Bay Area Military History

San Francisco Fleet Week salutes our rich military history in the Bay Area.  Take some time to support our local museums and parks and learn more about why San Francisco is proud to host the Fleet every year!

Battery Chamberlin SF CA

Battery Chamberlin SF CA

During the Civil War, Alcatraz served as a military prison and Fort Point was constructed to guard the Golden Gate. During World War I, the Union Iron Works Shipyard south of the Embarcadero built cruisers, early S-class submarines, and battleships — including Admiral Dewey’s flagship, the cruiser Olympia, now a museum ship in Philadelphia.

The Bay Area reached its peak of military service during World War II, when San Francisco was a center of military activity. Treasure Island was an intelligence post and naval installation; and Piers 35 and 45, and Fort Mason were disembarkation points for troops headed to the Pacific.

The Bay Area also boasted two major Naval shipyards, one at Hunters Point in San Francisco and one at Mare Island in Vallejo — the only place on the West Coast where submarines were built. Two-thirds of the Liberty and Victory ships in WWII were built in the Bay Area. Ironically, the locally-berthed Liberty ship, Jeremiah O’Brien, lovingly restored and sailed by volunteers to the 50th Anniversary in Normandy, was not among them.

As in much of the rest of the country, base closures along San Francisco Bay have prompted conversion of military installations into civilian uses. Fort Mason on the San Francisco side of the Bay and Fort Baker on the north side, which both trained gun turrets on the entrance to the Bay, are now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, a national park. Today Fort Mason is a thriving cultural center filled with theaters, museums, and shops, while Fort Baker hosts the nation’s only children’s museum in a national park: the Bay Area Discovery Museum. And Hunters Point, one of the shipyards that closed down after World War II, has been turned over to the City of San Francisco and is currently in the land use planning stage.

The WWII submarine U.S.S. Pampanito at Pier 45 serves today as a lasting memorial to the U.S. Navy and reminder of San Francisco’s maritime military history. And once a year the city turns into a sailor’s town reminiscent of the rowdy Barbary Coast era, when hundreds of Navy shipmen disembark for a week of fun at the annual Fleet Week celebration in October.

Whether walking along the Barbary Coast Trail or looking through the periscope of a WWII submarine, today’s visitors can spend hours or even days delving into the romantic bygone era of the sea — a time not so long ago when crimps and clipper ships, bos’n’s and battleships, feluccas and ferries proudly claimed the waterfront of San Francisco, the Emporium of the West, as their homeport.

The Presidio

Located at the Golden Gate, the Presidio is a national park site like no other, with surprising adventures for everyone. Get away from it all on a trail and enjoy the view from a scenic overlook. Or grab a great meal, visit a museum, browse in a store, or rest your head in a historic lodge. There’s always something new to discover!

Since it was founded in 1776, the Presidio of San Francisco has had many lives, from a Spanish military site to an American Army post to a National Park Service location. Today, it draws visitors for its cultural sites, hiking trails, public art, restaurants, and views of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco Bay.


The SS Jeremiah O’Brien

The SS Jeremiah O'Brien is one of two remaining fully functional Liberty ships of the 2,710 built and launched during World War II. The O'Brien has the distinction of being the last unaltered Liberty ship and remains historically accurate. Moored at Pier 45, Fisherman's Wharf, she is a premier San Francisco attraction.

A living museum on the National Register of Historic Places and a National Historic Landmark, the O'Brien transports you back almost seven decades to when sailors braved the harshest of high seas and threat of enemy attack.

The SS Jeremiah O’Brien

The USS Pampanito Submarine

The USS Pampanito made six patrols in the Pacific during World War II during which she sank six Imperial Japanese ships and damaged four others. Operated by the Maritime Park Association, Pampanito hosts over 100,000 visitors a year and is one of the most popular historic vessels in the country. In addition to day time visitors, over 1,500 kids a year participate in Pampanito‘s educational day and overnight programs. Pampanito is a National Historic Landmark.

USS Pampanito Submarine

Rose the Riveter WWII Home Front

Explore and honor the efforts and sacrifices of American civilians on the World War II home front. Find out how they lived, worked and got along. Many faces, many stories, many truths weave a complex tapestry of myths and realities from this time of opportunity and loss.

Rose the Riveter WWII Home Front

Mare Island

In 1854, Mare Island became the site of the first naval base on the West Coast. For 142 Years, the Mare Island Naval Shipyard played an integral and incredible role in the shaping US History, and the reminders and remnants of that history are here on the Island for you to experience.

Mare Island

Angel Island

Angel Island State Park, the largest natural island in the San Francisco Bay, offers some of the best views of the surrounding Bay Area. With great hiking trails and many other recreational opportunities readily available, Angel Island is truly a hidden gem in the midst of the urban Bay Area.

From 1910 to 1940, the U.S. Immigration Station processed hundreds of thousands of immigrants, the majority from China. During World War II, Japanese, and German POWs were detained at the Station before being sent to facilities farther inland.

Angel Island

The USS Hornet

The Navy’s aircraft carrier hull number 12 was originally slated to be commissioned as the USS Kearsarge. However, the ship’s name was changed to honor the fallen USS Hornet (CV-8) after she was sunk at the Battle of Santa Cruz Islands while protecting US forces holding Guadalcanal. USS Hornet (CV-12) was commissioned November 29, 1943, becoming the eighth ship to bear the name.

The might of an aircraft carrier lies in its ability to quickly move about the world’s oceans, projecting power whenever and wherever it is needed. The heart of a carrier’s combat strength is its aircraft; her Air Groups provided Hornet’s lethal sting. Hornet’s success was dependent on the capabilities of highly trained pilots and aircrews and the specialized aircraft that operated from her flight deck.

In World War II, her air groups consisted of a fighter (VF) squadron, a bombing (VB) squadron and a torpedo (VT) squadron. During the 1950s as naval warfare technology evolved, so too did the complexity and specialty of carrier-based aircraft. Joining the classic fighter and attack aircraft were electronic/early warning, photo-reconnaissance, and anti-submarine warfare aircraft. Dual-role aircraft also provided aerial tanking and limited cargo capabilities and helicopters proved essential to carrier operations which included search and rescue missions.

USS Hornet

The Barbary Coast

From rousing sea chanteys to historical walking tours, the tale of San Francisco’s coming-of-age is most eloquently told in the history of its waterfront. Ever since majestic clipper ships transported hordes of 49ers to her shores, San Francisco has been a legendary port-of-call. Today, visitors have more opportunities than ever before to explore and enjoy the colorful, nautical past of The City by the Bay.

The Barbary Coast "During the day," writes author Daniel Bacon, "the old Barbary Coast was quiet, save for a few clothing shops, maritime businesses and auction houses. But by evening it transformed into a seductive siren, luring sailors and slummers into a dangerous milieu of opium dens, crimping joints, saloons, brothels and gambling houses." Often, unsuspecting sailors cavorting in the area after having completed a long journey were slipped Mickey Finns — whiskey laced with a dollop of opium — and shanghaied on two-year long voyages. Skippers paid crimps up to $75 a head to supply able-bodied hands to crew their vessels.

Today adventure-seekers can explore the remnants of the old Barbary Coast and many other historical sites with the help of Bacon’s book, "Walking San Francisco on the Barbary Coast Trail." Inspired by the Freedom Trail in Boston, the Barbary Coast Trail leads the curious walker (or armchair explorer) on a scenic 3.8-mile route that winds its way through San Francisco’s history, including a cluster of restored Gold Rush-era buildings. The trail has been designated the official historical tour of San Francisco and is slated to be marked with bronze plaques and a painted line.