Wilmington during wartime: The Los Angeles Port of Embarkation and Camp Ross

The Daily Breeze’s Sam Gnerre looks at the way we were in the South Bay

The U.S. Armed forces wasted no time in preparing for the movement of men and materials in support of World War II.

In March 1941, months before the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor, the War Department already had taken control of the Panama Pacific Terminal, Berths 232-A and B, on Terminal Island with the purpose of using the docks there as a port dedicated to military operations.

It was the first step in creating an official Los Angeles Port of Embarkation, which eventually would encompass facilities at both the Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach.

The Los Angeles Port of Embarkation officially became a reality on Jan. 24, 1942. The first ship to use it was the Norwegian freighter the MS Torrens, which left with a full load of wartime cargo on Feb. 12, 1942.

At first, the LAPE, as it was known in military shorthand, came under the authority of the San Francisco Port of Embarkation, which had been around longer. It was opened in 1915 at Fort Mason, now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

As our involvement in the war expanded rapidly, so did the need for efficient operation of the military ports dispatching men and equipment overseas.

WACS at Camp Ross

Women’s Army Corps members at Camp Ross. Undated photo. (U.S. National Archives at Riverside)

On April 29, 1943, the U.S. government established LAPE as an operation independent from the San Francisco port, and its commander, Col. Abbott Boone, immediately set about to expand both the port itself and its nearby support facilities.

These included a 600-bed army hospital that was built on 80 acres between Vermont and Normandie avenues north of 220th Street. It officially opened in November 1943, and was named the Los Angeles Port of Embarkation Station Hospital.

A military encampment also was established in Wilmington just east of the Harbor Lake area of Bixby Slough. The camp housed troops stationed in the area, the region’s Army personnel headquarters, the WACs (Women’s Army Corps), and foreign prisoners of war, including a group of Italian soldiers captured in North African fighting.

Col. James K. Herbert, LAPE’s commanding officer from November 1943 until its closure, said of the Italians, “They are called the Italian Service Unit, but they are still prisoners of war. However, we are not rubbing that in.” The Italian POWs were treated fairly and caused no problems at the camp.

Camp Ross Entrance

Entrance to Camp Ross in Wilmington. Undated photo. (U.S. National Archives)

On May 16, 1944, the encampment was given a formal name: Camp Ross. Its namesake was World War I veteran Sgt. Karl E. Ross of Stockton, who was killed in action in Belgium just 11 days before the 1918 Armistice ending the war. Ross’ mother, Carrie, was present for the formal dedication ceremonies on May 27, 1944.

Camp Ross had several sports teams to keep those stationed there occupied and entertained. The men’s baseball and women’s softball teams kept up a busy schedule, playing teams from area companies and factories.

Don Barksdale of the Boston Celtics

Don Barksdale of the Boston Celtics poses in Boston on Nov. 24, 1953. (AP Photo)

The men’s basketball team at Camp Ross included a real pioneer.

Don Barksdale was playing hoops for UCLA when the war broke out in 1941. He enlisted in the Army, and was serving in Virginia when he heard that the Camp Ross basketball team wanted him to come play for them. With a little help from a Justice Dept. lawyer named Thurgood Marshall, he was able to transfer out West to play for the racially mixed team.

Barksdale averaged more than 20 points a game while playing center for the Camp Ross team. He went on to finish his college career at UCLA after the war ended, where he became the first African-American player to be named a consensus All-American. He turned pro, and became the first African-American player on the NBA’s Boston Celtics, and the first African-American to play in the NBA All-Star Game.

Camp Ross was a beehive of activity in the final years of the war, with more than 5,000 occupants during its peak.

Camp Ross Baseball Team

Camp Ross had an integrated baseball team in this undated ca. 1945 photo. (U.S. National Archives)

Camp Ross Women's Softball Team

The Camp Ross women’s softball team. Undated photo, ca. 1945. (U.S. National Archives)

LAPE, of course, was even busier. The government estimated that the military port handled more than 10 million tons of war cargo, more than 700,000 troops and more than 28,000 prisoners of war during its years of operation.

There was one final burst of activity at LAPE following the end of World War II: the return home of American GIs. They began returning home in large numbers in late 1945.

Among the joyous spectacles during the return of the troops was the sight of actress Marjorie Main, Ma Kettle, celebrating the return of 1800 members of the 96th Division of the Army on Feb. 2, 1946. The “Deadeye” division, as it was known, had adopted Main as its mascot because of the feisty screen roles she played.

The final shipload of military personnel returned to LAPE aboard the Oneida Victory on Feb. 22, 1946. Returning ships after February 28 were routed to San Francisco and Seattle.

LAPE and its related facilities officially closed for good on March 29,1946. The sprawling complex, including the hospital, Camp Ross and related operations, had employed 16,000 people at its peak in 1945. Only a couple hundred were left when it closed.

For a brief time after it closed, the now-empty Camp Ross barracks were used to house as many as 500 area families. But that ended in June 1946 when the Los Angeles Board of Education (the precursor to the LAUSD) purchased the 27 acres where the camp stood for about $60,000.

With the purchase of 10 additional adjoining acres, the district had enough land to build a technical junior college. The school, named Los Angeles Harbor College, opened its doors to its first students in September 1949.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, at the urging of Inglewood Supervisor Raymond Darby, also purchased the former LAPE Station Hospital from the government in 1946. Harbor General Hospital, the predecessor to the present-day County-UCLA Harbor Medical Center, opened on the site later that same year.

Some of the site’s World War II-era buildings would be retained, serving as the home of the LA BioMed medical research facility for decades.

One of the few other surviving buildings from Wilmington’s World War II activity is the quonset-style Wilmington Recreation Center at C Street and Neptune Avenue.

WWII Dogs in Service

Army dogs, members of the K-9 Corps, and their trainers board a ship in the Los Angeles, California, Jan. 6, 1945 port of Embarkation before sailing for duty overseas. (AP Photo)

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