A lot has changed in the 100 years since the Marine Corps Recruit Depot (MCRD) in San Diego was commissioned on December 1, 1921. Marines have fought and died in one world war, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War and they fought in Iraq and Afghanistan for the better part of the last 20 years.

The Marine Corps has changed significantly during that time as well. While, for the first 99 years of its existence, MCRD San Diego exclusively trained all males west of the Mississippi River, this year — year-100 of its existence — MCRD San Diego graduated its first platoon of female Marines.

While the name of the base changed a handful of times between 1921 and 1948, on 1 January 1948, Marine Corps Base, San Diego was officially renamed Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego. That name remains to the present day.

Marines San Diego
1st Battalion Marines, San Diego, unknown year. (Marine Corps)

The Beginnings

Located on 388 prime Southern California acres, MCRD San Diego was first considered as a good candidate for a Marine Corps base by then-Colonel Joseph Pendleton, due to its proximity to Latin America, the Panama Canal, the Hawaiian Islands, and Asia. According to a historical piece compiled by the MCRD Museum Foundation, Col. Pendleton also recognized that San Diego’s weather would allow for the Marines to train outdoors year-round.

Spreckels Theatre San Diego
Spreckels Theatre San Diego, circa 1915. It is shocking to see the changes that have happened in San Diego over the past 100 years. (San Diego Reader)

Not all Marine leaders agreed with Colonel Pendleton, though. The Marine Corps Commandant at the time, Major General George Barnett, said the only thing San Diego had in its favor was its good weather. He argued against stationing Marines there permanently. Over time, though, Maj. Gen. Barnett’s position in opposition to San Diego eased. It is said that following a visit to San Diego in the summer of 1915, Maj. Gen. Barnett reported to Congress that San Diego was indeed a good place to build a new Marine Corps base.

MCRD San Diego
View of the Marine Corps Recruit Depot under construction – circa 1921. (San Diego History Center)

Following that meeting with Congress, construction soon began and in 1921 MCRD San Diego (then named Marine Advanced Expeditionary Base, San Diego) officially became a Marine Corps training base.

When the new base was founded, the town of San Diego was but a small border town with quick access to both the beach and to the border city of Tijuana, Mexico. Once the 1920s rolled around, though, multiple U.S. military branches started to consider San Diego as a quality location to house both traditional bases and recruit training facilities. In 1920, there were no official U.S. military bases located in San Diego. By 1923 there were three: MCRD San Diego; Naval Base San Diego (a destroyer base); and a third base housing Navy boot camp. That Navy boot camp would continue to hold recruit training until the mid-1990s when it was eventually closed as the Navy chose to consolidate bases.

As the 1920s progressed, the United States began to see the increasing possibility of a naval conflict with Japan, and in turn moved three aircraft carriers — the Langley, the Lexington, and the Saratoga — to San Diego.

As the 1930s ushered in, the base continued to grow and continued to increase the number of men it was making into Marines. Then, in the late 1930s, a major restructuring of the base occurred as the country — and the Marine Corps — readied itself for the upcoming world war. While the base only housed about 2,000 Marines in total for much of the 1930s, in 1939 there was an influx of thousands of men who needed recruit training in advance of the upcoming world war.

The MCRD Museum Foundation said of the new construction on MCRD San Diego in 1939, “Rapid construction brought the base many new structures, including a new administration building, warehouses, barracks, mess facilities, dental and medical buildings, a parade ground, a railroad, and new roads.”

Marine Quonset huts
Hundreds of Quonset huts were erected at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego between 1950 and 1953. (U.S. Marine Corps)

The continued influx of men onto the base for training, though, meant that MCRD had to continue increasing its housing capabilities. Newly arriving men were first placed in tents, followed by wooden huts, and later in the 1950s, hundreds of metal Quonset huts. As always, the Marine Corps found a way to meet its mission, regardless of how frequently or drastically it changed.

 

MCRD San Diego in the 1950s-1960s

Following the end of WWII, only 300 recruits were trained at the base. But by 1952, thousands of men arrived at the base in droves to train for deployment in the Korean War. My grandpa was one of those men.

Significantly beyond the few hundred men that were training at the beginning of the 1950s, my grandpa — and many other young men like him — arrived at the base for training only to find themselves living in Quonset huts rather than barracks halls. In advance of their arrival, the Marine Corps had built roughly 700 Quonset huts to provide a place for these new recruits to live as they trained for the Korean War. The truth is, the depot wasn’t yet equipped for the influx of men that would be arriving, so they put up the Quonset huts as a way to provide a space for the 15,000-plus new recruits.

Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego
Aerial photo of the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego in 1958. (USMC)

Following the end of World War II and the Korean War, both the country and the Marine Corps enjoyed a bit of peace. The Marines would again see their recruit training numbers drop dramatically. Since the nation was at peace, no longer was MCRD San Diego trying to determine how it would house and train many thousands of men at one time. Unfortunately for the nation, the lull in recruit training would be short-lived.

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As the Vietnam War emerged onto the scene, MCRD San Diego again saw its numbers increase exponentially; and again, the base adjusted as needed by adding roughly 100 tents to a newly formed “tent-city” on the base.

 

From the 1970s to the Present Day

After the Vietnam War came to an end, many of those Quonset huts, that men like my grandpa knew as “home” for the three months of recruit training, were torn down in favor of newer construction. According to the MCRD Museum Foundation:

“Between 1980 and 1989 there were 17 new buildings erected. It’s hard to tell the new structures from the old ones because the Spanish Colonial Revival style used by Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue was adapted for new structures. Construction methods have changed, but the final products are buildings that honor the history and character of the originals.”

When I graduated recruit training from that same base nearly 50 years after my grandpa, a handful of the Quonset huts remained; a throwback to a different time for America and a different time for my grandpa.

MCRD San Diego graduation
Author, author’s grandpa Richard Bowers, and author’s friend, LCpl Smith, at MCRD San Diego in 2000 for author’s recruit graduation. (Courtesy of author)

In the 1990s, the Marine Corps was a part of the brief, but effective Gulf War. Then, in 2001, the infamous World Trade Center attack again kickstarted the base into overdrive as it endeavored to train scores of young men who volunteered to take the fight to the enemy who had attacked Americans on our own soil.

Currently, MCRD San Diego trains roughly 7,000-9,000 men each year, while MCRD Parris Island trains roughly the other half.

Another huge change for MCRD San Diego came in its 100th year of existence. This year, 2021, became the first year that females attended and graduated from MCRD San Diego. Historically, all females and all males east of the Mississippi have attended recruit training at MCRD Parris Island.

female training at MCRD San Diego
Recruit Josephine Imperial with Platoon 3241, Lima Company, 3rd Recruit Training Battalion, conducts Marine Corps Martial Arts Program techniques during a training event at Marine Corps Recruit Depot (MCRD) San Diego, California, March 9, 2021. For the first time since the Depot’s opening in 1921, Lima Company is the first integrated company at MCRD San Diego, training both males and females. (Photo by Cpl. Ana S. Madrigal/USMC)

In May 2021, that all changed. This new era in Marine Corps history was ushered into existence by the newly signed National Defense Authorization Act, which required the Marine Corps to integrate recruit training prior to 2028. In this case, the Marine Corps was on the front end of the curve. I won’t get into the politics of this new act, but suffice it to say there are strong opinions on each side.

Either way, through war, multiple presidential and Marine Corps administrations, and the natural ebb and flow of recruitment and need, the one thing that has remained constant over the last 100 years is the Marine Corps’ consistent ability to restructure, adapt and overcome. I have no doubt that regardless of what the country comes up against over the next 100 years, the Marine Corps will continue to do more of the same.

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