August 28, 2006

Mare Island was first California boot camp

By Matt Hevezi
Special to the Times

Today’s leathernecks are familiar with Parris Island, S.C., and San Diego as the homes of the Corps’ recruit depots.

But history buffs and a few “old-timers” will remember Marine Corps Recruit Depot Mare Island, Calif., as one of the Corps’ first West Coast recruit training operations.

The Navy purchased Mare Island in 1852 for $83,410, opening it as the West Coast’s first naval base under the command of Navy Capt. David Farragut.

Before recruits started training at Mare Island, leathernecks first arrived for duty in 1862 under the command of Maj. Addison Garland, who was the first officer to command the Marine barracks on the island.

In 1911, the Corps established two West Coast boot camps, the second opening for business at Puget Sound, Wash., about the time recruits started training on Mare Island.

Mare Island eventually became the West Coast’s only recruit training facility when the Puget Sound operation consolidated to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1912. Parris Island didn’t open until 1915.

In the early 1900s, Mare Island was a favored location for Marine operations on the West Coast because of its proximity to San Francisco, a key military logistics and supply hub located just 30 miles to the south.

Recruits at Mare Island trained for two months on close-order drill, physical training and personal combat and had three weeks of marksmanship instruction on the M1903 Springfield rifle.

According to legend, the island, originally named Isla de la Plana by Spanish explorer Don Perez in 1775, got its current name in 1835 when a ferry carrying men and livestock ran into bad weather.

Panicked by the conditions, some of the livestock jumped overboard. Most drowned, but a few animals reached shore, including a white mare that belonged to the Mexican commandante for Northern California, Gen. Mariano Vallejo. Vallejo renamed the island after the horse.

Instructors trained recruits there until Aug. 10, 1923, when they relocated to San Diego and the Corps’ newest recruit training grounds at Marine Corps Base Naval Operations San Diego, renamed Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego in January 1948.

“We landed at the foot of Broadway [in San Diego],” said retired Master Sgt. O.S. Nelson. “Then, they carried us over to the base in trucks, and we started to learn how to be Marines. Where the airport is now was all water. There was an old wooden theater and, of course, a dirt parade field.”

After years of serving as a Navy shipyard headquarters for Marine Security Forces Pacific and as a Marine barracks, Mare Island closed as a military facility in 1996 and is being developed by the city of Vallejo and private developers for commercial and residential uses.