A Brief History of the Northern California Missile Silos Batteries

Recently some good friends of mine came into town and because it was their first time in San Francisco I was curious what plans they had and what they were planning to see and visit while they were here. Another friend of mine, who was their tour guide while they were in town told me she was going to take them to see some missile silos up near the Golden Gate Bridge.

"Surely you mean the canon batteries" I asked. "Nope, the missile silos that were built during World War II to protect against a Japanese invasion." She insisted upon them being missile silos despite my protest.

But I relented because I will be the first to admit that have been wrong before, and perhaps they were thinking of something else, something I had never seen or heard of before. And as an avid World War II history buff, this warranted further investigation.

To be honest I was actually hoping to be wrong. Because if a bunch of World War II-era missile silos existed, I wanted to go see them. But alas, I was not wrong. So to my friends and their tour guide, not to be a pest, but allow me to give you a brief history of what you must have seen that day, and explain why I am not surprised you mistook them for missile silos.

First, before I get into World War II, let's first establish one key and important fact: "missile silos" did not come into existence until well into the Cold War in the 1960's. They were engineered as subterranean vertical tubes to conceal ICBMs from spy planes and to make them less vulnerable to bombing. From that fact alone we can conclude that what my friends saw that day were definitely not "missile silos."

V2_us.jpgWorld War II was actually the first war in which missiles were used, but few had a significant range due to the fuel requirements of the time. By far the most well known ballistic missile of that era was the V2 invented by Germany and used to launch attacks against England across the English Channel. The rockets traveled at super sonic speeds and were notorious for the whistling sound that was heard only after they had exploded. Despite being one of the most technologically advanced weapons of the time, the V2 rockets were ineffective from a ballistics stand point. First, they could not be detonated in the air, as they relied upon making contact with the ground in order to trigger the detonator. Coupled with the fact that it traveled at tremendous speed, the missile often would embed itself well below the target before detonation, so that most of the destructive power of the explosive was absorbed by the ground. While largely a ballistic failure, militarily they had a devastating effect due to the shear terror they incited in the English.

GateCover.jpgBut enough about the history of missiles. Let's return to the Bay Area and talk about these locally famous military installations that my friend mistook for a missile silo, their purpose and why they were ultimately abandoned.

Immediately following the attack on Pearl Harbor the United States' Military became obsessed with a Japanese attack against the United States mainland. After all, if the Japanese could launch such an incredibly successful surprise attack against our largest naval base in the Pacific, what would stop them from attacking the West Coast? Further fueling the obsession and fear of a West Coast attach was the now heightened importance of the Port of San Francisco. Heightening not only because Pearl Harbor lay in near ruin, but also because San Francisco would soon be the new home to one of the largest military industrial complexes for the entire US navy.

Coastal Defense

Therefore, the United States immediately began building and/or reinforcing a series of batteries along the West Cost to help protect us against a Japanese attack. One in particular, a battery that was a part of Fort Baker (Battery Spencer), would have become the highest coastal defense battery in the United States. That is if it was ever completed. It was one of two batteries that flanked the Golden Gate Bridge. Each battery was designed to hold one 16" naval cannon typically installed on large ships. They would have had a range of over 25 miles.

16inchgun.jpgBut they were never completed for a number of reasons. First, with the advent of radar, there would have been sufficient warning of a would-be-attacking-fleet for the Navy to first intercept it with planes and then by other ships and submarines long before the fleet could possibly make landfall. Second, as the war went on it became less and less likely that the Japanese could even mount an assault against the West Coast. Just to provide some context, by 1944 MacArthur's island hopping campaign was yielding results, the Japanese Navy was on the defensive and the US was already in the midst of planning an amphibious assault against Japan. So tactically and defensively these batteries were quickly becoming moot. Finally, the huge cannons were taking forever and costing a fortune to build, and their raw materials, over 300,000 pounds of high quality steel, could ultimately be put to better use.

So in 1944, each of the West Coast batteries (of which there were actually far more then the two on either side of the Bridge) that had been erected or reinforced at the start of the war were being shut down, their soldiers reassigned to the front line, and their raw materials scrapped. By 1948 the last of the West Coastal Defenses was finally shut down.

ggate.jpgBut their ruins survive to this day and are operated and maintained by the National Park Service. Fort Baker, being one of the most popular remnants from this era. Fort Baker and its related batteries sport some of the most dramatic views of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco. Tourists are free to roam the ruins of the old fort and barracks, and can even explore what my friends must have mistaken for missile silos, which of course are not missile silos at all. These tunnels were constructed for two purposes: one of them to serve as a conduit for soldiers moving between the huge guns and the Fort, and the other as storage and a loading area for the enormous ammunition and powder bags needed to launch the shells over 25 miles.

For military historians and tourists, consider visiting any of the following:

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6 Comments

LOL. Okay you win. That's got to be the best "I told you so" ever.

Now I know they were the holding areas for the biggest cannons ever not built.

Curses on whoever told me otherwise in the first place.

;-)

Still, they are a great place to hang out. Wonderful acoustics. Beautiful view.

You know, I had a feeling you were right when I saw these places marked as "Batteries". Good work, Mr. Mythbuster. =)

Byrne,

I came across this article on a google search. Good short on the history of the cold war runup. I see your article focuses on your trip to the Bay Area but was titled Northern California Missile Batteries.

Only a couple hours northeast near Yuba City are four known Titan I sites that were operated by the 851st out of Beale AFB. The sites were Lincoln(LAT38.52.55,LONG121.15.55), Live Oak (39.16.35,121.49.45), Chico (39.49.08,121.51.10) and WSA (39.09.30,121.25.10).

Beale personally held onto 9 live Titan Missiles.

No doubt there are missile silos in Northern California. None at all. However, the site to which my friends visited in Marin, are NOT missile silos. They were built long before such things existed.

Also forgot to mention you are also wrong about no silos being in the San Francisco area. There are a couple dozen NIKE sites all around SF Bay Area. Check out the following link.

http://ed-thelen.org/loc-c.html#SF-08-09

I'm sorry it took Elise and Jesse over two years to find out they were right about silos in SF afterall. I just stumbled across this link.

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