The heavily wooded tip of Coyote Point Park in San Mateo County, seemed like an unlikely place for a war memorial. Aside from the airliners coasting over the bay on their way to SFO, it’s as silent as you’d expect from such an isolated area.
But in 1942, it wasn’t silent at all. With World War II underway, the U.S. hastily opened an academy in the woods to train the nation’s civilian maritime forces, known as the Merchant Marines. Eleven buildings were erected on 10 acres.
Between 1942 and1948, six thousand graduates went through the academy, studying everything from calculus to navigation to engineering.
“As part of our training we would spend 24 hours in a lifeboat out here in the bay overnight,” said former Merchant Marine, Frank Vitale, who attended the academy.
Vitale said the training was rigorous and designed to weed-out the weak. “Another training was jumping into the pool while the water was burning,” Vitale said, peering out at the San Francisco Bay from Coyote Point. “So they would light the water to simulate a torpedoed ship and burning oil.”
Today there isn’t much sign of the training grounds – aside from the old captain’s quarters, a rusty training tower and what had been a rundown memorial.
The memorial was erected in 1974 as a tribute to the Merchant Marines who delivered badly needed supplies to troops in World War II and beyond. Vandals had knocked the head off the eagle statue. The plaques were worn and tarnished. The sight of the decapitated eagle disturbed San Mateo County Park Ranger Steve Kraemer.
“Once I saw that I said we need to get in touch with some people and see if we can’t get that fixed,” said Kraemer. He contacted veterans groups, some who didn’t even realize the memorial existed. Through donations and volunteer labor, the memorial got a generous supply of care.
The eagle was replaced. New stone walls were constructed and new plaques affixed. Managers of the Benicia Mothball Fleet donated an anchor and chain from a retired Victory ship, typical of the ones ridden by Merchant Marines.
“It’s part of the history of San Mateo County which most people don’t even know we have,” said Kraemer.
The county unveiled the newly restored memorial during a ceremony Friday morning. A line of Merchant Marine veterans and their families streamed through the woods to get a look at it.
“It’s nice to see the thing back and going,” said former Merchant Marine Dan Outsen, who was trained at Coyote Point. “It’s nice to see so many guys coming out to see it, because we were all in the same boat.”
Outsen and other Merchant Marines have long complained their contributions during World War II went unnoticed, even though they suffered heavy casualties.
“We lost thousands of men,” said retired Merchant Marine captain Mark Shafer. “In fact, we never would’ve won World War II if it wasn’t for the Merchant Marine.”
But in these isolated woods, crowded against the bay and far from the urban din, those sacrifices were front and center. The polished granite eagle stared out toward the Bay, as a sign that others had remembered too.