San Pedro’s Ft. MacArthur through two world wars

Ft. MacArthur in San Pedro opened on Oct. 31, 1914. The fort was built to improve defenses of the Los Angeles harbor area. During World War I, the base was a training center. The first large guns were installed in 1917.

The fort is named after Lt. Gen. Arthur MacArthur, father of the famous Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

A history of Ft. MacArthur appeared in the Oct. 16, 1966, Los Angeles Times:

SAN PEDRO–The big guns of Ft. MacArthur were nearing obsolescence when they were installed between World Wars I and II and seldom roared except for target practice. They lost their biggest battle to San Pedro housewives.

The only reminders at the fort of the Army’s once-proud coast artillery are concrete gun emplacements and batteries, now crawling with weeds and used only for storage.

The emplacements once housed huge, 14-inch disappearing carriage rifles, whose barrels each weighed 110,000 pounds, and the breech-loading 12-inch mortars. But the guns have long since been cut up for scrap.

Even in 1924, Brig. Gen. Henry D. Todd, commander of the 9th Co., Coast Artillery, was dissatisfied with the guns. He complained that there were too few of them and their range was too short.

The following year, two 14-inch railway guns, more modern artillery pieces, were brought in to beef up the harbor defense.

Artillery crews occasionally practiced by firing at a triangle-shaped canvas target mounted on a raft and towed by a tug boat, the Maj. Evan Thomas.

Harold Simpson, a longtime San Pedro resident who has worked at the fort since 1937, remembers the practice sessions well.

“The guns had a tremendous roar and you could hear them for 30 miles if the atmospheric conditions were right,” says Simpson, now a maintenance supervisor.

“Before firing them, the Army used to go around the neighborhood warning people to open their windows and to take down all their breakable things,” he recalls.

But some people either didn’t get the word or were more interested in receiving payment for damages caused by pressure waves and ground shock from the test firings.

Casualties–to dishes, glassware and windows–mounted, indignant housewives buckled on their armor and carried their fight against the firings to City Hall. In 1928, the War Department ordered the guns silenced.

But they were to be heard again during World War II. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Col. William W. Hicks, Ft. MacArthur commander, ordered all fortifications manned, mobile batteries moved into selected positions and ammunition distributed to all men.

Early in 1942, the freighter Absoraka was torpedoed off Pt. Fermin and artillery batteries spotted along the coast went into action against a reported Japanese submarine 4,000 yards off Redondo Beach.

No trace of the submarine was found and it was assumed sunk–but not by the big guns. A mobile battery of the 105th Field Artillery Battalion was credited with the kill.

In 1943, batteries Barlow-Saxton (mortars) and Osgood-Farley and Merriam-Leary (14-inch rifles) were deactivated, leaving the 14-inch railway guns as the only large-caliber armament of the harbor defense.

After the war, two 14-inch rifles set up at the fort were dismantled and two sawed up for junk. The metal from the guns, built in 1943 for $1.5 million, was sold for $17,000.

The Army’s coast artillery branch is now only a memory. It played a minor role in World War II (some Japanese shipping was sunk in the battle of Guadalcanal) and the big guns have given way to the big missiles. …

Following World War II, Ft. MacArthur became the home base of the 47th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Brigade defending Los Angeles. A Nike surface-to-air battery was at the fort from 1954 until the early 1970s.

Following the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, the base was closed. Ownership of much of the base was transfered to the city of Los Angeles. The lower section is now Cabrillo Marina. Part of the upper section is now Angels Gate Park, home of the Korean Bell of Friendship.

The Fort MacArthur Museum occupies the site of the Battery Osgood-Farley. The museum sponsors two popular annual events: in July the Old MacArthur Day Living History, and in February The Great Los Angeles Air Raid of 1942.

For more, check out these related From the Archives blog posts:

14-inch guns fired near Oceanside

Civilians trained to fire Ft. MacArthur’s guns