La Jolla bunker's shocking history

Most of the stories you hear about mysterious things atop Mt. Soledad — the Munchkin House, the troll bridges — are bunk. Except the one about the World War II bunker at 7110 Via Capri. That story is 100 percent true.

Mt. Soledad residents, meet your neighbor — the Old Blockhouse. Nicknamed that by long-ago residents, the fortress-looking structure was a U.S. Army command post from World War II. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (Dec. 7, 1941), cement-fortified bunkers were built all around Mt. Soledad and atop Cabrillo National Monument. But the Old Blockhouse was unique. Because the land on which it sits is taller (800 feet above sea level) than any nearby coastal vantage point, it was used by the Signal Corp. as its primary San Diego lookout for Japanese ships, subs and airplanes attempting to mount what the Army saw as a highly probable sequel to Pearl Harbor. (Had that attack been attempted, the Old Blockhouse would probably have earned a mention in every history book.)

Because of its height advantage, the Old Blockhouse also functioned as a communications center, a hub for radio transmissions and land lines to military bases all over the Pacific and perhaps as far west as Hawaii. Harry Masters, former director of San Diego County’s unified Civil Defense agency — which occupied the building from 1954 to 1961, after the government determined it was too sturdy to be demolished — told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 1965: “It was linked with Fort Rosecrans and someone told me a dredge crew ran into some cable when it was digging the silt out of Mission Bay some years ago. The cable apparently ran under the sea between Mt. Soledad and the Point Loma post.”

Built either before World War II or during the months immediately following Pearl Harbor, the Old Blockhouse originally had windows and very little protection from conventional bombardment. Then, apparently, it was fortified with concrete and steel that was 18-inches thick at the base, and the windows were cemented over. It was also furnished with an air intake, separate from main building and built into a man-made hill, that could pull in fresh air from 100 feet away.

It was ready for Japan.

The current owner of the Old Blockhouse wouldn’t allow the Light a peek inside. However, according to the U-T story: “A ground level contains a labyrinth of rooms and offices, but there are two levels below the Mt. Soledad brushlands. There are two immense rooms, used as the hub of a communications network. The two big rooms apparently were used for charts and maps, and the officers in charge could watch the men at work from balconies that stretch around the cavernous halls.”

Who owns it?

Scripps Institution of Oceanography never wanted to own the Old Blockhouse. It just received it as part of an 11-acre parcel from the Templeton Foundation. That was an educational nonprofit the California Superior Court ordered dismantled in 1965 for improprieties committed by its directors. Since UC San Diego, the University of San Diego and the former California West University were invested in the foundation, they split its assets, with Scripps awarded the Mt. Soledad property because the superior court judge preferred its usage proposal.

In 1966, Scripps built the first microwave antenna on its newly acquired site, directly adjacent to the Old Blockhouse. Currently, it is part of the High Performance Wireless Research & Education Network (HPWREN), a wireless infrastructure that broadcasts — to other antennas in San Diego, Riverside and Imperial counties and to UCSD’s supercomputer center — real-time data about earthquakes, fires, floods and astronomical events.

Scripps tells the Light it used the Old Blockhouse actively through 2010, and then for sporadic work through 2012. It is currently chained off to cars and peppered with “no trespassing” signs. (Despite the warnings, trespassers have been a nuisance for decades, and, in 2012 or 2013, thieves even stole some heavy and expensive sheets of lead — imported from medieval monasteries for their unique chemical properties — stored there.)

Scripps also built a little white structure next door at 7120 Via Capri in 1966. The first occupant of the Scripps Radiocarbon Lab was a nuclear physicist named — no fooling! — Dr. Suess. (Hans Suess was no relation to Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel, although the mail of the two La Jolla residents would frequently get mixed up by the Post Office.) Suess — who emigrated from Germany in 1950, was recruited by Scripps in 1955, and became one of the four founding UCSD faculty members in 1958 — researched the distribution of carbon-14 in the oceans and atmosphere.

“Scripps was very badly contaminated with carbon-14, because people were using it as a tracer and in experiments,” said marine chemistry professor emeritus Jeff Bada, who worked in the Radiocarbon Lab from 1982 to 1992. “So (Suess) approached the university and convinced them they needed a facility free of radiocarbon contamination.” Suess shared the lab with Scripps Research oceanographer Dr. Theodore Folsom, who studied the distribution of bomb-test radiation in the oceans. (This is where the lead was originally employed, to shield their experiments from cosmic rays.) When Suess became ill, Bada conducted similar work, and was followed by a researcher named Peter Williams. After Williams died in 1994, Bada was tasked with cleaning and closing up shop for good.

What’s ahead?

The things today’s Mt. Soledad residents tend to notice most about the Old Blockhouse is how run down it looks and on what a prime slab of real estate it sits. “It is chronically underutilized and neglected,” La Jolla resident Richard Daniel wrote in a letter to the Light. “It is presently, and has been for many years, an eyesore to the surrounding neighborhood.”

Scripps has no immediate plans to tear down or remodel the Old Blockhouse. First of all, it’s very difficult to demolish a building constructed to withstand artillery fire. (In fact, some of the eventual landowners of neighboring parcels featuring lookout stations simply built their houses using the stations as foundations!)

“We did explore selling the land back in the early 2000s,” said Cammie Ingram, Scripps’ director of capital planning and space management, “but we could not get enough money for it.” Ingram said the university prefers selling land only when the sale can fund new university buildings in the $50 million range. The low value, Ingram said, is probably due the nearby TV towers for KFMB and KGTV, which transmit at around 15kW, about 15 times the HPWREN tower’s output. (Signs all around the property warn that “radio frequency fields exceed the FCC rules for human exposure,” which apparently is not conducive to multimillion-dollar dream house building).

It’s probably not going to ever reopen as a research lab, either. “Even though it has been occupied before by academics, it’s difficult because the people who would be up there would not be around their colleagues,” Ingram said.

One thing it’s never going to be, Ingram promises, is commercially developed. “People have said, ‘It’s such a beautiful site, why don’t you make it into something like a restaurant?’ ” Ingram said. “We’re not going to do anything that will upset the neighbors — cause any kind of noise or attract excessive crowds or traffic. Whatever use we develop it for in the future, it will be compatible with the neighborhood.”

The old Radiocarbon Lab’s fate is more certain. Scripps says to expect the building — which sits completely dilapidated and fenced off — to be demolished sometime soon.

Shocking historical find!

While cleaning up the Radiocarbon Lab in 1994, Jeff Bada said he made a shocking discovery tying the whole site back to WWII in an unexpected way: “I picked up a vial, it was in German. I wasn’t sure what to make of it. It was obviously something that was carefully prepared. I took it back down to Scripps and one of my colleagues said, ‘Oh my God, do you know what that is?’ ”

During WWII, Hans Suess had been part of a team of German scientists studying the potential mass production of heavy water at a Norwegian plant called Vemork. Heavy water is useful in nuclear reactions, and the Nazis — to whom Suess and his colleagues reported — were attempting to build the world’s first nuclear weapon at the time. (Had they succeeded, well, let’s not think about that.)

According to the 1999 book “Heavy Water and the Wartime Race for Nuclear Energy” by Per F. Dahl, Suess betrayed the Nazis in 1942, revealing the specifics of their atomic plans to a Norwegian colleague at Vemork whom he knew to be in contact with the British. Suess also told him the Nazis couldn’t possibly go nuclear for at least five more years. (This exchange of information may have had a major impact on WWII’s outcome.)

What Bada had discovered at the Radiocarbon Lab was a vial of Suess’ original heavy water from Vemork, which Suess had apparently kept for sentimental reasons and accidentally left behind. Bada said he gave the vial to a colleague who worked with the Department of Defense and never saw it again.

“I kick myself for not saving it and making sure it got into a good home, because obviously, it was an important relic,” he said. “It was just a stroke of luck that little vial was found and not thrown away.”

Copyright © 2018, La Jolla Light
56°