WWII History Exhibit and Events

Written by Estero Bay News

April 22, 2022

The history of World War II will be commemorated at several events in the county. 

California State Parks and the Central Coast State Parks Association have teamed up with the Historical Society of Morro Bay, the Morro Bay Maritime Museum, and the History Center of San Luis Obispo County to produce an event focused on WWII history in Morro Bay.

A new exhibit opening at the Morro Bay State Park Museum of Natural History examines the impact of World War II on the Central Coast and especially on the San Luis Obispo Coast District of California State Parks. The show, sponsored by the Central Coast State Parks Association, launches April 27 and remains on display through summer 2022. 

WWII was a global event that impacted the Central Coast in a myriad of ways from the influx of soldiers who trained at Camp San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay, to the expulsion of residents of Japanese descent from their area homes, to the gripping fear of a potential attack that initiated coastal “black outs. 

 “WWII and the Central Coast” explores the history through exhibit panels, audio recordings, and tactile displays that engage visitors in the experience of the war, especially within our local state parks. Montaña de Oro and Morro Bay, and Morro Strand State Beach all served as training grounds for soldiers who practiced amphibious landings before going on to fight in Europe and Japan. 

The 54th Regiment, an all-Black Coast Artillery Regiment, was headquartered at Morro Bay State Park where they guarded the coastline from potential attack while facing discrimination in a segregated military.

Residents of Japanese descent who farmed the coastal terraces of present-day Montaña de Oro State Park were forcibly removed from their homes and sent to internment camps following Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s issuing of Executive Order No. 9066. 

The crew of the torpedoed SS Montebello escaped the sinking ship by coming ashore near present-day Estero Bluffs and Harmony Headlands State Parks. By examining the events of WWII that took place at our local state parks, the display endeavors to broaden historical perspectives and bring to light some of the lesser-known stories of this period of local and international turmoil. 

The exhibit launch celebration is Wednesday, April 27, from 5-8 p.m. at the Morro Bay State Park Museum of Natural History. The Central Coast State Parks Association will provide appetizers and refreshments for visitors who will be able to tour the new exhibit and learn about local history from state parks interpreter staff beginning at 5 p.m. From 5:30-6:45 p.m., presenters Stuart McDowell (author, “Sinking of the SS Montebello”) and Cal Poly history department lecturer Dr. Margaret Bodemer will put the dramatic events of WWII on the Central Coast into perspective. 

McDowell will examine the story of the SS Montebello, an oil tanker sunk off the coast of Cambria by a Japanese submarine only two weeks after Pearl Harbor. 

Dr. Margaret Bodemer will explore how a more inclusive engagement with history produces a fuller picture of the past and re-inscribes the contributions of many diverse people and groups, such as the African American soldiers stationed on the Central Coast. 

This event is part of “WWII Commemoration Week,” a weeklong series of events commemorating the impact of WWII on the Central Coast, presented by the History Center of San Luis Obispo County. This event is free of charge and open to the public. 

For more information, contact Amy Hart at amy.hart@parks.ca.gov or call (805) 471-2049.

The History Center of SLO County has more events throughout “World War II Commemoration Week,” which runs April 24 – May 1. A series of free public events begin on Sunday afternoon, April 24, with a walking tour of downtown San Luis Obispo. Each day thereafter, through the following Sunday, will be marked by walking tours, film screenings, lectures, exhibit launches, and panels that reveal the untold stories and unsung heroes of that critical period in our county’s history.

“The intent of World War II Commemoration Week is to honor and give tribute to all those who served our nation’s struggle against our common enemy of the Third Reich and Japanese Imperialism,” said John Ashbaugh, History Center educational outreach committee chair. “As we mobilized for war in the spring of 1942, people of the Central Coast were justifiably terrified of the power of our enemies, and that military threat had been brought directly to our shores as we rescued the crew of the SS Montebello from the rocky shores of the North Coast. History now records that World War II ended not only with military victory, but with the establishment of institutions that fostered a peaceful world order committed to human rights, democracy, and respect for national sovereignty and the common aspirations of humanity.” 

The awards luncheon, the “centerpiece” of the Commemoration Week takes place on Saturday, April 30 – the one event for which tickets must be purchased. 

The luncheon recognizes individuals and organizations whose contributions to local history are significant. The History Center will present a Lifetime Achievement Award to Dr. Dan and Elizabeth Krieger, co-authors of War Comes to the Middle Kingdom (with Stan Harth). Awards will also go to Joan Sullivan for her artistic contributions to local history; to Volunteers of the Year Dave Hannings and Debbie Collins; and to the Salinan Tribal Council for their work recording the cultural contributions of this indigenous people to our region. The Royal Gardens Swing Orchestra and Tom Villa will perform a program of popular music during the war years. They will also use that occasion to note with deep sorrow the 80th Anniversary of the expulsion of our Japanese American neighbors from the county in 1942. 

Tickets are $75 – $95. Dan and Liz will sign copies of their book, also available at a discounted price at all WW2CW events.

Other events include walking tours, film screenings, lectures and discussions. A full schedule of events can be found at historycenterslo.org/commemoration. All events except the awards luncheon are free, however those planning to attend should go online at www.historycenterslo.org/commemoration to register. 

“We hope that all our citizens, throughout the county, will take time to reflect upon the brave men and women who endured enormous sacrifices of their property, their liberty, and in many cases their lives to achieve victory in World War II and kindle the hopes for a lasting peace,” Ashbaugh said. 

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