Much has changed in the Bay Area since I moved here in 1977, but the disappearance of a once vibrant military presence is one change we don’t think about much. For me, the closure of more than a dozen bases, bases that played key roles in the wars of the 20th century and in the history of the Bay Area has made living here feel less connected to history and to the country as a whole.
Partly this is personal. I was in the Naval Reserve when I arrived and spent one weekend a month drilling on a minesweeper homeported at the naval base on Treasure Island. For my summer training, I helped plan how convoys would be organized from Treasure Island in a major Pacific war. So while most of my life was spent sampling all that makes the area unique, I still felt like I was living in a place that was very much connected to the nation as a whole.
And I don’t think it was just me. In 1977, you couldn’t go far here without bumping into the military. The Sixth Army was still headquartered at the Presidio, one of the oldest and most prestigious Army bases in the country, and Alameda Naval Air Station, from which the Doolittle Raiders set out in 1942 on their historic mission to bomb Japan, had numerous squadrons and ships, including an aircraft carrier.
Mare Island Naval Shipyard, the Navy’s oldest Western shipyard which built more than 40 submarines and sub-tenders during and after World War II, was still active, as was the Oakland Army Base, scene of many departures for and protests against the Vietnam War. And with so many bases, soldiers and sailors (recognizable by their haircuts and attire even when not in uniform) seemed to be everywhere.
We all know that the relationship of the military and the larger Bay Area community became complicated in the Vietnam era, and that the closing of the bases had a harsh impact on the local economy. My point is that something else changed as well. The bases, and the men and women who served on them, were living reminders of our history and of our place in a larger nation. So I miss the bases. It’s good to be unique, but it’s also good to remember where you come from.