Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 7, 2011

Defending the Coast

In our previous post (CLICK HERE), we described a visit to a former Nike missile installation that is still visible just a few miles from where I live on the western edge of the United States. That site is located on the bluffs that face west toward Santa Catalina Island and the vast Pacific. As I’ve mentioned before (CLICK HERE), it’s daunting to consider all the installations of war that occupy this continent.

However, that spot was already the site of strategic coastal defense several decades before such a thing as “guided missiles” existed. The armament technology of previous generations consisted of shooting ever-larger, ever more-powerful propelled projectiles from land-based guns, and some of the largest ever devised were located another hundred feet up the bluffs from the Nike site of the 1950s and ’60s.

In a day before spy satellites and vast webs of electronic intelligence could track incoming threats, coastal defense consisted of heavily fortified positions hosting very large guns. The Port of Los Angeles has been a critically important site to defend since the Civil War, at least (CLICK HERE to read my post about the surviving Civil War building near the port). In response to the need to protect the harbor at the outbreak of WWII, the U.S. Army installed massive concrete-reinforced gun batteries on the high ground overlooking the approaches to the harbor. Guarding the northern flank was Battery Paul D. Bunker. The installation, still readily visible from Paseo Del Mar at the edge of the cliff, looks like this.

Bunker Battery 1 Brad Nixon 8325 (640x453)

That’s on of 2 nearly identical gun emplacements — called “casemates” — in a man-made embankment encased in seventeen feet of concrete. It’s shielded by a heavy concrete canopy. Four thousand square feet of space underneath the concrete and earth enclosure were devoted to the storage of ammunition and support operations.

Today, the massive concrete and earth structures lack their guns, but only the passage of an untold amount of time will erode the gargantuan structures.

Using 16-inch guns from naval operations, the battery could shoot a 2,000-pound projectile 26 miles — enough to clear Catalina Island, 22 miles away. Click on that link above to see a photo of the battery with its gun in place. According to local accounts, when the Army conducted test firings, the concussions from each firing broke hundreds of windows in nearby San Pedro (and, if it gives you any ease, they laid off on the test firings to spare the local populace). When one considers what it must have been like on an Iowa-class battleship — armed with 9 of these guns —  it gives one pause.

Today, the almost indestructible remnants of the gun emplacements stand, an indelible witness to a history that has passed.

A generation before these 16-inch behemoths guarded the harbor, there was an earlier ring of armament around the harbor. In 1916, in the depths of WWI, the United States began fortifying the Port of Los Angeles. These installations, too, consisted of very large guns in hardened positions, employing the latest technology of the day, the “disappearing gun.” Poised on a scissor-lift rig, these 14-inch guns could be loaded by the crew, raised above the fortifications, fired, then lowered again to be reloaded.

Battery Farley ocean 2 Brad Nixon 8175 (640x480)

Farley Battery

Just a mile south from Battery Paul D. Bunker, Battery Osgood-Farley and its brother battery, Leary-Merriam, represented the state-of-the-art in land-to-sea armament of the era. Each of these complexes had two guns, and each of the 14-inch guns could shoot a 1560-pound projectile fourteen miles. The pairs of batteries shared a central complex of powder rooms, magazines and other support, all buried under concrete and earth.

Osgood Farley shell Brad Nxion 8171 (640x480)

Embedded in concrete-encased enclosures designed to make incoming rounds skip off their rounded surfaces, they were the most advanced land-based armaments of their day.

Battery Osgood and Bell Brad Nixon 8146 (640x479)

These installations still stand. Although the guns have been removed, the almost impenetrable density of the concrete emplacements makes them silent witnesses to the technology of another era of armament. The Fort MacArthur Museum is contained within the Osgood-Farley complex, and all the sites described here are within a mile of one another along the Pacific coast. You can — as we have — walk past the place regularly for ten years without knowing the batteries are there, hidden behind the brow of the bluff. It’s an easy walk to both the WWI and WWII installations.

For more information, including photos of the batteries with their guns, see the Osgood-Farley entry at the Fort MacArthur Museum.

The best way to see the layout of the Osgood-Farley batteries and understand how the pairs of batteries were related is from the air. Google Earth has a great shot of it at 33°42′42.s8″N 118°17′45.79″W.

Battery Farley Catalina Brad Nixon 8172 (640x480)

This article is being posted on December 7, 2011, the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was a terrible time, but let us never forget the great accomplishments of those days that, after long struggle, kept us free.

Most of the photographs in this post and select images from other Under Western Skies posts are available on Click on the linked photos, or CLICK HERE to view the Underawesternsky photo portfolio.

© Brad Nixon 2011, 2017


  1. Thanks for the great articles! I don’t know how you happen to come up with such diverse subjects, but it helps educate the rest of us. I meant to comment on your article yesterday; but I got distracted doing office work. Your article, and others’ comments on it, reminded me of my elementary school days in the 1950’s, when we would practice “civil defense” (remember the special sign?) drills. “Duck, cover, and hold!” If we had been attacked by nuclear missiles, a lot of good hiding under a little school desk would have done! Wonder who thought that one up.

    Today’s article reminded me of the Germans’ shore batteries off the Normandy coast. They were well fortified, too. Didn’t help them much, did it? I visited Normandy in 1994, the year of the 50th anniversary of D-Day. I had an uncle who fought in the famous Battle of the Hedgerows there. He survived all the battles through Normandy and France, only to be killed in Germany. My second uncle flew B-24 Liberator bombers in WWII and died in an air battle over Europe.


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