Historic California Posts, Camps, Stations and Airfields
Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton
Camp Pendleton (2005)
by Justin Ruhge
The Marine Corps activated Camp Joseph H. Pendleton on September 25, 1942 to provide large-scale tactical training for entire units before they were shipped out to the Pacific Ocean battle areas during World War II. It was the logical offshoot of Marine Corps training in the Southern California area going back to the establishment of Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, in 1914 as Marine Barracks, San Diego. For some time the Marines had needed more land than was available at the San Diego site.
As the United States expanded its military forces in reaction to the wars in Europe and Asia, training overflowed the built-up Recruit Depot. Since 1934, the Marine Corps had been renting from the City of San Diego land twelve miles northeast of the City. That site was expanded to approximately 32,000 acres to accommodate the new Second Marine Division. At that time its name was changed from Camp Holcomb to Camp Elliott. Camp Elliott became the principal training site for marine units until it also became too small.
For its new base, the Marines selected in February 1942, the 122,798-acre Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores at Oceanside approximately forty-five miles north of San Diego.
The Rancho, named in 1844, formed the largest rancho in San Diego County. Spanish missionaries had begun cultivating the land in about 1798. Secularized between 1824 and 1835, the land passed into the control of one of California's most prominent families, that of Pio Pico, the last Mexican Governor of California. The oldest structures on the base, the chapel built in 1810 and the ranch house built about 1827, are still in use. The chapel has been restored to its original use, and the ranch house was the quarters of the base-Commanding General in the 1980s.
With President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Mrs. Joseph H. Pendleton participating, the Marines dedicated the new camp on September 25, 1942. Major General Fegan was the first Commanding General.
Demonstrating the urgent need for the new facilities, the 9th Marines under Colonel Lemuel Shepherd, a future commandant of the Marine Corps, had begun training on September 4, 1942.
The 3rd Marine Division, built around the 9th Marines, was activated on September 16, 1942 at Camp Elliott. The 4th Marine Division was activated August 16, 1943, at Camp Pendleton. The 5th Marine Division was activated on January 21, 1944.
In May 1944 the Marine Corps merged Camp Elliott with Camp Pendleton. This merger brought the headquarters Fleet Marine Force, San Diego area, to Pendleton. The headquarters shortly thereafter became the Marine Training and Replacement Command, San Diego Area. As Camp Pendleton built to its 1944 peak of activity, the Marines still needed four subordinate installations to Camp Pendleton to complete training and logistics requirements. They were: Camp Robert H. Dunlap, 114, 331-acre artillery firing range, approximately three miles from Niland in the Imperial Valley; Camp Gillespie, 688 acres near Santee, used for parachute training; the Cuyamaca Training area of 28,000 acres near Lake Cuyamaca, about 35 miles east of San Diego, for use as a jungle warfare center; and the Base Depot, a logistics facility that remained at Camp Elliott after the remainder of Camp Elliott was turned over to the Navy.
The World War II population peaked in 1944 at 86,749 Marines, sailors and civilians.
On October 14, 1944 Camp Pendleton became a permanent Marine Corps Base.
On August 14,1945 Japan surrendered. Reversing direction, Training Command became the Redistribution Regiment as all organized Marine Corps units in the Pacific returning to the United States came back to Camp Pendleton. As many as 2,000 to 3,000 Marines returned at the same time, either for immediate separation or to be sent on to another separation stations for discharge from the Marine Corps.
In June 1947 the 1st Marine Division returned from North China occupation duty to its new permanent home at Camp Pendleton. On July 7, 1947 Camp Pendleton formally became a Marine Corps Base. This change pointed out the fact that Camp Pendleton did more than train new Marines and that it was independent of the San Diego Area command.

On June 25, 1950 North Korea invaded South Korea. On July 2, General Douglas MacArthur, commanding American forces in the Far East, asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff to send him a Marine Regimental Combat Team and a supporting air group. The 5th Marines of the 1st Division left for Korea arriving in the Pusan Perimeter on August 2, 1950. Most training centered on weapons and physical fitness. Equipment came from the Marine Corps Depot at Barstow.
On January 7, 1953 the 3rd Marine Division was reactivated at Camp Pendleton. During August 1953, the Division deployed to Japan.
Between 1950 and 1953, 200,000 Marines passed through Camp Pendleton on assignments at the Korean front.
After the landings at Inchon, advancing into North Korea, retreating from the Chosin Reservoir, and fighting in more static positions, the 1st Marine Division returned in 1955. Elements of the Division deployed to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and to the Caribbean during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. After that the Division stayed home until the fighting in Vietnam began. Then it deployed to that country between July 1965 and May 1966. After the 1st Division deployed to Vietnam, the Marine Corps reactivated its 5th Marine Division at Camp Pendleton for duty in Southeast Asia on March 1, 1966. The 27th Marines of the 5th Division became the first combat unit to return to Camp Pendleton in September 1968. Other units followed, and in April 1971 the 1st Marine Division returned.
When the war in Vietnam ended in April 1975, thousands of refugees were evacuated from Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam to the United States. Camp Pendleton became the relocation base in the United States. Over 25,000 refugees passed through the camps before the program ended on November 15, 1975.
In the 1980s Camp Pendleton had grown into an installation of over 27,319 permanent military, 3612 transient military, and 3,580 civilian employees working or housed in over 4,000 structures using 500 miles of roads on a base of 125,000 acres.
The 1st Marine Amphibious Force Headquarters is based at Camp Pendleton. It is the senior Fleet Marine Force Headquarters in the East Pacific area. Its largest component, the 1st Marine Division, is also based at Camp Pendleton, as is the 1st Force Service Support Group, the logistical part of the Marine combat organization. Marine Aircraft Group-39, the Marine Corps Tactical Systems Support Activity, and the Navy Regional Medical and Dental Centers are also located there.
Thus, Camp Pendleton represents the largest training area in the western United States where combined ground and air amphibious landings of battalion size or larger can be practiced. Its subordinate Mountain Warfare Training Center at Bridgeport supplies additional training in mountain, cold weather, and survival training.
Camp Pendleton
by CW4 (CA) Mark Denger, Military Historian, California Military Heritage Command

In the early 1940s, both the Army and the Marine Corps were looking for land for use as a large training base in Southern California. The Army lost interest in the project, but in April of 1942 it was announced that the U.S. Navy had purchased 132,000 acres of the Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores.

The Marine Corps moved quickly to acquire the lands of the Santa Margarita y Flores Rancho, a part of an original Mexican land grant, which was situated in San Diego County.

A Federal Court condemnation order gave the Marines immediate possession of Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores, on July 9, 1942. The final judgment, ten months later, gave the Marine Corps 121,387 acres for which they paid the estate and heirs the sum of $4,110,035. A number of acres were later added.

Construction of the base started March 23, 1942, with the awarding of a contract to build training facilities for amphibious forces. After five months of furious building activity, the 9th Marine Regiment, under the command of future commandant Colonel Lemuel Sheppard, marched from Camp Elliot in San Diego to the new West Coast training base, becoming the first troops to occupy the new base.

The base was named for Major General Joseph H. Pendleton, USMC, who had long advocated the establishment of a West Coast training base. On September 25, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt arrived at the Camp for the official dedication of Camp Pendleton.

On the eve of World War II, as the Marine Corps doctrine of amphibious warfare was being refined and tested, the training of Marines was limited to Quantico and Parris Island on the East Coast, and San Diego on the West Coast. When expansion of all U.S. armed forces was authorized by President Franklin D. Roosevelt's proclamation of unlimited national emergency on May 27, 1941, there was an immediate need for additional training area on both coasts. The creation of Camp Lejeune in North Carolina filled the critical need for training facilities along the Atlantic Coast.

Combat Marines were not the only people to populate Camp Pendleton. Women Marine reservists arrived here in 1943 and were able to keep the administration of the base running smoothly. The Ranch House Chapel was restored and opened primarily for their use.

Camp Pendleton was declared a "permanent" installation in October 1944, and in 1946, General Alexander A. Vandegrift, Commandant, stated that the base's future role was to be the center of all West Coast activities and the home of the 1st Marine Division, the peacetime strength of which would be 12,500. It was during this period of peacetime that Major General Graves Erskine, commander of the base then known as Marine Barracks, Camp Pendleton, was determined to develop the base into "the finest Marine post in the world."

Tent camps were torn down and Quonsets put in their place, 17 area barracks were renovated into officers quarters, a beach club was opened at San Onofre and a commissary opened in 1948. The base library opened in 1950 in a small frame building across from Division Headquarters where it remains today.

Peacetime activities, however, came to an abrupt halt in 1950 with the outbreak of the Korean War. Reservists crowded into Camp Pendleton, headed for the front, faster than the base could process them. The training was tough and realistic. A combat town was constructed to simulate a North Korean village where troops were exposed to as much realism as possible. Cold-weather training was moved from Idylwild to Pickle Meadows in the High Sierras because Idylwild wasn't tough enough. Cold-weather training was definitely survival training for those soon to be sent to Korea. Camp Pendleton's role as a training and replacement command was reflected in the nearly 200,000 Marines who passed through the base on their way to the Far East.

The Vietnam years again saw a buildup of men and machines bound for Indochina. The movement of the 1st Marine Division to the Far East occurred more gradually than in Korea and World War II. Replacements were rotated in and out of combat zones through a Staging Battalion, which took a Marine arriving at the camp and gave him 15 intensive training days before sending him to Vietnam. The Korea combat village became a Vietnamese jungle village, complete with deadly booby traps. The combat environment and training methods changed over the years, but the purpose remained to train Marines to fight and get them to battle.

The Corps broadened its mission capabilities during the 1980s as "amphibious" became "expeditionary." Marines combined infantry, armor, supply and air power according to the task at hand, then demonstrated the effectiveness of the air-ground team in Grenada, Panama, Persian Gulf and Somalia. The rapid projection of self-sustaining military power was clearly shown when Camp Pendleton forces and their equipment were deployed halfway around the globe in just days.

Operations Desert Shield, Desert Storm and the operations in Afghanistan are just the latest in a 225-year history of unequaled national service, and it was the training here at Camp Pendleton that made many of these successes possible.

With more than 125,000 acres of varied terrain and 17.1 more miles of shoreline, Camp Pendleton is one of the Department of Defense's busiest training installations. The base's varied topography, combined with its amphibious training areas, inland training ranges and airspace, offers maximum flexibility for Marine Air Ground Task Forces and other service units that require a realistic combat training environment. Each year more than 40,000 active-duty and 26,000 reserve military personnel from all services use Camp Pendleton's many ranges and training facilities to maintain and sharpen their combat skills.

Today, Camp Pendleton is home to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force and two of its major subordinate commands –– the 1st Marine Division and 1st Force Service Support Group. This finely tuned fighting force is the principal user of the base's training facilities.


Other "Camps" on Camp Pendleton

Camp Chappo, Area 22
Camp Del Mar, Area 21
Camp Horno, Area 53
Camp Las Flores, Area 41
Camp Las Pulgas, Area 43
Camp Margarita, Area 34
Camp San Mateo, Area 62
Camp San Onofre, Area 52
Camp Talega, Area 64
Camp Vado Del Rio, Area 24
Edson Range, Area 31

Additional History Online

MCB Camp Pendleton
Extract, US Navy and Marine Corps Installations - Domestic (2005)
Camp Pendleton Historical Society
MCAS Camp Pendleton
Search our Site!
Search the Web Search California Military History Online
Questions and comments concerning this site should be directed to the Webmaster
Updated 8 February 2016