History of Navy Radio in San Diego

1930 map
The Navy made San Diego part of its first radio communications network when it established Navy Radio Point Loma May 12, 1906, with a 5 kw transmitter in a small wood building on the Point Loma Military Reservation. This reservation on 360 acres of the peninsula was transferred by the Army to the Navy in 1901 and became the La Playa Coaling Station in 1904, the oldest naval shore installation in San Diego, and the origin of the Naval Supply Center that today provides logistics for half the Pacific fleet. The Army continued to occupy Fort Rosecrans on Point Loma until 1959 when it turned it over to the Navy. In 1963 the Navy established the Submarine Base at Ballast Point. In 1981 this base became naval Submarine Base, San Diego (NAVSUBASE).

The radio station on Point Loma served the needs of the early naval expansion into the Pacific, including the radio experiments of Lee DeForest from the USS Connecticut (BB-18) when it led the Great White Fleet around the world Dec. 1907 to Feb. 1909. The DeForest experiment was a failure, and the Navy continued to experiment with radio. At the time of the Great White Fleet's voyage, there were no radio transmitters able to cross an ocean. The British-based Marconi company dominated commercial radio but its trans-Atlantic service was not reliable. The German Telefunken company had the world's most powerful transmitters, and built a trans-Atlantic station at Sayville, Long Island. The United State Navy decided in 1912 to construct a world-wide high-power chain using arc transmitters developed by Federal Telegraph Company that operated a night service between San Francisco and Hawaii. The first transmitter was installed at the Naval Radio Base in Arlington VA in 1912 and a second built at Darien in the Canal Zone in 1914, both with a range of 1000 miles. Three transmitters were planned for the Pacific Ocean, at Chollas Heights in San Diego and Pearl Harbor in Hawaii and at Cavite in the Philippines. The Navy in 1914 acquired 73 acres at Chollas Heights in southeast San Diego for the construction of three 600-foot towers arranged in a triangular shape, and a 200-kw high-power transmitter using the new vacuum tubes that ATT developed for its long-distance telephone service inaugurated in January 1915.

1930 map
According to Captain Linwood S. Howeth's history of Navy radio, the San Diego station was the first to be completed in this high-power chain. "Although it did not go into commission until May 1917, the official trials commenced on 26 January when Hooper sent the first message to Arlington using a silver key especially prepared for the occasion. San Diego made quite a celebration over the completion of this station which presented an imposing sight with its three 600-foot towers crowning the hills across the bay from the city. On the day before the commissioning ceremony, everything went wrong, and there was a question as to whether the transmitter could be used because of a faulty keying circuit. One of the events was to be the transmission of a message from the new station to the Secretary of the Navy, and the receipt of his reply by the remote receiving station in San Diego. Hooper, not desiring that the Navy be held in ridicule by the possible failure of the transmitter, telegraphed the Bureau the message he intended to transmit and requested an advance copy of the Secretary's reply be wired him at once. The next morning brought no response. With great trepidation he joined the mayor, the city council, and other local dignitaries for the trip to Chollas Heights. On arrival at the station he discovered that the reply to his message had been delivered there. He could go through the motion of transmitting and then, after a proper time, he could deliver the press a message from the Secretary. He breathed a sigh, a very quiet sigh, of relief. The hour appointed for the station's first official transmission arrived. Hooper took his seat at the keying position and began transmitting his message. To his astonishment the huge relay key obeyed the commands of its tiny counterpart, and the transmitter was on the air. The Federal engineers, assisted by the station personnel, had labored long into the night checking and rectifying, rechecking and testing. One minute passed with no reply being received. Two minutes passed and then the operator, connected by wire line to the receiver at the remote receiving station, commenced writing. In another minute he handed Hooper a folded message which he, in turn, handed the mayor for that dignitary to read aloud to the assemblage. As the mayor read, Hooper secretly checked it with the advance copy. Wily Secretary Josephus Daniels had added an additional question which required a reply. Upon his return to Washington, Hooper was directed to the Secretary. As he stepped into that dignitary's office he was greeted with the remark: "That was trickery, Hooper! I didn't like it at all!" The expected reply of "Aye, Aye, Sir" was received, and the incident was closed. Meanwhile, construction of the stations at Pearl Harbor and Cavite was proceeding. The war caused delays in the fabrication of the towers and those for Cavite were further delayed by the British seizure of the ship carrying them. The towers were finally released after prolonged diplomatic negotiations. Pearl Harbor was placed in commission 1 October, and Cavite on 19 December 1917. "

In 1922, the radio headquarters and message center of the Navy moved to Naval Base Headquarters in downtown San Diego at the foot of Broadway on Harbor Drive that was also the command center of the new Eleventh naval District established in 1921. The Naval Training Center was built 1921-1923 on the tidelands of the Bay and included a Fleet Radio School. The Naval Destroyer Base was established in 1922 on 98 acres of bayfront land between San Diego and National City. In 1941 the Navy took over 145 acres in Imperial Beach around the old Fort Emory artillery station, and in 1943 built a new radio receiver that took over the job from Point Loma. In 1947 this receiver became Naval Communications Station, Eleventh Naval District, and in 1953 became Naval Communication Station, San Diego (NAVCOMSTA). In 1965, the Navy built a giant Wallenweber circular antenna at this station. In 1966 it joined the World-wide Automatic Digital Network using computers to send secure, high-speed long distance radio transmissions. The Point Loma site became the U. S. Navy Radio and Sound Labortatory in 1940 and the Navy Electronics Laboratory in 1945. In 1977 it was merged into the Naval Ocean Systems Center (NOSC).


Navy Radio Station, Point Loma, at time of comissioning 1906. View to northeast. The road at the left of the fence becaue Catalina Boulevard. Photo from NOSC - bg
Navy Radio Station, Point Loma, 1924. View to southeast. Station is in center. Photo from NOSC - bg
Navy Radio Station, Point Loma, 1934. View to southeast. Photo from NOSC - bg
Navy Radio Station, Point Loma and Navy Radio and Sound Laboratory, 1942. View to southeast. Building 2 under construction at right center. Photo from NOSC - bg

revised 5/15/03 by Schoenherr | San Diego Military Bases