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WWII Treasure Island

1941 – 1945

From Magic City to Naval Base

As the GGIE drew to a close on September 29, 1940, citizens were disappointed to learn that the airport would be delayed. The Navy would be moving onto the island for the purpose of “preparing and receiving and forwarding men to naval duty.” After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the Navy took possession of the island “for the duration of the war and for five years thereafter,” according to the lease. But 55 years later the Navy was still there. They eventually compensated the city with $10 million in improvements to the existing airport, among other benefits.

The Navy repurposed exposition buildings, turning palaces into bunking quarters. Pacific House was demolished, but its educational maps, including the Fountain of the Pacific, were saved for future display. The Court of Pacifica became the location of both the fountain and the Pacific Unity statues and was a popular recreation spot on the island.

The fair's food and beverage exhibit was converted to a mess hall that would eventually serve food to over 7,000 men an hour and seat up to 3,000 at once. The Billy Rose Aquacade was converted to a swimming pool (one of three) and the Hall of Science and Federal Building became theaters.

Navy soldiers marching past the former GGIE Federal Building on Treasure Island in 1942. (San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library).

Coverage of the transformation of TI from fair to naval base in The Masthead in 1944. (Treasure Island Museum Collection)


Life on Naval Station Treasure Island (NSTI) 

Naval Station Treasure Island (NSTI) played an important role in the United States' naval efforts during WWII, serving as a distribution and training site. The geographical location of TI, in the middle of a harbor with a sheltered lagoon, Clipper Cove, and proximity to the Pacific made it an ideal location for military purposes.

Treasure Island was a major point of embarkation and debarkation for sailors and Marines going to and from the Pacific Theater of Operations during WWII. As the “Gateway to the Pacific,”

about 4.5 million servicemen and servicewomen passed through Treasure Island from 1941-1945, and NSTI was in charge of feeding, housing, training, and entertaining them during their stay. (McDevitt 1946).

The base was a small town with its own post office, department store, chapel, and gas station, plus multiple restaurants, barbershops, tailor shops, hobby shops, and theaters. TI also had its own weekly naval station newspaper, called the Masthead, which circulated 20,000 copies every Saturday.

Navy soldiers eating in a hangar that was converted into a cafeteria in 1942. (San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library) 

Cartoon map of NSTI circa WWII. (The Naval History of Treasure Island)


Training and Education

Treasure Island's location made the naval station a focal point for the movement of personnel and training. Every naval battle impacted the 403-acre island: one side was poised to give hospital care to the wounded veterans while the other sent replacements of trained sailors and officers.

Before being sent to sea, sailors learned necessary skills such as swimming, scuba diving, and firefighting. They learned to operate and repair the equipment they would find on their ships, including radios and artillery. Training schools on Treasure Island included a Gunnery School, Fire Fighting School, Fleet Operational Training School, Radio Materiel School, and the Advanced Naval Training School. 

The Radio Materiel school encompassed nine buildings on Treasure Island, and by V-J Day it had produced more than 10,000 Radio Technicians. Four hundred students arrived for radio training every month, and one hundred graduates left for sea duty every week. 

Sailors study electrical waveforms on an oscilloscope in 1946 on Treasure Island. (Naval History & Heritage Command)

The Masthead depicts firefighting training on TI. (Treasure Island Museum Collection)


Making W.A.V.E.S.

In 1942, the first eighteen women who were part of the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) came aboard Treasure Island. As operations in the Pacific took more Navy men overseas, the WAVES moved in to fill the empty seats and kept the huge naval station in production. 

At its peak, there were 800 officers and enlisted women and six barracks dedicated to WAVES. They were attached to fifteen different duties on the island, including the Communication Division (composed almost entirely of WAVES), the Operational Training School, and the Gunnery School. WAVES were also instructors in these divisions, teaching signaling, damage control, lookout recognition, navigation and aerial gunnery.

1944 The Masthead cover montage honoring WAVES. (Treasure Island Museum Collection) 

WAVES practicing marksmanship at an indoor range, 1943. (U.S. Navy Photograph, National Archives)


U.S. Naval Hospital

The first sick bay opened in 1941 and began providing medical and dental services. By 1945, TI had its own hospital with over 700 beds, an epidemiology unit to serve the whole district, a blood bank, and the School of Tropical Medicine which helped nurses and doctors provide care.

Because TI was accessible both by water and the bridge, the station not only provided routine medical check-ups and first aid but also was used as an acute care facility. The station received some of the most ill and seriously injured patients flown in from the South and Central Pacific, as well as from around the Bay Area. 

Advancements in blood transfusion technology, such as the extraction of plasma and new storage techniques, made blood donation essential in saving lives during WWII. The Red Cross set up a blood bank at NSTI to collect blood and plasma from personnel. Embarking sailors were sent aboard ships with their own blood and plasma, collected at the TI blood bank. 

Entertainers frequently visited injured veterans at the TI hospital. (San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)

Nurses giving blood at the NSTI blood bank (The Masthead, Treasure Island Museum Collection)


Administration Building/Building One

The Administration Building (Building 1) served as the Command & Communications Center during WWII. The lobby also was used for musical performances, ceremonies, and dances. Later it would also serve as an employment office where civilians and sailors could seek employment as the war came to an end.

WAVE and civilian telephone operators in the Administration Building in The Masthead in 1945 (Treasure Island Museum Collection)
Officers' dance in the lobby of the Administration Building in The Masthead in 1945 (Treasure Island Museum Collection)


Segregation and the Port Chicago Trial

The segregation that typified life on the base during WWII was seen in many photographs and news stories about NAVSTA TI. The Navy was pervaded by racism during WWII. African American personnel, and other people of color, were paid less, excluded from upper-level positions, and often relegated to more dangerous work. However, the racist mistreatment of Black sailors was addressed publicly in a historic mutiny trial held on Yerba Buena Island in the aftermath of the Port Chicago disaster.

In a massive explosion at Port Chicago Naval Magazine near Concord, California, 320 sailors, the majority of whom were Black, were killed as they loaded munitions on the pier. Following the disaster, many survivors refused to carry on the work of loading arms in dangerous working conditions, with inadequate equipment and training. 50 Black sailors were charged with mutiny for refusing to resume munitions loading. The Port Chicago trial, which took place on NAVSTA TI, and the media coverage of the underlying racism paved the way for the desegregation of the U.S. military after the war.

The Naval Station Treasure Island Band, comprised of Black sailors serving on the base, played for morning colors, and at bond rallies and ship launchings. The swing band, called Shipmates of Rhythm, provided music for the naval station’s weekly radio broadcast. Courtesy of Steefenie Wicks (Treasure Island Museum Collection)

Black sailors loading munitions at Port Chicago Naval Magazine (National Park Service)

The aftermath of the deadly explosion. (National Park Service)


WWII: The End

After V-J day on August 15, 1945, Naval Station Treasure Island gradually settled into peacetime mode. By May 1946, most of the Navy’s personnel could return to civilian life, and the remaining POWs were shipped home (between 1945-46, NSTI held over 1,300 German prisoners of war, as one of the 150 US bases that housed Axis POWs). 

Many who worked on Treasure Island every day were already civilians. Four thousand civilian employees worked in administrative and industrial positions, and as drivers. The majority of these positions were held by people in the Civil Service.

V-J Day ceremonies on TI in The Masthead (Treasure Island Museum Collection)

Welcoming troops home on YBI in 1945. The Masthead (Treasure Island Museum Collection)

Sailors returning home on May 22nd, 1945 with their duffel bags. (San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)

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