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The Military is Embedded in San Diego's History

The Military is Embedded in San Diego's History
The military strand of San Diego's DNA has been evident since the region was first inhabited. We look into how the military -- the Army, Navy and Marines in particular -- has shaped San Diego history and its people.

William Orcutt's DNA

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): Welcome back to These Days on KPBS. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Now, last month, KPBS began a series of reports tracing the various strains of history that have combined to create the San Diego we know today. This month, it's San Diego's history as a military town that's in the spotlight. Actually old San Diego started as a Spanish military outpost, and since that time, its desirability as a military hub has only increased. Naval Base San Diego is the largest Navy base on the west coast, the principle homeport of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. And we are, of course, the home of the U.S. Marines' largest west coast expeditionary training facility at Camp Pendleton and one of its oldest recruit training centers in the west. So, it's no wonder that San Diego has been dubbed a military town. We'll find out just how much San Diego has contributed to the United States military effort and how much the military has contributed to the history of San Diego. My guests are Dr. Abe Shragge, a UCSD professor of history, and Curator of the San Diego Veterans' Museum. Abe, welcome to These Days.

DR. ABE SHRAGGE (Professor of History, UCSD and Curator of San Diego Veterans' Museum): Thank you very much.

CAVANAUGH: And Nick Aguilar. He lives in Chula Vista and was a paratrooper with the Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade in the Vietnam War. Nick, welcome.

NICK AGUILAR (Former Paratrooper): Good morning. Pleasure to be here.

CAVANAUGH: Now I'd like to invite our audience to join the conversation. I know lots of people who came to San Diego originally for military service ended up staying here. If that's your family's history or your history, give us a call and tell us about it. Or maybe you think San Diego is too much of a military town. Tell us what you think. 1-888-895-5727, that's 1-888-895-KPBS. Abe, the military has been part of San Diego's DNA for more than a hundred years so why did our area develop this reputation, this symbiosis with the military?

DR. SHRAGGE: Well, San Diegans always saw this position, geographical position, as one that was of primary importance, not only for the defense of the west coast but as the United States became increasingly interested in Pacific Rim affairs, especially after the Spanish American War of 1898, this seemed to San Diegans a logical place for that. Business people in San Diego also saw a great opportunity to harness the resources of the federal government to develop the bay and to increase opportunities for urban expansion. And by the turn of the 20th century, that became a primary goal of the San Diego Chamber of Commerce to make the city grow.

CAVANAUGH: And, indeed, one of our congressmen in the early part of last century, Congressman William Kettner, was very vocal about making San Diego a military town.

DR. SHRAGGE: William Kettner was soon a – soon got the reputation as being San Diego's million-dollar congressman by virtue of the many appropriations that he was able to get congress to pass for the development of military installations here. He worked for the Chamber of Commerce as well. He was a director of the Chamber of Commerce. He went to Washington promising to do their work. Even in congress, he remained a director and was very interested in the growth of the city and he saw the navy as a good way to do that.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us about how, over the decades, the military presence here grew. For instance, that whole neighborhood of Linda Vista started out as a defense housing project.

DR. SHRAGGE: During World War II there was suddenly a great need for housing for – well, for all kinds of people who'd come into the city to work in the defense plants, also families of men who were stationed here for training and various other purposes. The Linda Vista area was completely undeveloped at that time and San Diego needed to develop some housing very quickly. There was no mechanism within the city to do that. The Chamber of Commerce had actually turned down some federal programs that would've produced some kind of development. All of a sudden the federal government knew that they had to build some housing very quickly for a great number of families to take care of both the industrial and the military needs that were here. And Linda Vista sprang up out of the ground in a very short time, indeed.

CAVANAUGH: And I'm about to talk to Nick about his career with – as an army paratrooper. We don't think of San Diego as being necessarily a hub for the United States Army because there's such a naval and Marine presence but it's changed during the years.

DR. SHRAGGE: Well, the army had been here for a long time, too. Ft. Rosecrans was an important coastal artillery and defense position for a long time, even before the navy expanded its presence here. But San Diego has always been known, since early in the 20th century as a center for various military activities. The army never had as large a presence as did the navy and Marines Corps. Nevertheless, all the services are represented here.

CAVANAUGH: Now in this KPBS television production, "San Diego's DNA: Military History," you and your colleague, Abe, Iris Engstrand interview several veterans for the program. I wonder why this emphasis? Why the individual stories of veterans? What makes them so important?

DR. SHRAGGE: One of the most interesting San Diego stories, and it is so common, has to do with people who come here to take their military training, to do their service, or to pass through San Diego on their way to a post on the way to the front, as was the case during World War II and certainly in the Vietnam War as well. Many of those people saw San Diego, its attractions and its wonders, had come from remote places across the country and they had sworn, sometime or other, they were going to come back here, to live, to vacation, to retire. And that is the case with many of our residents, perhaps as many as 10% of our population have military service in their past.

CAVANAUGH: Now I mentioned before that you're a Co-Curator of the San Diego Veterans Museum. You must be very familiar with a lot of stories that veterans bring to you.

DR. SHRAGGE: We meet new people in the veterans' community literally every day. We also have a large membership and a large interest among the veterans' community. People bring us their artifacts, their stories, their pictures, and we do what we can to preserve those, to present them and, of course, to honor them.

CAVANAUGH: I want to bring Nick in the conversation now. Nick Aguilar is – lives in Chula Vista and he was a paratrooper with the Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade in the Vietnam War. And I understand that you emigrated from Jalisco when you were quite young but you moved to San Diego and your mom married a navy man. Tell us what it was like growing up in a military family.

AGUILAR: Well, yeah, Jalisco, by the way, is in Mexico.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, umm-hmm.

AGUILAR: For those who – that's one of the 32 states of Mexico. That's – that's correct. I was brought to San Diego through the military influence, specifically my stepfather was in the navy, came here from Manteca, California as a high school graduate. And were – he and my mother met and we then were brought to San Diego to be permanent residents. We lived in the naval housing when he first came to San Diego, at the foot of 8th Street in National City. And about six months after that, he was discharged and then we moved to San Diego, Logan Heights, close to – the neighborhood at the foot of Coronado Bridge on the San Diego side.

CAVANAUGH: Right. So your stepfather was in the navy but you and your brother went into the army. How did that happen?

AGUILAR: You know, that's an interesting story. What – My brother was – is two years older than I am and he was drafted after he graduated from high school. I think he was at San Diego City College in the auto mechanics course. And he went to basic training and came back on a two-week leave before going on to his next station, and was all excited about the fact that he had signed up to be a paratrooper. I, at the time, was enrolled at Southwestern College as a freshman and – this was in November of 1965, and was not really focused on any career path or – actually was just marking time at Southwestern College. And so when he talked about the paratrooper and what they do and – I was vaguely familiar with, you know, the World War II and the 82nd Airborne contribution in the Normandy invasion but when he talked about how he looked forward to being a paratrooper, I gave – then he left. And a couple days later, I decided that being a paratrooper sounded more exciting and worth my time than spending my time at Southwestern College. So I went down to the army recruiter's station in Broadway in San Diego and signed up and talked to the recruiter and said I want to sign up to be a paratrooper and I want to sign up for four years.


AGUILAR: The recruiter thank – I thank him every day because he said, well, why don't you just sign up for three years and if you like it, you can re-up. And the reason I thank him every day this year – now is because I wound up in Vietnam and actually after completing jump school and became a paratrooper, was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division in Ft. Bragg North Carolina, and before I went to Vietnam. And then about a year later, I was assigned to go to Vietnam and had I not been scheduled to be discharged in November of '68, I would've had another tour in Vietnam. I had completed my first tour in March of 1968 and was discharged in November, in actually September of '68. I got an early out to come back to start my college studies again at Southwestern College. But if I had not been scheduled to be discharged in November of '68, I – it would've been November of '69, in which case I would've been sent back to Vietnam and who knows what might've happened.

CAVANAUGH: That's Nick Aguilar of Chula Vista. He's sharing a story about his experience in the military here in San Diego. We're asking you if you'd like to join the conversation and tell us your stories about being in the military in San Diego, maybe deciding to stay here, make San Diego your home after you got out. 1-888-895-5727, is our number. And, you know, Nick, I don't want to leave this story without mentioning the fact that you did receive a Purple Heart after being wounded in Vietnam. And your family's connection with the military has continued. Tell us about your son and even your grandson.

AGUILAR: Well, the connections are actually more extended because I've got cousins who also joined. In fact, I met up with one of them in Vietnam. He was also with the 173rd. He was with the headquarters company, a gunner on the helicopter that ferried the brigade commander around to the various locations. And the second cousin who also served in the army as a leg, not a paratrooper, though. Leg is a term referred to army personnel who are not paratroopers.


AGUILAR: And as – my son is currently in college. He's not – He hasn't served yet. Well, he served briefly in the Coast Guard but was injured and could not – got a medical discharge. So my grandson is in high school. He's in the tenth grade, has been very interested in the military and has joined me on several occasions with the veterans' group, the San Diego 82nd Airborne Association, to march in the parades, 4th of July in the Veterans Parades and is – attends to the functions with me. So I'm encouraging him, however, to continue with college and to go into the service, if that's what his choice is, as an officer because officers get a much better term of service than enlisted personnel.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, let me ask you both, you know, we think of San Diego as a military town or at least that's been its history. And "San Diego DNA" program is going to explore the military history. But I wonder if the military has always been popular here in San Diego and, Abe and Nick, I want you to answer that in any way you'd like to.

DR. SHRAGGE: Well, I would say that the navy in San Diego had a very close relationship that I characterize in some of my research as almost a love affair and yet I know that that doesn't necessarily extend through all time and all circumstances. I had a question for Nick on the subject that I'd be very interested to know more about, what was it like in 1969, returning to San Diego from your military experience from the war? What was the attitude toward veterans and towards returnees?

AGUILAR: Let me get to that question but first talk about the attitude at least, in my experience, towards the military. I don't know if it's been a love affair. I think it's – my sense is it's been more of a necessity and acknowledgment that the military's an important component of the economy and the social, political, economic milieu of San Diego in the County and particularly the City of San Diego. And as growing up in San Diego, the navy definitely dominated both in the economic and social arenas of San Diego. For me personally, I was actually discouraged through peer pressure from considering the navy because at that time, you know, the sailors were not necessarily popular among the – in the social settings, at least in junior high school, high school and college. And the Marines, likewise, were not viewed as someone who you would want to be associated with. So for me – In fact, there was a derogatory term used, sailors are swabbies.


AGUILAR: And so no – nobody that I knew of wanted to be a swabbie.

CAVANAUGH: That's an interesting social distinction.

AGUILAR: Or a jarhead for Marines.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, that's a very interesting social distinction. And to Abe's question about your particular service in the Vietnam War, was the military still popular in San Diego when you returned?

AGUILAR: Well, again, I never viewed the military as popular at any time…


AGUILAR: …in the sense of, you know, being a friend. I think I – it's always – my experience, it's been viewed as – with respect, as a critical and important element of the society but not necessarily popular and, for me, popular is referring to somebody like, say, Santa Claus or your favorite movie star. So in that sense, the military was never popular in that sense but it was always viewed as important and people always showed respect. Getting to the Vietnam War era, even during that era in San Diego County, I think it was one of the few areas in the nation where the military was still viewed with respect. And during the demonstrations – At the time, I was a student at UCSD and the peace movement, for the most part, the demonstrations that I was exposed to and involved in, were at UCSD and there were, as there are in any element, extreme elements that were very assertive, aggressive, mean spirited but even during the anti-war movement, peace movement, there was a very strong element in San Diego County that was very supportive of the military. And that, in fact, this area was, I think, one of the areas where the peace movement was the last in taking hold, again because of that overwhelming dominant influence of the military in San Diego County.

CAVANAUGH: We're getting a preview of the stories coming up in the KPBS television production "San Diego's DNA: Military History." And we're – I'd also like to talk about some – this cache of photographs that you discovered for this particular documentary. One of the veterans in tomorrow's show is a man named Bill Orcutt. He's a Korean War veteran. He lives in San Diego. It's – The interesting thing is how you and the producers came across him.

DR. SHRAGGE: Well, we found this cache of photographs that came with the photographer's log book that had everybody's name, all the subjects' names and addresses and as we went through the log book and we matched pictures with names, we found a – several, in fact, San Diego names and addresses. And we picked a prominent photo out of the pile that had a San Diego address, looked him up in the phone book, there was, indeed, the same name and the same address from about 1951. Gave him a call and it was, indeed, Mr. Orcutt. We asked him if he had had his picture taken at a photographer's on Broadway. He didn't exactly remember that but we showed up at his door, showed him the picture and he said, yes, that was I.

CAVANAUGH: And this is circa the fifties?

DR. SHRAGGE: This is about 1951. He was, in fact, a veteran of World War II but he was called back into service for the Korean War and was an officer in the Korean War. He was a photographer, an army photographer, in Korean and he had a wonderful album of pictures that he had taken that he had sent home to his wife. This is – and all with great captions. He had described what was going on in Korea in detail, and we had a wonderful conversation with him.

CAVANAUGH: Now where did the original photographs come from?

DR. SHRAGGE: They came originally from the photographer's studio…


DR. SHRAGGE: …on Broadway but he had – he'd sold the collection to a photographer, I believe, in Poway…


DR. SHRAGGE: ...who was then trying to decide whether to throw the collection away or to sell them. And another San Diego photographer found this and purchased them and let KPBS know that these were available to take a look at.

CAVANAUGH: Well, we – You can see the photographs we've been talking about by going online at and, of course, you can see many of them in the documentary that's airing tomorrow night. Now we have a veteran on the phone. Phil Webber is on the line from Bucklin, Kansas. He also had his picture taken by the same downtown photographer. And, Phil, welcome to These Days.

PHIL WEBBER (Veteran): Not bad. How are you?

CAVANAUGH: Just great.


CAVANAUGH: Now, Phil, what were you doing in San Diego back in 1952?

WEBBER: Well, after I got out of high school and in August of 1952, I went to boot camp out at NTC.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh. And…


CAVANAUGH: …what do you remember about San Diego and your time here?

WEBBER: Oh, we had a great time. Yeah, we had a lot of fun. We were fresh out of high school, the old farm boys, and in – from my hometown there were three of us that went to boot camp together. And we palled around a lot out there and – and I hate to admit it but I'm probably the only navy man never went to sea. I did go across San Diego Bay one time on a ferry boat to see a football game.

CAVANAUGH: And that's it?

WEBBER: That was it. Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: Where'd you get shipped out to – I mean, where'd you get stationed?

WEBBER: Well, they – they shipped me to Norman, Oklahoma, which was about 300 miles from home. And it was a long ways from the world tour that I expected. But, yeah…


WEBBER: …I went to an aviation mechanics school and I'm no mechanic. I, you know, I don't know how I ever got into that. But anyway, I completed that and they – then they sent me to Kingsville, Texas and I don't know if you know where Kingsville is.

CAVANAUGH: I don't. I don't.

WEBBER: Southwest of Corpus Christi.


WEBBER: Right there at the King's Ranch. And lots of mesquite and – and heat.


WEBBER: It was hot. Terrible hot.

CAVANAUGH: Well, Phil, we got in touch with you because your picture is part…


CAVANAUGH: …of this bunch of pictures that we found from a downtown photographer here in San Diego.

WEBBER: Uh-huh.

CAVANAUGH: Do you remember getting your picture taken?

WEBBER: Yeah. I remember that, and I probably have one of those pictures around the house here somewhere.

CAVANAUGH: Now what was downtown like, do you remember back then?

WEBBER: Oh, it was just, I don't know, almost carnival-like. It was – The businesses were – you know, a lot of tattoo parlors, a lot of bars, a lot of, you know, just catering to what you might think a tourist place might be.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh. And you say you have one of those photographs?

WEBBER: I think I do somewhere.

CAVANAUGH: You know, you should come back to San Diego and check it out. It's changed.

WEBBER: Yeah, has it?


WEBBER: I was back there a few years ago but I haven't been there recently. I'm going to have to hurry though. '52 was quite a while ago.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. Hey, Phil, thank you so much


CAVANAUGH: …for talking…

WEBBER: All right.

CAVANAUGH: …with us. Appreciate it.

WEBBER: You're welcome.

CAVANAUGH: We're – we've been speaking with Phil Webber. He was one of the people who – one of the veterans who got his picture taken downtown San Diego, 1952, one of those photographs that you'll be seeing during our documentary tomorrow night on KPBS Television. You know, Abe, the tens of thousands of soldiers, sailors and Marines who passed through San Diego and didn't stay, what did that do for San Diego's profile in the larger picture of the nation?

DR. SHRAGGE: Well, it certainly made San Diego something of an icon across the country. People came back to their hometowns in the heartland, the east coast and the south, wherever it might be, and they remembered the beautiful weather, the beaches, the water. They remembered the reception that they had here, as Phil said a moment ago, it was like a carnival at least in 1952. I don't think it was always like that. But people who passed through here during their military service often have very fond memories of what San Diego was like.

CAVANAUGH: We do have a caller on the line and I'd like to take the call now. Jeanette from San Diego. Jeanette, good morning and welcome to These Days.

JEANETTE (Caller, San Diego): Good morning, and good morning to you, too.

DR. SHRAGGE: Thanks.


JEANETTE: I just – I'm calling because I wanted to give a little perspective on the military wife here in San Diego.


JEANETTE: And we were really blessed to be – to have our – to be married, at least myself in general, I'm blessed to be married to my husband who's a service member who currently is deployed right now in Korea. And – But the military has been so good for us and we were living in Kingsville, as that gen – the gentleman…


JEANETTE: …was talking about and because my husband's mom is on a heart transplant list, the military was good enough to do a humanitarian transfer for us and send us out here to San Diego so we could support his mom. And there's nothing I could say negative about the military life here. It's what you make it. I mean, if you – if you come out here with the mindset of 'I wish I were back home and not here in San Diego,' you're never going to enjoy San Diego. Luckily for me, I was born and raised here in San Diego and I've got plenty of support of family and friends. Unfortunately, not everybody is blessed with that but…


JEANETTE: …here – San Diego is so rich in opportunities for military members and their families. They've got outreach programs, they’ve got just so much available to you here if you go look for it.

CAVANAUGH: Jeanette, I just want to ask you, is your husband in the navy?

JEANETTE: Yes, he's a Navy Seabee.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much for your call. I really appreciate it. And, Abe, I wanted to ask you because obviously Jeanette does not have a bad word for the military so I'm going to have to ask one at least. Has the military presence in San Diego hurt our city's image in any way?

DR. SHRAGGE: Well, San Diego is known as a navy town, as a military city and there are people probably around the country who would think that was less desirable than certain other kinds of places. In San Diego – Fifty years ago, it might have looked as if San Diego had foreclosed some of its economic opportunities by focusing so heavily on the navy. Other cities that had military presence had more diverse economies and this became a very important focus for business in San Diego after World War II that we had to expand our outlook and pursue other activities as well.

AGUILAR: Well, if I could chime in on that. Again, from a lay perspective, not a historian, I think the fact that San Diego's economy was dominated so heavily by the military and also by defense spending dominated the economy to such an extent that it really downplayed the other assets in San Diego. And that changed somewhat maybe about 30, 40 years ago when the San Diego – City of San Diego decided to diversify its economy and started to invest in tourism as a major economic engine for the area. And I think that diversification, without really knowing at the time, helped San Diego get through at least a couple of the past very difficult economic times. There were a couple of times even before the latest defense cuts of about ten years ago when the San Diego economy was down in the dumps and it went up with military activity and down as peacetime occurred. But it was always viewed as – as a navy town and so that – when the tourism began to become more important, the city became more cosmopolitan both in terms of its social, cultural, and even political aspects. So – But I'm not sure that's really a negative. I think that's just one of the consequences.

CAVANAUGH: But thank you for that. That's an excellent perspective. And just in closing, Abe, I wanted to know in terms of the KPBS documentary, what did you – what do you want people to learn about the connection of the military in San Diego?

DR. SHRAGGE: Very important to understand that the roots run deep, something that we've talked about this morning, that the heritage has everything to do with the way that the city grew up. As Nick mentioned just a moment ago, talking about the changing economy, is something that San Diegans have always had to face and we've defined and redefined that relationship between the city, between the business community, between the military services, and that's something that we'll continue to do.

CAVANAUGH: Well, tomorrow night during this program, people are going to meet and hear the stories of many veterans and their various connections to the military in San Diego. Let me tell everyone that that program is called "San Diego's DNA: Military History." And, as I say, it's on tomorrow night at 8:00 p.m. on KPBS Television. I want to thank my guests very much. Dr. Abe Shragge is UCSD Professor, History, Curator of San Diego Veterans Museum. Abe, thanks so much.

DR. SHRAGGE: Thank you very much.

CAVANAUGH: And Nick Aguilar. He lives in Chula Vista, former army paratrooper. Thank you so much for coming and telling us your story and offering your perspective.

AGUILAR: My pleasure. And it really is encouraging to me to be one of, I think, a quarter million veterans live in San Diego. And, by the way, our colleges also have a veterans student organization…


AGUILAR: …that is part of the support network. So thank you for allowing me to be here.

CAVANAUGH: It's been our pleasure. And thank you for listening to These Days on KPBS.

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