Richard Foss

The battle that didn’t happen

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A historian catalogs the military history of Palos Verdes, in which not a single shot was fired in anger

Author Jim Shneer next to the door of an old ammunition storage bunker near the Rancho Palos Verdes City Hall. The letters U.S.E.D. stand for United States Engineering Division, an early name for the Corps of Engineers. Photo by Richard Foss

by Richard Foss

After the fall of the Roman Empire, barbarians walked the streets of cities they could never have built themselves. One can imagine some warrior stabling his horse where senators debated, or perhaps cursing as he tripped over a fallen statue of Minerva, Goddess of Wisdom.    

This seems like an unlikely scenario in the modern world, but that ignores a fact of human nature: most people aren’t very curious about history. This is doubly true about local history, because familiarity makes even interesting things invisible.  

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Jim Shneer is one of the rare people who notices his environment and wants to understand it. He moved here from West LA with his wife Diane in 1970 and became curious about some of the massive concrete structures that are scattered around the Peninsula. These are the remains of defensive fortifications that date back as much as much as a century and they are the topic of his new book, “Exploring the Military History of Fort MacArthur and Palos Verdes.”

Shneer didn’t start out to be a historian. In his youth his passion was science and technology. After earning a degree in mathematics from George Washington University he got what looked like a dream job for any budding techie.   

“I was recruited straight from school by North American Aviation to work on the Apollo moon program. They were hiring as fast as they could, and only after I got there did I find that everything was incredibly disorganized. The department I was in was staffed with brand new grads like me, and most of them left after they got their one year performance review. It was a disappointing experience, but I stayed in the aerospace industry for my whole career. I spent a few years with Hughes Aircraft, a few with Control Data Corporation, and most of my working life with the Aerospace Corporation in El Segundo.”

In his spare time Jim indulged his lifelong interest in the past, and given his career it would have been no surprise if he had written scholarly monographs about early aviation. Instead he turned to the vessels that plied the sea rather than the sky, and to this day he can’t fully explain that fascination.

“I really don’t know why I became more interested in ships than aircraft. Perhaps it had something to do with books I read when I was young. They were about the naval history of World War I. I built quite a library of naval history, and the period that fascinated me most was the era of the early steel navy. I think I liked the notion of two dimensional combat. There were no submarines, no air vehicles that could do much damage to a ship. The tactics were simpler, admirals and captains fighting things they could see. There’s a romance to the whole thing, sailors covered with coal dust, officers using signal flags to communicate. The greatest two-dimensional battle was almost the last, during the Russo-Japanese war (Battle of Tsushima in 1905).”

A rare photo of one of the “Disappearing Guns” at Fort MacArthur in use. Every time these cannons were fired, nearby homeowners complained of broken windows and glassware. Photo courtesy of Jim Schneer

In 1999, Shneer visited the most famous remaining example of those early iron warships, the Russian protected cruiser Aurora. The ship was launched in 1900 and had a minor part at Tsushima, but its moment in history came in 1917. Aurora was anchored in the harbor in St. Petersburg as the city slid into chaos. Her crew had joined the Communists, and a shot from one of her cannons was the signal that started the Bolshevik Revolution. That round was a blank, but it changed this history of the country and the world. Aurora fired live ammunition against the Nazis during World War II and was turned into a museum afterward, but in the New Russia it was less revered.

“Putin almost let the ship go to a scrapyard, and under his regime it was used for parties and allegedly a porno film was shot aboard. The navy finally convinced the authorities to preserve it and they recently did some repairs on it. It’s still anchored in the same place it has been since 1947.”

Shneer’s book about Aurora appeared in 2010. Then he moved on to another surviving historic vessel, the Japanese battleship Mikasa. That ship fought on the victorious side at Tsushima, but experienced a turn in fortunes afterward.    

“Six days after the treaty that ended the war was signed, Mikasa blew up in Sasebo harbor, probably because the crew was drunkenly celebrating and started a fire near some ammunition. It was refloated and it participated in the Japanese intervention in Russia after World War I, but that was the end of its naval career. It was encased in concrete in Yokohama, and at various times it has been a museum, an aquarium, and a bar with a huge dance floor.”

Shneer wrote one other book on the topic of warships, about a more obscure vessel: the Georgios Averof. He admits, “If you’re not Greek you’ve never heard of that ship. She was mainly active in the naval battles of the Balkan Wars (1912-13). The fascination with the Averof is that it’s the only remaining armored cruiser in existence, just as the Mikasa is the last pre-dreadnought battleship.”

Shneer might have continued documenting naval vessels but for a conversation with the collections manager at the PV Central Library. Monique Sugimoto was familiar with the engineer turned historian, and she mentioned that a local student had written a senior paper about the military history of the area. Shneer read it and was impressed, because though it didn’t go into great detail there was enough to suggest that the subject was deeper than he had thought.

“I started researching, and decided there was enough material for me to write a book that might interest a casual reader. Given the long history of the area, it starts later than you might think. In the 1880s Los Angeles didn’t have a deep water port, and it wasn’t considered a likely place for an enemy to land. After the Port of Los Angeles was built, the government realized that in addition to building an economic engine, they had built an attractive target. The decision was made to build Fort MacArthur to protect the harbor.”

A considerable amount of firepower was put in place in and around the fort, much of it naval cannons removed from obsolete warships.  Some of these were mounted in disappearing carriages, a system that allowed the whole gun to be kept hidden behind a wall until it was needed and then raised into place to fire. This was ingenious but not very practical, as the rate of fire was low and they were very difficult to aim. As it happened none of the weapons on the Peninsula were often aimed or fired, since local homeowners complained about noise and tried to charge the fort for windows broken by the shock wave.

The outbreak of World War II led to frenzied upgrading and additions, as almost all the guns were too small and short range to damage newer Japanese warships. Along with the new guns came new buildings for administration and fire control, some of which still stand but have been turned to other uses. Among other duties, the fort personnel were responsible for directing 31 searchlights that were supposed to illuminate any invading fleet. Anti-aircraft batteries, anti-torpedo boat cannons, and other specialized weapons joined the arsenal.

All this was done to prepare for an invasion that not only never came, it was a strategic impossibility. The Japanese had too few ships to consider invading the American mainland, and the closest they came was an attack by a submarine’s single cannon on an oil field near Santa Barbara. This caused less than $500 in damage, and another attack on Oregon was even less destructive. The anti-aircraft guns around Palos Verdes were fired only once, during an event called The Great LA Air Raid of 1942 – a false alarm probably triggered by a stray weather balloon.   

After the war the Peninsula was made ready for a new enemy: the Soviets. Though these fortifications were more recent, they were made in greater secrecy so are perhaps even less known to locals.

“I don’t even remember when I became aware that there had been a Nike missile facility here. The Palos Verdes City Hall was the administrative building for the LA 55 Nike battery, and the City Yard sits atop the underground magazines where the missiles were stored.  What you can see from the surface is a flat concrete surface with a couple of steel doors that were opened so the missiles could be raised. Having those missiles here didn’t make the Palos Verdes area much more of a target than any other area. During the Cold War all cities were surrounded by Nike batteries, not just LA. The missiles were designed to target bombers, so they had to cover a lot more territory than the coastal batteries did.”

The missiles were never fired, and the last ones were removed from the Peninsula in 1974. Like every previous installation, these left concrete pads, roads to nowhere, and other signs of their existence. Shneer’s book includes numerous photos of these sites, both in their heyday and now. You may be surprised how many you have seen but never identified before. This is a common reaction, says Shneer.

“When I give talks on the subject and show the old installations, people say, “I remember playing on that in my youth, and I never knew what it was.” At no point did they consider doing any research to find out. It’s a blind spot that almost all of us have.”

These signs are almost everywhere on the Peninsula, but are invisible until someone calls them to our attention. Jim Shneer has seen what the rest of us missed, and his book is an odd and compelling look at the days when Palos Verdes was all that stood between Los Angeles and enemy invasion.

“Exploring the Military History of Fort MacArthur and Palos Verdes” is available on Amazon and other online bookstores. 

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