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CA State Parks exhibit explores the history of World War II on the Central Coast

The National WWII Museum
Servicemen exiting an LCVP during amphibious training exercises in Morro Bay in February 1944.

As a coastal area and military hub, the Central Coast was profoundly affected by World War II, from the forced removal of residents of Japanese descent to widespread “blackouts” meant to protect the area from attacks. An upcoming exhibit at the Morro Bay State Park Museum of Natural History will explore that era locally starting on April 27 and going through the summer.

The exhibit is sponsored by the Central Coast State Parks Association and looks to give visitors insight into the diverse, complicated history of World War II on the Central Coast.

Amy Hart, a historian with California State Parks, said Morro Bay was a central location for the military during the war. It used Morro Strand State Beach, Morro Bay State Park and Montaña de Oro State Park as sites for amphibious landing training.

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Amy Hart/CA State Parks
One of the exhibits at the Morro Bay State Park Museum of Natural History.

“Tens of thousands of soldiers practiced landing on the shores here before going on to fight in the Pacific and Europe," Hart said.

But the war also affected civilians in the area, especially after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the sinking of an oil tanker by a Japanese submarine off the coast of Cambria.

“That led to this immense fear spreading along the coastline. We had to enact blackouts, where people couldn’t use power in the evenings because they might signal a Japanese submarine to attack the shoreline," Hart said.

According to Hart, Pearl Harbor and the ensuing anti-Japanese sentiment in the country led to local residents of Japanese descent being forcibly removed and sent to internment camps, as they were in much of the country.

Many of them lived in Morro Bay and Los Osos, and especially along the coastal terraces of present-day Montaña de Oro State Park. But after Executive Order 9066 ordered internment, many were sent to the Manzar camp in Inyo County.

“Manzanar was kind of a big location, but they were actually sent all over," Hart said. "One of the exhibit panels has a map that tries to follow some of the Japanese families who lived in Morro Bay and Los Osos and where they were sent all over the country.”

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Tom Wilmer
Visitors view the Morro Bay Estuary from the California State Park's Morro Bay Natural History Museum.

Hart said some of those families’ properties were maintained by neighbors and were there when they returned to the area, but others were not.

“There’s some heartening and then of course disheartening stories," Hart said. "Some of these Japanese families were able to return to homes and farms that were pretty intact, and they could continue living here on the coast. Others were very much rejected and treated badly by their neighbors and by local residents. Some properties were vandalized while people were gone, and some people just never chose to return.”

Another piece of local history the exhibit highlights is the all-Black Coast Artillery Regiment, the 54th. Hart said they protected the coastline while facing discrimination and segregation in San Luis Obispo County.

“The military forced them to use different transportation systems, different mess halls, different recreation facilities than the white soldiers. So it’s this really sad and complex history," Hart said.

Hart emphasized the importance of Central Coast residents learning about the World War II era here, and said it's still important even after so many years.

“We’re trying to broaden perspectives in this way, to say that when you visit these spaces that we now see as places for recreation and fun, they really contain this complex history about our past and who we are as a community on the Central Coast," Hart said.

The exhibit opens April 27 at the Morro Bay State Park Museum of Natural History with a free event featuring author Stuart McDowell and Cal Poly History department lecturer Dr. Margaret Bodemer.

Benjamin Purper came to KCBX in May of 2021 from California’s Inland Empire, where he spent three years as a reporter and Morning Edition host at KVCR in San Bernardino. Dozens of his stories have aired on KQED’s California Report, and his work has broadcast on NPR's news magazines, as well. In addition to radio, Ben has worked as a newspaper reporter and freelance writer.
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