

The land and the buildings at Balboa Park were leased to the Navy through the Park Commissioners for $1 a year, and in 1917, Capt. Arthur MacArthur became the first commanding officers of the temporary base.

At Balboa Park, new recruits were processed in 'Detention Camps' which were located where the San Diego Zoo now is and near the Spreckels Memorial Organ Pavillion.

Life for new recruits was fairly simple: they lived in tents and slept in hammocks. While at this site, the Navy set up a temporary hospital, which was to eventually become one of the largest military hospitals on the West Coast -- Naval Hospital San Diego.

Another good thing was happening for the Navy. The San Diego community was beginning to welcome the Sailors' presence. The Chamber of Commerce began a two-week campaign to raise $280,000 to purchase 135 acres of land. John D. Spreckels contributed another $10,000 and George Marston contributed $15,000. Additionally, the city council agreed to give the government another 143 acres of tidelands and submerged tidelands between the Mean High Tide Line and the Bulkhead Line.

Kettner convinced the Naval Committee in Washington that he had deeds to the land in San Diego and as soon as Congress made the proper appropriations, he would commence construction of a new training facility.

That news came in 191 from a letter from the president of the San Diego Chamber of Commerce, Melville Klauber:

"My Dear Mr. Kettner:

"It is with very much plearsure indeed, that the writer finds upon his return from a week's trip that the Appropriation Bill containing the Naval Training Base feature, pass the Senate.

"We congratulate you for having so successfully handled this matter, which under the circumstances, was, we realize, particularly difficult.

"Needless to say our committee is delighted and appreciate more than ever what a splendid representative we have."

Bertrand Grosvenor Goodhue. With Congressional approval, the Navy now had $1,000,000 to begin building the training center in San Diego. Construction began on June 4, 1921, under the supervision of Rear Adm. Roger Welles.

Bertrand Grosvenor Goodhue (1869-1924), the architect who designed the Balboa Park buildings for the Panama-Exposition, was selected to design the training center's buildings. By 1923, the Yerba Buana site was closed and Naval training was officially moved to San Diego.


More 1917 photos

Continue to 1920s