Learn about the surprising military history of San Francisco and the Bay Area during your next visit.

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July 9, 2019
Photo courtesy of the USS Hornet Museum

Explore Military History in San Francisco and the Bay Area

As the western most port of the continental U.S., San Francisco has served as a vital military stronghold since its founding. With plenty of historical sites and exhibits, a tour of the region's military history is a great way for any history buff to get acquainted with the city and the Bay Area.

The Golden Gate National Recreation Area

Although military landmarks can be found all over the Bay Area, a majority are located within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA). The GGNRA covers a massive amount of land, from Palo Alto all the way north to Point Reyes. It includes infamous locations like Alcatraz, as well as lesser known sites that are still definitely worth a visit.

One of these is Battery Spencer, a fort built in the early 1900s that was home to several turrets and cannons. It’s ideal defense position also allows for one of the best views of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Another picturesque site on the opposite side of the city is Fort Funston, seated on the cliffs overlooking Ocean Beach. Use the hiking trails to visit the World War I-era batteries that were covered with artillery cannons until the end of World War II. Now abandoned, these sites provide great ways to experience a combination of San Francisco’s military history and beautiful landscape.

The Presidio and the Marina

If you want to start in the beginning, the Presidio is a great place to kick off your tour. It was founded in 1776 by Spanish settlers in need of a military fort. In 1846, the U.S. Army bought the land and used it as an active military post before selling it to the National Park Service in 1994.  The area is riddled with military landmarks like Crissy Field, the Korean War Memorial, and Civil War-era Fort Point, which is located right below the southern end of the Golden Gate Bridge. A tour of this fortress is definitely worth the trip, providing unique views of both the bridge and the Pacific Ocean. Check out the "Then They Came For Me" exhibit for an in-depth look at the history of the Japanese Internment during World War II.

If you walk east along the Marina, you will find Fort Mason, a former Army station in North Beach. Originally built as a defense harbor during the Civil War that controlled passage between the city and Alcatraz Island, it later acted as America's main Pacific military port during World War II. Its massive barracks have been renovated into beautiful pavilions featuring art and cultural exhibits.

Right next door is the Maritime Historical Park, where you will find seven perfectly restored ships from the past two centuries. For any sailing enthusiasts, the Maritime Historical Museum is an amazing collection of over 35,000 artifacts detailing San Francisco’s extensive history as a legendary port. You can stop by the bocce ball courts for some fun or head to the nearby Original Ghiradelli Ice Cream & Chocolate Shop for the best hot fudge sundae you’ve ever had.

Fisherman's Wharf

At the world famous Fisherman’s Wharf, you can find much more than quirky shops and barking seals. On Pier 45, you will find the SS Pampanito and SS O’brien, a World War II submarine and ship, respectively. Both act as living museums where you can see what it was like to be in the Navy during the 1940s. The SS O’brien is a functioning ship and one of the only surviving vessels from the D-Day invasion. If you are here during Fleet Week in mid-October, you may be lucky enough to board the SS O’brien for one of the few bay cruises that it makes each year.

Fleet Week has tons of programming to enjoy, including the U.S. Navy Parachute Team, Coast Guard search and rescue demonstrations, and free U.S. Marine Band concerts in Golden Gate Park. Don’t forget to look up and watch the legendary Blue Angels Air Show as they soar overhead in an incredible display of elegance and precision.

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Islands in the Bay

From Fisherman’s Wharf, you can take a quick ferry to Angel Island and explore the 150-year-old forts that were built during the Civil War. Since then, the island has served as a quarantine area during the Plague Epidemic of the 1890s, an embarkation point during World War II, a launch site for the Nike anti-aircraft missiles, and as an immigration station.  The Angel Island Immigration Station is an interesting place to learn about the complicated history of immigration policies that used to exist and how they impacted the growth of San Francisco.

Another island known for its military past is Treasure Island, situated half way across the Bay Bridge. This manmade island, joined to the natural Yerba Buena Island, was constructed during the Civil War to fend off possible Confederate attacks. Barracks, turrets, and docks were expanded on the north side of the island to act as training and departure points for the Army and Navy during both World Wars. Learn more by visiting the Treasure Island Museum and make a quick stop to the vintage five-inch gun turret just one block away for a personal look at a very cool World War II artifact.

East Bay

Outside the city, you will find the former Naval Air Station Alameda, home to the legendary USS Hornet. This air base was very active during both World Wars and throughout the Cold War. The USS Hornet has been turned into a living museum where you can explore aircraft from every decade, the underbelly of a functional aircraft carrier, and artifacts from the Apollo 11 and 12 missions, which the Hornet retrieved upon landing.

The Naval Air Station Alameda is also home to the real life Rosie the Riveter, Naomi Parker Fraley, who worked in the aircraft assembly factory on site in the early 1940s. Just a 30-minute drive north, you can explore her legacy at the Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front in Richmond.  This National Historical Park is also surrounded by memorials and exhibits dedicated to others who aided the war effort.

North Bay

Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo is a historical landmark of great importance to the U.S. Navy. It was the first American naval installation on the west coast and was vital in the construction and maintenance of thousands of ships throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Although the shipyard closed down in 1996, the work done here can be explored at the Mare Island Museum. Also, keep an eye out for fascinating relics and memorials throughout the area.

South Bay

The largest site on this tour is Moffett Naval Airfield, located in the south bay in Mountain View. Originally used for landing, takeoff, and maintenance of naval ships, submarines, and aircraft, Moffett Field is now home to the NASA Ames Research Facility. You can still walk about Hangar 1, one of the largest freestanding structures in the world, and explore some of the planes that are still on display. Be sure to visit the Moffett Field Historical Society Museum, a great collection of artifacts and exhibits from the airfield’s days of operation.

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