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Thousands of soldiers and sailors stormed SLO County beaches in 1955. Here's why

An LSI (Landing Ship Infantry) brings troops ashore at San Simeon during Operation Surf Board on March 21, 1955. There were 5,000 soldiers and 12,000 sailors on 50 ships involved in the exercise.
An LSI (Landing Ship Infantry) brings troops ashore at San Simeon during Operation Surf Board on March 21, 1955. There were 5,000 soldiers and 12,000 sailors on 50 ships involved in the exercise. California Military Department Historical Collection

Military exercises have been part of San Luis Obispo County history at least as far back as the early 20th century. Old picture postcards show mules and soldiers on horseback crossing the Cuesta Grade and setting up camp in Atascadero.

World War II brought a massive buildup from Fort Hunter Liggett to Camp Cooke, now Vandenberg Air Force Base.

San Luis Obispo County had Camp Roberts, Camp San Luis Obispo and a Navy facility at Morro Bay, as well as training at Cal Poly and what is now San Luis Obispo Regional Airport.

It is hard to coordinate armed forces from the same nation. Add the cultural and language differences of multinational forces and the need for training seems clear, at least to some.

President Donald Trump wants to cease military exercises in South Korea. “We will stop the war games, which will save us a tremendous amount of money,” Trump said during a June 12 news conference in Singapore.

At the same time, the president is pushing planning for an extravagant military parade in the fall that many in the military have called wasteful.

1955 03-21 operation surfboard
San Simeon was invaded by the U.S. Army and Navy on March 21, 1955, during a military training exercise called Operation Surf Board, covered by The Telegram-Tribune in a front-page story. Telegram-Tribune

The Telegram-Tribune carried the story of a massive mock invasion of San Simeon on March 21, 1955.

John L. Sarber wrote about Operation Surf Board, which was watched by thousands of spectators. Roughly one sixth of county residents turned out to witness the event.

Fortunately, only simulated atomic weapons were used.

To put that military exercise in context, the Korean War had reached armistice only 20 months earlier.

The Battle of Inchon, fought less than five years earlier, was a key amphibious landing that had reversed momentum of the Korean War.

American and United Nations forces had been in retreat, until General Douglas MacArthur used his experience with amphibious invasions during World War II to turn the tables on the North Korean army.

The Point Estero, a fishing vessel out of Morro Bay, crashed into rocks on its way back to Morro Bay Harbor from a fishing excursion on July 28, 2017. Because of jurisdictional issues among San Luis Obispo County, the state of California and the f

10,000 SEE ‘ATTACK’ ON SAN SIMEON

Soldiers Storm Beaches in Simulated Battle

SAN SIMEON BEACH, Mar. 21 —“Take ‘em off! Take ‘em off! God be with you!”

With these words, uttered over a loudspeaker, the first landing craft filled with U.S. infantrymen dropped its ramp on the beach, and the mammoth “Operation Surf Board” was underway.

Nearly 10,000 spectators were on hand to watch the spectacular maneuver—truly a “battle” and not a “show” to the thousands of army and navy men participating. Some of the crowd had assembled as early as yesterday, but at that time there was little to be seen. But at dawn today—a clear, beautiful morning—the ocean was teaming with landing craft of every description.

The larger ships—battle wagons, hospital ships and the like were out of sight, miles further away from land.

Right on Time

The 7 a.m. time set for the assault on San Simeon beach was kept to perfection, and at 10 a.m. there had not been a single accident to mar the landing operation.

Dozens of helicopters hovered over the beach and the surf for possible rescue operations. Scores of landing craft, some of them entirely new types, were used for the landing of a 5,000-man regimental combat team from 50 naval vessels.

As fast as they reached shore, infantrymen began digging foxholes in the turf adjacent to Highway 1. All equipment was waterproofed ready for immediate use.

First sign of battle was marked by the arrival of ten jet planes which zoomed in from the ocean and over the mountains toward Camp Hunter Liggett where the “aggressor force” is entrenched to defend a guided missile launching post.

Landing Force

By 11 a.m. the landing force had crossed the highway, and moved up the road near the Hearst castle, where the first battle problem was presented. Only “token resistance” was noted as yet.

Aerial liaison was at the Hearst air strip, where many types of planes were in constant activity.

Landing craft were still pouring in, and it appeared that much could be seen throughout the day. By tomorrow however the troops will have moved inland toward Hunter Liggett by an almost inaccessible road, and there will be nothing for the public to witness until the landing force returns to embark for the ships of the task force.

The army had set up a parking area which accommodated some 5,000 persons, but almost as many were watching from other hillsides in the area. The spectacle could be seen from Cambria. School buses were much in evidence, with many schools in the area closed to allow the youngsters to watch the amphibious operation.

An official party of observers gathered at a point considerably closer to the beach than the public parking area. Almost every nation of ht “free world” appeared to be represented.

It was announced that the explosions of atomic weapons would be simulated during the maneuvers, but that no atomic devices would be in actual use.

The training exercise primarily is to test the mobility of the 38th regiment of the 2nd division stationed at Fort Lewis, Wash., and cooperation of military forces.

Lt. Gen Willard G. Wyman is commander of Surf Board’s ground operations, while the sea task force is under the command of rear admiral Alfred E. Jarrell.

Under his command were nearly 12,000 sailors manning the aircraft carriers Philippine Sea and Badoeng Strait, the heavy cruiser, St. Paul, eight destroyers, four submarines, 27 amphibious landing craft and mine sweepers.

The navy softened up the “enemy” Saturday with a bombardment of San Clemente island off the Los Angeles coast, using big naval guns, rockets, mortars and aircraft bombing and strafing to “weaken” the uninhabited island.

One incident marred the operation when two navy planes collided in mid-air. Both pilots parachuted to safety however.

Two days have been allowed for the 38th to reach and destroy the missile site, after which they will return to the beach and board the task force.

Vice Adm. W.K. Phillips, First fleet commander, is jointly commanding the exercise with Wyman. Assisting Wyman is Maj. Gen. W.E. Dunkelberg of Fort Ord.

David Middlecamp is a photographer for The Tribune. 805-781-7942, dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com, @DavidMiddlecamp
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