By A. R. Graham
The wealthy guests of John D. Spreckels’ once went riding across North Island hunting jackrabbits. The land was then separated from Coronado by the ‘Spanish Bight’, a shallow channel that ran from the Pacific Ocean to the bay. Used in the late 19th century for horseback riding and hunting by guests of the Hotel del Coronado, it was nothing more than an uninhabited sand flat. Many famous figures have left their prints on this tiny piece of land and sand.
A division of the U.S. Cavalry once exercised their horses along its golden shores. An English prince ran off with the wife of the base’s first commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Earl W. Spencer, Jr. His wife was Wallis Warfield, a prominent socialite who was to remarry twice, and finally, become Wallis Warfield Spencer Simpson Windsor, better known as the Duchess of Windsor, for whom King Edward VIII gave up his throne in 1936.
The list of American military pilots trained at North Island reads like the Who’s Who of aviation. However, America was not the only country interested in aviation early in the twentieth century. Six years before, the Naval Air Station was commissioned, Glenn Curtiss trained the first group of Japanese aviators at his flying school on North Island. Among them was a Lieutenant Yamada, later the head of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s Naval Aviation arm in World War II. North Island was commissioned as the Naval Air Station in 1917 and called Naval Air Station San Diego until 1955. On August 15, 1963, the station was granted official recognition as the “Birthplace of Naval Aviation” by resolution of the House Armed Services Committee.
The Navy’s first aviator, Lieutenant Theodore Ellyson, and many of his colleagues were trained at North Island starting as early as 1911. This was just eight years after Orville and Wilbur Wright flew the first manned aircraft at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
In 1886, North Coronado Island and South Coronado were purchased by a developer to become a residential resort. South Coronado, which is not an island but the terminus of a peninsula known as the Silver Strand, became the city of Coronado. Fortunately for the Navy, North Coronado was never developed. Instead, Glenn Curtiss opened a flying school and held a lease to the property until the beginning of World War I. In 1917, Congress appropriated the land and two airfields were commissioned on its sandy flats. The Navy started with a tent city known as “Camp Trouble”. As its name suggests, things did not always go well in the early days. The Navy shared North Island with the Army Signal Corps’ Rockwell Field until 1937, when the Army left, and the Navy expanded its operations to cover the whole of North Island. In 1914, then-unknown aircraft builder, Glenn Martin, took off and demonstrated his pusher aircraft over the island with a flight that included the first parachute jump in the San Diego area. The jump was made by a ninety-pound civilian woman named Tiny Broadwick. Other aviation milestones originating at North Island included the first seaplane flight in 1911, the first mid-air refueling, and the first non-stop transcontinental flight, both in 1923.
One of history’s most famous aviation feats was the flight of Charles A. Lindbergh from New York to Paris in May 1927. That flight originated at Rockwell Field on North Island on May 10, 1927, when Lindbergh began the first leg of his journey.
Forefathers of today’s “Blue Angels”, the three-plane “Sea Hawks” from VF-6B, the “Felix the Cat” squadron, were thrilling audiences with flight demonstrations as early as 1928. They demonstrated the training skills of Navy fighter and bomber pilots, and on many occasions, flew their aircraft in formation with the wings tethered together.
During World War II, North Island was the major continental U.S. base supporting the operating forces in the Pacific. Those forces included over a dozen aircraft carriers, the Coast Guard, Army, Marines, and Seabees. The city of Coronado became home to most of the aircraft factory workers and dependents of the mammoth base which was operating around the clock. Major USO entertainment shows and bond drives were held weekly at the Ships Service Auditorium, which was later replaced by the 2,100-seat Lowry Theater.
Famous people stationed here or on ships home ported here during the war years included Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Guy Madison, future television cowboy star of the 1950s and 1960s as Wild Bill Hickok, who was at that time, Seaman Bob Mosely, a lifeguard at the NAS crews pool. Stars like the Marx Brothers and Bob Hope appeared regularly at USO shows at the auditorium. Two films of a bygone era were also filmed here including Hell Divers with Clark Gable in 1931 and Hellcats of the Navy with Ronald and Nancy Reagan in 1957.
In 1944, the Army Corps of Engineers filled in the Spanish Bight to allow for more construction. North Island today is an island in name only.
Today, the Naval Air Station at North Island is part of the largest aerospace-industrial complex in the Navy. It includes Naval Amphibious Base Coronado, Outlying Field Imperial Beach, and Naval Air Landing Facility, San Clemente Island. The complex totals 5,000 acres stretching from the entrance to San Diego Bay to the Mexican border. North Island itself is host to 23 squadrons and 75 additional tenant commands and activities, one of which, the Naval Aviation Depot, is the largest aerospace employer in San Diego.