With the outbreak of the Second World War, Mare Island rapidly added some bomb shelters for the workers and residents. These concrete bunkers were built quickly but have lasted a long time. The doors to them have gradually decayed and they are now predominantly sealed with steel doors. As bomb shelters go, they were of reasonable use. A direct hit would have destroyed them and whoever was unlucky enough to be inside. However, they should have provided protection to the occupants from shrapnel resulting from a nearby impact had it ever happened. Now they just look a little incongruous amongst the trees but there would have been a time when they were considered a very welcome feature to those nearby.
I might have been visiting Mare Island to see the museum and surrounding area but I also got to fit in some wildlife viewing while I was there. I had stepped out of the back of the museum towards one of the dry docks. One of the guys working in a business nearby starting chatting and saying how he wished he had a long lens with him to photograph the ospreys. I could hear a lot of noise but he pointed out the source. All of the high structures around the docks be they cranes or gantries seemed to have a nest on them. Ospreys were all over the place. They had access to the fishing in the water a short distance away so the metalwork was providing a great vantage point with plenty of privacy.
The noise from the nest close to me was pretty loud. A chick was obviously awaiting some food. At first I thought the parents were going to come right in but then I realized that there were so many nests that the birds I could see flying were not necessarily anything to do with this chick. I don’t know whether it had worked that out, though, given the noise it was making when any bird came close. I have no idea how much the nest impact the operation of the machinery and whether there are any restrictions on what can be done when they are in place but they are clearly all over the place.
Located on Mare Island, St Peter’s Chapel was a non-denominational chapel to support the naval facility. It is no longer an active chapel but it is available for use for ceremonies. The structure looks pretty small from the outside but it is surprising how many people it can accommodate without trouble. The wooden structure is very different to everything else on the facility and it looks quite rustic. Many panels inside the chapel reflect the naval history of Mare Island and, particularly, the submarine forces.
The striking feature of the chapel is the stained glass windows. Many of them were made by Tiffany and they are considered very valuable. An exact value is not given but, since they cannot be replaced, you could argue they are priceless. Not all of the windows are from Tiffany but most are and some include a signature which makes them even rarer. The windows survived relatively unscathed in the recent earthquake that hit the area so the team is making sure that they are left alone as much as possible to avoid causing more harm than good.
Ex-military installations that I have visited have a feature in common and that is the quarters for the senior officers. Some grand looking houses are the home for the higher levels of staff and, the older the installation is, the grander the accommodations appear to be. Putting together this post has reminded me of another place I visited a few years ago and I shall have to write about that too at some point. However, the location today is Mare Island. As a naval facility, the officer commanding required a sizeable house. We got to take a look around the place.
In actuality, it isn’t the largest home you will see on a military base. Take a trip to the Presidio in San Francisco and you will see plenty of big houses. Even so, this one is quite an impressive place. There is plenty of space for a family to live in this house and it looks very nice from the outside. It is also a short walk to the main administration block. Not the worst commute anyone would have. The staff areas are naturally a little more spartan and there is a buzzer system to allow the occupants to summon those staff when required. It isn’t hard to imagine officers with cigars around the table after dinner.
The Society of Aviation History organized a visit to Mare Island recently and I went along. The tour started at the museum and walked to a number of locations before ending up back at the museum which we were then free to roam around. I will start at the end today and cover a little about the museum itself. That should set the scene for the follow up posts about elements of Mare Island that we took a look at.
Mare Island was a naval shipyard. From its earliest days it grew into a major shipbuilding facility. In its later days, it was involved in building many nuclear submarines. Ultimately, as part of the reduction in bases undertaken in various phases around the US and beyond, Mare Island was closed as a naval facility and returned to the local community. Much ship related work is still undertaken but the location is a faction of what it once was.
The museum has a lot of displays of what went on at various stages in the history of the yard. Outside there are some missiles and cannons on display covering old wooden frigates through to a Polaris missile from a nuclear ballistic missile boat. The submarine theme shows up in many of the displays and a periscope has been recovered from a submarine and erected in the museum. You can operate it and survey the surrounding area. The clarity of the optics is quite amazing.
The running of the museum is not cheap – not least because the local town of Vallejo charges them a substantial tax each month. Therefore, getting people to visit is an important issue for them. If you have a free day, I would certainly pay them a visit and see a little of the shipbuilding history of the area.