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Photos: What happened to Catalina Island during WWII?

by Robert Garrova | Off-Ramp®

A 'Frogman' in action. No wonder they inspired comic books. Courtesy of the Catalina Island Museum

After Pearl Harbor, WWII had arrived not just in Hawaii, but all the way to the California coastline. Just a quick ferry ride from Long Beach Harbor, Santa Catalina Island became an active military outpost, hosting the United States Maritime Service and even the precursor to the CIA.

John Borragina is the curator at the Catalina Island museum and put together an exhibit that looks at the Island during WWII. He says Catalina became the first line of defense for California during the war, "the Japanese were known to move from island to island in the Pacific, and there was a fear that if Catalina was captured, it would become a perfect launching point for attacks on Southern California." 

The crystal clear waters off Catalina were the perfect training ground for the US military, including the Office of Strategic Services -- the predecessor to the CIA. While on Catalina, the OSS began training special forces soldiers with some of the most advanced maritime technology. 

"They used this Lambertsen Lung, or Lambertsen Unit, on Catalina Island and they would do mock raids on Avalon, on Los Angeles Harbor. They'd also take little mini subs that were silent and could cruise at about 5-6 knots with a battery powered engine. They would stay at about 30 feet of depth but could sneak up underneath boats and plant limpet mines," Borragina says. 

And then there were Frogmen: underwater soldiers that trained on Catalina and went on to inspire comic books and movies with their Aquaman-like abilities. Jim Watson writes for the Catalina Islander newspaper. He says the technology used on Catalina in training OSS operatives helped fuel the popularity of scuba diving too. 

"Jacques Cousteau got involved here at Catalina during those years. And the reason for that is these Frogmen were training on rebreathing units during WWII and after the war was over it was like, well, lets turn these things for fun," Watson says. 

But while the Frogmen were training underwater, the military started setting up radar and anti-aircraft guns around the island. The people who lived on Catalina got more isolated from the mainland. As tourism died down, some suffered economic hardship too. Families began leaving the island. 

"Really what we see is families being broken up," says Borragina. "Certain members are able to stay and make a livelihood while the vast majority make their way to shipyards up and down the California coast looking for work."

Lolo Saldaña was one that stuck around -- he was just a kid during the war. He's a member of one of the island's oldest families. When the military came, Saldaña says residents were given a special identification card. They had to put roofing paper over their windows at night to keep light from spilling off the island and attracting an attack.

"Even though it was scary as hell, we as kids didn't know what the hell was going on," said Saldaña. He kept busy by milking cows and collecting eggs from friends' victory gardens. "My father had a victory garden in those days and he grew just about everything. He had wild boar and wild animals that were in Avalon. That's how we survived."

After the war, life slowly returned to Catalina -- and the tourists came back too. Some of the merchant marines decided never to leave -- they still live on the island today. Lolo Saldaña runs the barber shop in the center of town.

If you look hard enough, you can still find spent shell casings in the water off the Casino, or dilapidated barracks in the foothills -- remnants of a time when war came to paradise.

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