This summer marks the 100th anniversary of World War I, which ushered in a new era for a San Diego on the move.

We transformed into a American military powerhouse and The Air Capital of the West, and our population swooned. But the war also brought anti-German hysteria and the deadly Spanish Flu.

Here’s a look at five ways World War I changed San Diego.

The Military Comes — and Stays

Thousands of soldiers and sailors came to San Diego during the war in search of training, medical treatment and R&R. They’d eventually leave, but the military would stick around big time.

More than 65,000 soldiers would go through Camp Kearny — named after a Mexican War general — just north of San Diego. World War I also prompted the creation of the Naval Air Station on North Island, which shared space north of Coronado with the Army Signal Corps’ Rockwell Field.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile, injured sailors were housed in Balboa Park, which had become a hot spot for training and treating the military not long after the grand Panama California Exposition of 1915.

“San Diego is fundamentally a great military and naval city,” bragged the San Diego Union in 1918. “Every phase of governmental activities connected with the army and navy is to be found here. The officer, the bluejacket, the soldier and the marine are as closely identified with the civic affairs of the municipality as is the civilian resident. And Uncle Sam is expending millions of dollars in furnishing these military and naval representatives with homes of which they may well be proud.”

(A bluejacket, by the way, is a sailor.)

Camp Kearny would ultimately become Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, and the Naval Air Station — officially dubbed the “Birthplace of Naval Aviation” — remains to this day after the Navy presence grew on North Island.

Balboa Park Gets a Shot in the Arm (and So Do Sailors)

Balboa Park was anything but San Diego’s “crown jewel” when the Panama California Exposition of 1915-16 came to an end. The temporary buildings at the park were ready to be torn down, and something needed to be done about the leftover “mangy and diseased animals” filling cages. But then along came the war, which sucked the U.S. into its clutches in 1917, and the park took a turn.

As we wrote in 2012, “the Navy converted the exposition buildings and site to a training center in 1917. San Diego had been working to woo the military, and here was a suitable place for housing and training recruits. The city shared the space for free.”

The ever-boosterish San Diego Union bragged about how sailors enjoyed the “matchless blue sky,” beautiful flowers and daily organ pavilion recitals at the park: “it is no wonder that the San Diego naval training station … has turned out more healthy, qualified seamen according to its pro rate of satisfied personnel than any other training station in the country.”

One training problem quickly arose: The park was far from the ocean, and sailors needed to figure out how to swim. San Diego didn’t have a single city pool. After some strong-arming (“Give the Boys a Chance,” urged the Union), the park allowed sailors to use the park’s lily pond. No lilies and no goldfish, though: They had to go.

The park also served as a medical center for injured sailors. The Navy built a hospital there after the war, and the park is now home to the sprawling Naval Medical Center San Diego, including the historic original Naval Hospital.

San Diego Becomes ‘The Air Capital of the West’

World War I brought navy pilots to San Diego and boosted its reputation, built on a boon of early aviation activity, as “The Air Capital of the West.” The war would end with a flyover spectacular in San Diego featuring 212 pilots.

San Diego would go on to have several aviation firsts, including the first in-flight refueling and the first nonstop cross-country flight (it landed here in 1923). The city even came a hot spot for the manufacturing of parachutes during World War II.

But nothing was bigger than the Spirit of St. Louis. Charles Lindbergh’s plane was built here, and its voyage to its transcontinental flight to Paris began with a leg from San Diego.

Patriotism and Prejudices Engulf the City

The war brought plenty of patriotism to the city as locals rushed to support the military by enlisting and creating a volunteer unit called the Cabrillo Rifles to “protect both San Diego city and county in event of military emergency.”

The “Home Guard” drilled and trained around the county, where they had to deal with some deprivations. (A drill announcement noted that “coffee, sugar, cream, and army hard tack will be furnished by the commissary.”) One report declared “they would have made it pretty hot for an enemy that might have attacked.”

Protecting the homeland wasn’t entirely tedious. The volunteers often got to to bring along female friends and enjoy the excitement of bass fishing.

The war also brought the same anti-German prejudice that infected much of the rest of the country, where dachshunds became “liberty dogs” and sauerkraut transformed into “liberty cabbage.”

Voters recalled three members of the San Diego school board in 1918 after they sacked a popular superintendent and fired teachers they believed were under surveillance due to their supposed pro-German sentiment.

Image via UCSD Special Collections
Image via UCSD Special Collections

Wartime Flu Cuts Hundreds of Lives Short

San Diego’s population boomed in the first 20 years of the 20th century from 17,700 in 1900 to 74,361 in 1920, partly as a result of the military’s newfound presence.

We’d never have that amazing level of fast growth again, even in the go-go 1970s and 1980s. (If we were to grow by four-fold over the next 20 years, we’d be home to 5 million people. In a word: Yikes.)

But the war took lives too, and not just those of hometown soldiers, marines and sailors. The Spanish Flu of 1918, which began at an Army camp in Kansas, killed 368 people in San Diego, or about one in every 200 residents.

The flu first appeared here at Camp Kearny around the beginning of the fall of 1918. Military facilities were quickly quarantined and sailors were forbidden from spitting at Balboa Park, but the flu spread. It became so deadly that nervous politicians switched course and stopped keeping theaters and dance halls open to protect businesspeople.

The city essentially shut down for a few days in December 1918, but not before an angry San Diego Mayor Louis Wilde blended the flu and the paranoia about the war into a quote for the ages: “If we cannot put life and health above dollars and pleasure for a few days, we had better abolish the Bible and the Constitution. I cannot see a particle of difference between the invasion of France by the heartless, lustful Huns and the invasion of our homes by some epidemic permitted by greed and politics.”

Randy Dotinga

Randy Dotinga is a freelance contributor to Voice of San Diego. Please contact him directly at

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