I’ve long had a fascination with the USS California, for what I thought were two pretty good reasons. First, she was the only U.S. battleship built on the West Coast. Second, she was built at Mare Island Naval Shipyard in my hometown, Vallejo, California.
My interest in the ship really kicked in around 2003 as I was writing the stories that would appear in my collection, Children of Vallejo. The first chapter of the book is titled, “Vallejo Remembered,” and includes this paragraph about Mare Island:
…the shipyard prospered as one of the Navy’s major repair depots for the Pacific Fleet, and it earned its stripes as a shipbuilding facility. More than five hundred naval vessels were built there, including the USS California…On November 20, 1919, when the California slid down the shipway into the muddy Mare Island Strait, the brake lines could hot hold and she continued across the channel and onto the mud flats on the city side. She would find herself settled in the mud once again on December 7, 1941, at Pearl Harbor. But the California would rise to fight in battles all across the Pacific, a history followed with great pride by all those who touched her at Mare Island.
At that time, I was also working on ’68 – A Novel. One of my main characters is a man named John Harris, modeled after my father. The fictional John Harris served on the California during World War II. He was onboard for the battle of Lingayen Gulf when the ship was hit by a kamikaze. John is haunted by the attack in which forty-four men died and one hundred and fifty were wounded. In an early chapter of the book, John travels to Sacramento to visit the monument to the California which stands in Capitol Park.
Now he was standing in front of the monument. It was a simple structure: two square stone columns supporting a stone cap across the top… From the crosspiece hung the ship’s bell, its clapper removed. The California was decommissioned in 1947 and sold for scrap in 1959. This bell was all that remained of a once mighty warship…
John has a near-meltdown standing in front of the monument, remembering his service on the ship, feeling his blood boil at the idea that steel “…washed in the blood of brave men…” could be sold for scrap. Gradually, he regains composure.
His breathing was returning to normal now. He removed a handkerchief from his back pocket to mop his forehead and dab his eyes. He felt Martha touch his elbow gently.
“John, are you okay, honey?”
“Yeah. I’m fine. I’m fine now.” He took two steps forward and placed the palm of his right hand against the surface of the bell. Finally, he stepped away. “Okay, Martha. Let’s go.”
She wrapped her arm around his ample waist as they walked away, heading back to N Street and the entrance to the park.
Those two volumes, the story collection and the novel, were in the works as early as 2003. Just this past week, I was going through some family documents and I came across my father’s Navy discharge papers. One document includes a list of the ships he served. There it is, plain as day: U.S.S. California.
Let me be clear, my dad did not serve in World War II. He left active duty in 1935, having attained the rank of Chief Petty Officer. But to see that he served on the California was a surprise and a shock. I had no idea.
I thought there were two good reasons I was fascinated with that old battlewagon. Now I know there was a third.