Illustration by Adriana Heldiz

If it wasn’t for a big presidential decision that’s forgotten today, we might be remembering 1941’s Japanese attacks on San Diego instead of commemorating the 80th anniversary of Pearl Harbor this week.

This is a story about how a single choice by the man who once said he felt like “the godfather of San Diego” may have spared us from catastrophe. And it’s a tale of high-tension wartime when anti-aircraft batteries lined Linda Vista, nightly blackouts threatened lives, and a Japanese submarine secretly landed at Point Loma.

All this was basically unimaginable just two years earlier in the nation’s 43rd largest city.

Some writers describe San Diego as sleepy back then, although that’s not quite right: We were a quintessential Navy town, and any port that’s home to sailors is going to be full of diversions. Famed poet Maya Angelou, for example, worked briefly here as a madam in the 1940s when she was a young woman.

But we were definitely on the smaller side. San Diego was home to just over 200,000 residents – much fewer than Chula Vista today – and 42 American cities were larger, including five on the West Coast (Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Portland and Seattle). The entire rest of San Diego County only held 86,000 people, fewer than live in San Marcos today.

A war in Europe had begun in 1939, but it wasn’t quite a worldwide conflict yet. Many Americans, still bitter over being sucked into World War I, hoped to stay out of a “foreign war.”

Across the Pacific, Japan looked like a potential enemy as it threatened to feed its need for oil by grabbing Pacific territories that were owned by distracted European countries.

He May Have Loved San Diego, But FDR Pulled the Navy Out

This is when San Diego, home to much of the Navy’s Pacific Fleet, entered the picture.

Franklin D. Roosevelt decided to move our ships to Hawaii.

Roosevelt actually liked San Diego a lot. He was mighty proud of pushing for the city to become a major Navy base back when he was assistant secretary of the Navy in the 1910s. In fact, he told a bayside crowd of 25,000 in 1938 that “in a sense, I feel like the godfather of San Diego.”

The president’s decision had nothing to do with us and everything to do with Japan.

“The only reason to relocate was to impress and intimidate. Moving the fleet closer to Japan – by a lot – was a shot across the Japanese bow,” said Steve Twomey, author of “Countdown to Pearl Harbor: The Twelve Days to the Attack,” in an interview. “You certainly wouldn’t relocate to improve the day-to-day life of the fleet. Everything a fleet required had to be brought from the mainland, especially oil. Moreover, the move totally disrupted the lives of thousands of sailors whose families remained on the West Coast, at least initially.”

The head of the fleet, Adm. James Richardson, believed a Hawaii-based Pacific Fleet would be underprepared and overexposed. A few months later he urged the president to return the ships to San Diego. He also mentioned that the Navy didn’t trust the nation’s political leadership.

Oops. That marked the end of his military career: FDR sacked him.

Disaster in Hawaii and ‘Full-Blown Stress’ Here at Home

Should the president have kept the Pacific Fleet here? “It’s easy to say FDR made a terrible decision,” Twomey said. “But the fleet wasn’t crippled on Dec. 7 just because it was at Pearl Harbor. It was also crippled because so many, from Washington to Pearl Harbor, made so many poor assumptions about the Japanese and failed to take seriously the considerable intelligence that suggested the Japanese were up to something big. With better thinking and better preparation, the Americans could have made Dec. 7 a day of disaster for Japan. The attackers could have been greeted by a fully-armed and ready American Navy – an ambush of the ambushers.”

Instead, the Pearl Harbor attack killed more than 2,400 Americans, wounded hundreds more, and destroyed or crippled hundreds of airplanes plus eight battleships and other Navy vessels.

“Within hours, the attack sparked widespread uncertainty, fear and worry on the West Coast more than any other area of the country,” Twomey said. “The San Diego naval community was in full-blown stress over the fate of its husbands and sons at Pearl Harbor. The civilians had very little information about the scope of the attack, and no information about casualties. In my book, I offer the story of the wife of a Navy destroyer captain, a famous one. He survived the attack just fine, but his wife in San Diego didn’t know that until several days later, when his telegram finally reached her.”

Bad news did travel quickly in some cases. The Dec. 8 edition of the morning San Diego Union included a front-page photo of a 37-year-old ex-San Diegan who was thought to be the first man killed in the attack when Japanese machine guns strafed him while he was trying to start up a plane. Robert L. Tyce’s parents and brother still lived in Chula Vista, and his father cried, “My God, I can’t believe it!” when he got the news.

Aerial photograph of U.S. warships docked at the U.S. Naval Repair Base, San Diego, California (USA), during World War II.
Aerial photograph of U.S. warships docked at the U.S. Naval Repair Base, San Diego, California (USA), during World War II. / Image via Wikimedia Commons

Fear, Panic, and Japanese Subs Off San Diego

The West Coast immediately went on alert. “People had been stunned by the fact that the Imperial Japanese Navy could reach farther than halfway across the Pacific,” said author Bill Yenne, author of “Panic on the Pacific: How America Prepared for the West Coast Invasion,” in an interview. “It was generally assumed if they could do that, they could reach to the West Coast, and the assumption was that they would. And if the Japanese decided to attack, San Diego would have come first.”

Anti-aircraft batteries in Linda Vista were ready to shoot down planes, blackouts kept the skies dark every night, and “barrage balloons” flew overhead, ready to ignite any Japanese fighter planes that flew into them. As the L.A. Times reported in a 1989 article, “at the Convair plant on Pacific Highway, chicken feathers were applied to sprawling chicken-wire nets and painted, as a way of camouflaging the facility from enemies, who were supposed to believe they were flying over farmland.”

Meanwhile, thousands of soldiers and wartime workers flooded into town and downtown cafes open 24 hours a day. “There were constant rumors about Japanese attacks and secret bases in Mexico,” Yenne said.

San Diego did have some close calls. Japanese submarines lurked off shore where they menaced American ships, and one covertly landed at Point Loma in early 1942. The commander checked his position and then left. And there are reports that the Japanese considered shelling San Diego and other West Coast cities on Christmas Eve 1941.

By the late summer of 1942, however, fears of an invasion began to lessen as the Japanese focused on battles far away in the Pacific, Yenne writes. That was too late for thousands of local Japanese residents who’d been sent to internment camps.

The war ended three years later, but not before setting San Diego on the road to its transformation from touristy Navy town to major metropolis. In 1950, the city’s population hit more than 330,000, jumping by more than half in just 10 years.

What If Pearl Harbor Was Just the Beginning?

Would the Japanese have launched a Pearl Harbor-style air attack against San Diego if the fleet had still been based here? “It is highly, highly unlikely,” Twomey said. “A major reason is simple logistics. The journey would have been at least twice as long: Tokyo to San Diego by sea is roughly 6,000 miles; to Pearl Harbor is just under 3,000 miles. That would have required twice as much fuel and twice as many refuelings, a dangerous exercise when underway.”

Also, he said, “the Japanese plan rested entirely – entirely – on secrecy. If they lost it, if the Americans saw them coming, they were doomed.”

But San Diego was still vulnerable to another kind of attack that Americans took very seriously after Dec. 7 – a land invasion. As author Yenne writes in his book, “virtually the entire Pacific Coast was undefended,” and the Japanese could have launched a “vast air-land-sea campaign” shortly after Pearl Harbor.

Yenne’s “What If?” scenario suggests that Japanese land troops could likely have landed around San Clemente or Oceanside and headed south at first to beat the fewer than 15,000 combat-ready Marines at San Diego’s Camp Kearny, now Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. (Camp Pendleton didn’t exist yet.)

This scenario never happened, as the Japanese likely realized “it was just untenable to support an occupation force so far away,” Yenne said. They were also worried about the millions of Americans who were armed with weapons like hunting rifles.

We weren’t done being a possible target when World War II ended. The presence of the military here returned us to the bull’s eye as the USSR menaced the U.S. with nuclear weapons during the Cold War and beyond. The Soviets even created a remarkably detailed map of San Diego, apparently as a guide for an invasion fleet or occupiers, complete with a primer as to where the “most comfortable residential quarters in San Diego” are – “north of Balboa Park.”

Rest easy, La Jolla! The Russians don’t know about you yet.

Randy Dotinga is a freelance contributor to Voice of San Diego. Please contact him directly at and follow him on Twitter:

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