On the eve of World War II, as the Marine Corps doctrine of amphibious warfare was being refined and tested, the training of Marines was limited to Quantico and Parris Island on the East Coast and San Diego on the West Coast. When the expansion of all U.S. armed forces was authorized by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s proclamation of unlimited national emergency May 27, 1941, there was an immediate need for additional training areas on both coasts. The creation of Camp Lejeune in North Carolina filled the critical need for training facilities along the Atlantic Coast.
Continued expansion and increased concentration of Marine activities on the West Coast, especially after it became apparent that the Marine Corps would have primary responsibility for Pacific operations, necessitated additional land for training purposes. The Marine Corps base at San Diego had become the center for all activities in the Pacific. Nearby Camp Elliot provided the only area for small unit training, but there was no training facility for the large, division-sized units that would be fighting the upcoming island campaigns against the Japanese.
On March 10, 1942, the Navy Department announced the purchase of approximately 130,000 acres, the “Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores,” located between Los Angeles and San Diego.
Construction of the base started March 13, 1942, with the awarding of a contract for the construction of training facilities for amphibious forces.
Under the command of the future commandant, Col. Lemuel Shepherd, 9th Marines and 1st Battalion, 12th Marines, had just completed a four-day march from Camp Elliot in San Diego to be the first troops to occupy the newly acquired West Coast training base, later known as Camp Joseph H. Pendleton. The time was September 1942; building activity aboard the new base was continuing at a frenzied pace to transform a peaceful cattle ranch into a fast-paced military installation capable of training and transporting a large number of Marines to the Pacific.
Throughout the war years, thousands of Marines and three divisions passed through the camp on their way to the bloody battles in the Pacific, living in rapidly constructed tent camps throughout the sprawling hills. Training areas were constructed to provide realistic preparation for combat. Pillboxes were built exactly like those found in the Pacific. Also during these early days, one of the famed Raider Battalions was formed and trained here under Lt. Col. James Roosevelt, the son of the president.
Combat Marines were not the only people to populate Camp Pendleton. Women Marine Reservists arrived here in 1943 and were able to keep the administration of the base running smoothly. The Ranch House Chapel was restored and opened primarily for their use. Wars inevitably produce heroes, and Camp Pendleton eagerly recognized one of its own. Basilone Road, a familiar landmark on the base, was named for Gunnery Sgt. John Basilone, who earned a Medal of Honor at Guadalcanal in 1942 and the Navy Cross posthumously at Iwo Jima in 1945. Following the war, Camp Pendleton was inundated with troops returning from the Pacific, and the deserted tent camps were once again bursting with activity. Working overtime, the Redistribution Regiment was able to discharge about 200 Marines a day, and before leaving, each man was issued a discharge emblem to be sewn on his uniform as a badge of honor.
Camp Pendleton was declared a permanent installation in October 1944, and in 1946, Gen. Alexander Archer Vandegrift stated the base’s future role was to be the center of all West Coast Marine activities and the home of 1st Marine Division, the peacetime strength of which would be 12,500. It was during this period of peacetime that Maj. Gen. Graves Erskine, commander of the base, known then as Marine Barracks, Camp Pendleton, was determined to develop the base into “the finest post in the world.”
Tent camps were torn down and Quonset huts put in their places, 17 area barracks were renovated into officers’ quarters, a $130,000 Spanish beach club was opened at San Onofre and a commissary opened in 1948. The base library opened in 1950 in a small frame building across from division headquarters.
During the war, Pendleton became known as “Hollywood South.” Movies were filmed on the base, and morale was boosted by watching Hollywood Marines vanquish Hollywood Japanese. Following the war, moviemakers continued to seek out Pendleton’s brown hills for movies such as “Battle Cry,” “Sands of Iwo Jima,” “The Flying Leathernecks” and, in later years, “Retreat Hell” and “Heartbreak Ridge.”
Relations with surrounding communities have not always been cordial. In 1947, Erskine was embroiled in a bitter dispute with the Oceanside School District over his right to operate a separate school for children of Marines. The “Little Red School” was built in the 17 Area and operated for two years until it was finally turned over to Oceanside in 1950.
Water was at the root of another controversy that resulted in a long and complicated legal battle involving Camp Pendleton and Fallbrook area residents who felt entitled to use the water flowing from the Santa Margarita River, flowing through base. The water rights trial became the longest in history, in which the two groups are still working together to find solutions to both of their water problems.
Peacetime activities came to an abrupt halt in 1950 with the outbreak of the Korean War. Reservists crowded into Camp Pendleton, headed for the front faster than the base could process them. Throughout the war years, replacements were hurriedly trained and sent to the Far East. The training, however hurried, was tough and realistic. A combat town was constructed to simulate a North Korean Village, where troops were exposed to as much realism as possible.
Cold weather training was moved from Idyllwild to Pickel Meadows in the high Sierras because Idyllwild wasn’t tough enough. Cold weather training was definitely survival training for those soon to be sent to Korea. Camp Pendleton’s role as Training and Replacement Command was reflected in the nearly 200,000 Marines who passed through the base on their way to the Far East.
Those same hills and valets beckoned to Camp Pendleton’s civilian neighbors who wanted pieces of the base for their own use. Leases were granted for a California state beach and a nuclear power plant at the northern edge of the base, but developers eyeing the land for an airstrip and private housing were forced to look elsewhere. At one point, the city of Oceanside even attempted to annex the base to become part of their city’s tax base. The purpose for Camp Pendleton’s existence has not changed; it is first and foremost a training base, continuing to mold young men and women into the country’s finest fighting force.
The Vietnam years again saw a buildup of men and machines bound for Indochina. The movement of the 1st Marine Division to the Far East occurred more gradually than in Korea or World War II. Replacements were rotated in and out of combat zones through Staging Battalion, which took a Marine arriving at the camp and gave him 15 intensive training days before sending him to Vietnam. The Korea combat village became the Vietnamese jungle village, complete with deadly booby traps. The combat environment and training methods had changed over the years, but the purpose remained constant: train Marines to fight and get them to battle.
Unlike their World War II counterparts, Marines discharged from the Vietnamese conflict did not receive badges of honor but could still hold their heads high, as they had fought bravely and honorably in the highest Marine Corps tradition. Camp Pendleton continues its proud tradition of training top-quality Marines and maintaining its combat readiness while it prepares itself to face the 21st century.
The Corps broadened its mission capabilities in the 1980s as “amphibious” became “expeditionary.” Marines combined infantry, armor, supply and air power according to the task at hand, then demonstrated the effectiveness of the air-ground team in Granada, Panama and the Persian Gulf. The rapid projection of self-sustaining military power was clearly shown when Camp Pendleton forces and their equipment were deployed halfway around the globe in days. Middle East operations Desert Shield, Desert Storm, Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom are among the latest in a 230-year history of unequalled national service, and it was training here at Camp Pendleton that made those successes possible.