Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, November 16, 2023

Mare Island Naval Shipyard During World War One

Northern San Francisco Bay Area
Mare Island Shown

Mare Island History

Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo, California, became the first United States naval base on the West Coast in 1854. The island, technically a peninsula, is in the northern San Francisco Bay off of a subsection, known as San Pablo Bay. The first U.S. warship (1859) and first dry dock (1872–91) constructed on the West Coast were built here.  The shipyard has been associated with military affairs, development of industrial design, and persons significant in U.S. maritime history beginning with David Farragut on through World War II leaders.  During World War II, it was to evolve into one of the busiest naval shipyards in the world. In its last 25 years of operation, it was the leading submarine port for the West Coast. More than 500 naval vessels were constructed and thousands more overhauled before the yard closed in 1996. 

Click on Image to Enlarge

The Shipyard in 1911

Less well known is the tremendous contribution of Mare Island to the nation's effort in World War I. The first years of the 20th century brought new activity to Mare Island. Two of the Navy’s first fleet of six submarines, Grampus (SS-4) and Pike (SS-6), were delivered to Mare Island from Union Iron Works in San Francisco in 1903.  The submarine torpedo boats were only 60 feet long, with an 11-foot beam. Over a three-and-a-half-year period, they operated in a training and experimental capacity in the shallow waters of the San Pablo Bay. Underwater trips were usually no more than a couple hours long. Lieutenant Arthur MacArthur, Jr., brother of Army General Douglas MacArthur, was skipper of both submarines. In 1904, the first U.S. Navy radio station on the West Coast was established at Mare Island.

WWI Activities

A Ship Launching at Mare Island During the War

Mare Island gained prominence as a shipbuilding facility during World War I and the years immediately following. The yard built its first destroyer, USS Shaw (Destroyer No. 68) [not to be confused with the USS Shaw (DD-373) that had its forward magazine explode during the Pear Harbor attack]. DD-68 was launched 9 December 1916 and commissioned on 9 April 1917.  Shaw escorted the fourth troop convoy of the AEF and would serve a similar role throughout the war and the post-Armistice period.

In 1918, Mare Island broke records by building USS Ward (Destroyer No. 139) in 17.5 days. At Pearl Harbor in 1941, the Shaw would gain lasting fame by sinking  a Japanese midget submarine attempting to enter the harbor by shadowing the Navy ship Antares.  It was later lost in a kamikaze attack off Leyte in 1944.

Destroyer USS Shaw (DD-68) Under Construction
 at Mare Island

The yard set another milestone when it built and launched the first super-dreadnought on the West Coast—USS California (Battleship No. 44). The battleship was launched 21 November 1919 and commissioned two years later. From 1914 to 1918 the Mare Island Yards began construction on the battleship California, nine destroyers, 15 wooden sub-chasers, and two tankers. Not all of them were commissioned by the time of the Armistice, but almost all of the vessels would go on to see service during the Second World War.

Marines Training on a Lewis Gun at Mare Island

In 1911, Mare Island had become one of the first four recruit training depots for the Marines. From 1917 to 1922, Mare Island served as the only boot camp for Marines west of the Mississippi. It was moved to San Diego in August 1923, but the Marine Barracks remained. During this period, the Marines stationed at Mare Island fielded an outstanding college football team which competed against teams in the Pacific Coast Conference and other military service football teams.  The Marine team was twice selected in to appear in the Rose Bowl, defeating the Camp Lewis 91st Division Squad on New Year's Day 1918 and losing to the Great Lakes Navy Bluejackets the following year with an entirely new lineup.

Wooden Subchasers Under Construction at Mare Island

After the Great War

The base grew into one of the largest naval facilities in the world during World War II. It expanded to 996 buildings, 20 ship berths, four dry docks, and two shipbuilding ways. Yard employees built 391 ships during the war. It repaired and sent back to battle 1,227 ships. More than 39,000 civilians were employed on Mare Island alone and thousands more in uniform. Mare Island also supervised the work of 28 private shipyards with 40,000 Navy contractors in the San Francisco Bay Area. Due to the war in the Pacific, the hospital at Mare Island was expanded from 600 beds to 2,300. In August 1943, the Pacific Orthopedic Center was established, charged with fitting all Navy and Marine Corps amputees with prosthetic limbs. 

Battleship USS California, Completed After WWI

In 1954, the Navy announced that the yard’s future role would be to build and repair nuclear submarines—one of the few shipyards to do this. On 19 October 1957, Mare Island built its first nuclear submarine, USS Sargo (SSN 583). It was the first nuclear submarine built on the West Coast. USS Drum (SSN-677), launched 23 May 1970, was the last submarine built at Mare Island. In 1972, Mare Island stopped building new nuclear submarines but continued to overhaul, refuel, and repair the nuclear-powered fleet until the base’s closure. In total, Mare Island built 17 nuclear submarines.  

Mare Island Naval Shipyard was recommended for closure by the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission in 1993. President Clinton and Congress accepted the commission’s recommendations, and the base officially closed 31 March 1996. The 5,000-acre island was transferred to the city of Vallejo in 2002 for reuse and redevelopment. The Mare Island Naval Shipyard is now a National Historic Landmark and open to the public. 

[Note: Corrected from the original, 22 November 1918]

Sources:  Wiki Commons, U.C. Berkeley, City of Vallejo, The Subchaser, Marine Corps University, U.S. Navy History and Heritage Command.


  1. According to Wiki, DD 68 USS Shaw was scrapped in 1934. The second USS Shaw, DD 373, famously blew up during the Pearl Harbor attack and was rebuilt.

    1. Yes, I failed to fact check sufficiently. It has been corrected in the article. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.