(All Photos Courtesy of the Vallejo Naval and Historical Museum)
Mare Island Naval Shipyard is located by the City of Vallejo. This facility was the first naval shipyard on the West Coast, established in 1854 and was known as Naval Magazine, NSY Mare Island. Hence, the origin of the name Magazine Street in modern day Vallejo. The facility’s primary missions were to maintain, overhaul, refuel ships (eventually including those that were nuclear-powered) as well as to provide logistical support for ships and service craft as well as services and materials for other Navy functions.
Mare Island is the Navy's oldest base on the West Coast. The ships it built and serviced, both great and obscure, fought in every conflict since the Civil War. Mare Island's first ship, the paddle-wheeled gunboat Saginaw, was launched before the Civil War, in 1859, and its last ship, the nuclear powered submarine U.S.S. Drum, was launched in 1970. The shipyard supported Union efforts in the Civil War, naval deployments and monition needs in the Spanish America War, shipbuilding and repair in World War I, shipbuilding and repair in WW II, reactivation of fleet units in the Korean Conflict, fleet deployment in the Vietnam War, and nuclear submarine construction and repair in the Cold War. In all, Mare Island Naval Shipyard built 512 ships and repaired over a thousand more during its lifetime. This variety of vessels constructed in terms of scale, size and use was poetically rich and historically profound. They ranged from the small ferryboat Pinafore, which chugged between Mare Island and Vallejo for 30 years starting in the 1890's, to the construction of the battleship U.S.S. California (photo to immediate top left), the only battlewagon built on the West Coast. This was a battlewagon that once had a bear as a mascot. She was also a sea warrior that participated in most of the big battles in the Pacific during WW II. The U.S.S. Iowa's berth is at the very site where the U.S.S. California was built and launched!
Mare Island repaired ships from around the world. These included Japanese and Russian sailing ships in the 1800's. In WWII, the shipyard repaired British cruisers and destroyers, and even four Russian submarines. This was no small feat given varying measurement standards and equipment shortages.
In shipbuilding, the shipyard quickly set a record that was never broken, building the destroyer U.S.S. Ward in 17 1/2 days. The work pace accelerated dramatically in WW II, when Mare Island built 17 submarines, 4 submarine tenders, 31 destroyer escorts, 33 small craft, and more than 300 landing craft. During WW II, Mare Island Naval Shipyard constructed 386 ships. In 1943 alone, Mare Island completed eighteen destroyer escorts in nine months-over 24,000 tons of shipping. This construction work was in addition to repairing hundreds of damaged ships. That latter activity was an enormous contribution to the Allied war effort. For instance, in 1942 some 274 ships were handled. By 1944, damage repair work consumed 4,269,865 man-days of work! During WW II, Mare Island Naval Shipyard provided six destroyers and six cruisers with new bows. So valued was Mare Island Naval Shipyard expertise, that the Navy gave the shipyard control of all shipbuilding efforts in Denver, where destroyer escorts were built in sections, and over many Bay Area naval subcontractors, even ncluding Hunter's Point Naval Shipyard in San Francisco.
Mare Island Naval Shipyard also found itself in the function of command for civil defense and emergency response on the West Coast during the late 1800's and early 1900's. It dispatched warships to address Indian uprisings in the Pacific Northwest. It sent ships south to Central America when political instability threatened the overland flow of American goods and citizens between the Caribbean and the Pacific. Mare Island sent men, material and ships to San Francisco to help save the city from the fires that spread after the 1906 earthquake. It was Mare Island Naval Shipyard that mounted rescue missions to the Artic. If there was a need anywhere in the Pacific, Mare Island Naval Shipyard stood a good chance of becoming involved.
Mare Island Navy Yard contributed heavily to the Navy's submarine efforts in WW II – building the aforementioned four submarine tenders and seventeen submarines. When Pearl Harbor was bombed, the United States only had 111 operational submarines in commission. At war's end in mid-August 1945, thanks in part to Mare Island, the Navy had a force of 260 submarines in commission, 202 of them having been delivered during the war. Amazingly, by VJ Day, Mare Island workers raised over $75,697,000 in war bonds – enough to pay for all the submarines built at Mare Island during the war, and a tender to boot!
All in all, twenty-two Mare Island built or refurbished submarines got into the shooting war, and they alone accounted for the sinking of 252 enemy ships for a total of 988,357 tons of shipping. Mare Island built ships that served our Navy well. Submarine U.S.S. Wahoo which claimed record sinkings during WW II, was a Mare Island boat. The cruiser U.S.S. San Francisco, which though heavily damaged held the line off Guadalcanal in WW II, was constructed at Mare Island. The importance of Mare Island in naval history is further underscored by the commonly held belief that the first atomic bomb transited this facility to be carried aboard the U.S.S. Indianapolis. In all these ways, Mare Island played a singularly significant role in bringing Japan to its knees in WW II.
In the 1960's the decision was made to build nuclear submarines at Mare Island. The U.S.S. Sargo was the first, with 16 more following, ending with the launch of the U.S.S. Drum in 1970. This construction program is yet another testament to the ingenuity and capability of the shipyard. Importantly, during these years Mare Island was repairing and overhauling both fast attack boats as well as ballistic missile submarines. Mare Island worked on deep submersibles as well. It is a well known fact that Mare Island Naval Shipyard supported submarine intelligence gathering operations made famous in the book "Blind Man's Bluff."
Importantly, during the Cold War Mare Island Naval Shipyard set impressive records in off-site repairs. Its repair teams traveled extensively and supported a diverse array of ships, including nuclear powered aircraft carriers in Alameda, California, to ballistic missile submarines in Guam, to Russian designed diesel submarines in the Egyptian Navy. Repairs were effected both in port and sometimes underway.
The 4,351 acre facility included shipyards and hospital areas which in the mid-1950s employed 13,000 civilian workers, down from Mare Island's high point in World War II, when the shipyard population reached 46,000. In fact, during WWII the work force became so large that transportation became a problem when local housing was exhausted. To address this large work force, Mare Island created one of the largest bus systems in the world, driving almost 800,000 miles a month! The economic influence of this shipyard was felt throughout the north portion of San Francisco Bay. Along these lines, Mare Island was renown for its diversity training programs. The shipyard remained committed to the training of minorities in highly technical and industrial skills, including women. This yard brought the nation victory and put food on the table for thousands.
Mare Island Naval Shipyard was closed in 1996. It is now being converted to civilian use by the Lennar Corporation and the City of Vallejo. Residences are being built, many of the Navy's buildings and houses are being preserved. All the graving-yards and drydock facilities as well as enormous piers are being kept in pristine condition, some to be used in commercial maritime applications. There will be office and industrial uses of the base as well as an attractive historic core group of buildings housing restaurants, shops, cafes along a stunning waterfront walkway. Visitors from around the nation will want to visit and see this national trust. In many ways, the character of Mare Island Naval Shipyard remains and the base today looks like a distinguished naval facility.
Mare Island Naval Shipyard stands as one of the most significant defense sites in the history of the United States. Over time four Presidents visited the shipyard as did countless Congressmen and Admirals. It can be said with confidence that Mare Island Naval Shipyard proved to be one of the yardsticks by which America measured its victory in war and success in keeping global peace.
The U.S.S. Iowa could not have a more distinguished berthing site than former Mare Island Naval Shipyard, Vallejo, California. Mare Island affords the U.S.S. Iowa a location already recognized by history and the nation as a national trust. Maintained and well kept, Mare Island Naval Shipyard captures the industrial might and determination that built great ships like U.S.S. Iowa. This is indeed hallowed ground for a battleship that wrote history and was present for some of the most significant and efining moments of the 20th Century. This is indeed a match made in history.
Return to Link Page
Return to Home Page