Forgotten History: Submarines in Los Angeles Harbor

August 7, 2020

By Geraldine Knatz Ph.D.

Figure 1:USS R-7 Submarine, launched in 1919, on maneuvers with Palos Verdes Hills in the background.

After construction of the San Pedro breakwater was completed in 1912, Los Angeles outer harbor  was used to support U.S. naval operations.  As early as 1913, submarines would berth along the San Pedro waterfront.  But it was not until 1914 that the Harbor Commission allowed the Navy the use of City Dock No. 1 and part of its transit sheds as a temporary base for submarines.   Once the Navy got onsite, however,  they expanded to take over much of the pier, transit sheds,  including space inside Warehouse No. 1.   In some ways, it was a blessing in disguise.  With the advent of World War I, ship owners who normally would have brought cargos to Los Angeles were tempted by lucrative offers to shift their vessels to the East Coast trade where the demand was greater.  The City of Los Angeles has built its first municipal pier, City Dock No. 1, to handle all the anticipated trade coming through the Panama Canal.  But the pier and its Warehouse No. 1 sat empty.  With little activity, the city was keen to support the U. S Navy and its continued operations during World War I.   Ultimately the Naval  facilities on the City Dock No. 1 included not only the submarine base but a submarine training school, a reserve facility, a hospital, barracks, a YMCA and a post office. 

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Figure 2. City Dock No. 1 in 1917 when operation of the submarine base was at its peak.

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Figure 3. Four H-class submarines were launched from the Bremerton, WA shipyard in 1918 and assigned to the base at San Pedro.

Other cities did their best to try and lure the submarine base out of San Pedro to their own harbors.  By November 1918, when World War I ended, only four hundred men were left of the 1400 that were there the year before.   The facilities were turned back to anxious harbor officials hoping for a post-war boom in traffic.  Los Angeles officials and businesses wanted to keep the base permanently in Los Angeles and the Los Angeles City Council approved use of  146 acres of submerged land for the Navy to construct a permanent base closer to Cabrillo Beach.    But Los Angeles had little clout on the key Congressional committees at that time.  The base was moved to San Diego and the submarine training school went to New London (Groton), Connecticut.  The last mention of the San Pedro base in official naval orders was 1929. 

Figure 4. USS H-1 submarine conducting a static dive near the West Basin in the Port of Los Angeles. The H-1 left San Pedro in October 1917 for World War I service and was lost in 1920 on her return to San Pedro. The Kerckhoff-Cuzner Mill and Lumber Company is in the background.

Figure 4. USS H-1 submarine conducting a static dive near the West Basin in the Port of Los Angeles. The H-1 left San Pedro in October 1917 for World War I service and was lost in 1920 on her return to San Pedro. The Kerckhoff-Cuzner Mill and Lumber Company is in the background.

The image of a submarine popping up in the waters of the Port during WWI and the use of the outer harbor by the U.S. Naval fleet was a signal to harbor area residents that Los Angeles Harbor would continue to play a strategic role in military conflicts. Despite the loss of the submarine base, the military presence in Los Angeles Harbor would remain.

For more stories about the history of the Port of Los Angeles, see Geraldine Knatz’s new book, Port of Los Angeles, Conflict, Commerce and the Fight for Control.

 

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With years of research and more than 200 maps and images, Geraldine Knatz shapes an insightful story of the Port of Los Angeles, from its early entrepreneurs to the city’s business and political leadership, and the inevitable conflicts that arose between them. Knatz digs into the back stories of the key players in a hardcore, well-documented piece of storytelling at its best. Port of Los Angeles matches a topic—the history of Los Angeles Harbor—with someone of unquestionable authority to tackle the subject. Knatz worked nearly four decades at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, her last eight years as Executive Director at Los Angeles. In this remarkable book, her expertise shows. Port of Los Angeles reads like a script for another Chinatown, only this time it’s about saltwater and controlling the waterfront, not drinking water and controlling the land. Knatz takes readers on a journey that will educate and inspire, and fills these pages with real-life intrigue, masterminds, and politics extraordinaire. Port of Los Angeles will leave the world’s maritime aficionados spellbound and historians in awe. A must-read for anyone who treasures the history of Los Angeles. “The Port of Los Angeles made this city. This very well might be “The Study” of what made modern Los Angeles.” —William Deverell, Director, Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West

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