Story and Photos by David A. Laws.
John le Carré dismissed Cold War spy heroes as “A squalid procession of vain fools” in his 1963 espionage novel The Spy Who Came from the Cold. Volunteer historian Carol O’Neil at the former U.S. Naval Facility on Point Sur State Historic Park, 25-miles south of Monterey, would beg to differ. “We had heroes in the Cold War,” O’Neil insisted in a recent interview on KAZU, public radio for the Monterey Bay area. “It’s important for the cold warriors to know that they are valued and their stories are out there.” Eager to hear their stories, I joined a line of vehicles awaiting access to this former top-secret naval operation. Jim, a state park volunteer in a bright yellow safety vest bearing an embroidered NAVFAC logo patch, unlocked the security gate. An intimidating “U.S. Property No Trespassing” sign discourages intruders. After warnings of the dangers of ticks, rattlesnakes, and crumbling asbestos-laden structures, he directed us to the administration center. Here we joined a dozen so other visitors curious to learn the secrets hidden in this former submarine detection station known as the Point Sur Naval Facility.
Point Sur SHP is better known for its haunted light station atop the eponymous rock monolith. Access to that site has been closed to the public since early 2019 for repairs to the road. It is expected to reopen in the new year. The Central Coast Light Keepers, a non-profit organization that led restoration of the lighthouse and trains docents for public tours, has redirected its current efforts to this sprawling campus of decaying mid-20th century buildings. So began our Point Sur Naval Facility tour.
Our tour guide, Todd, set the scene. He described the Cold War era MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) stand-off between the Soviet Union and the West. Under the guise of an oceanographic research station, the navy commissioned a SOSUS (SOund SUrveillance System) listening post on this site in 1958. Cables with multiple hydrophones attached stretched for miles across the ocean floor. Technicians monitored undersea sounds for specific patterns indicating the presence of missile-carrying enemy submarines. To maintain the top-secret capabilities of this technology, even inside the base, access to the cable terminal equipment T-building was severely restricted behind its own secure fence and armed guard post. It continued to function until the mid-1980s when retired Navy officer John Walker was arrested for spilling the beans to the Soviets.
Even today, little is known publicly about its activities other than its role in locating Soviet submarine K-129 that sank near Hawaii in 1968. According to an official Navy report, the project was deemed successful as determined by “how much was accomplished in remarkably short time. Certainly, a major factor was serendipitous confluence of events – the discovery that low-frequency sounds could travel great distances in the ocean, [and] the realization that submarines radiate identifiable low-frequency energy. “
We followed a cracked, weed-lined asphalt road towards the ocean. Todd explained the role of a series of gutted concrete block buildings. Peeling paint, smashed windows, dangling hinges remain as skeletons of this once bustling community. Cafeteria crockery clatter, music from the theater, the crack of bowling balls in the alley, rowdy laughter from the officer’s mess, and urgent chatter in the communications center are long gone, replaced by the mournful whistle of wind through broken windows and hallways strewn with debris. Although the federal government donated most of the campus to California State Parks in 2000, it retained ownership of the cable terminal site.
Peering through the perimeter wire at the top-secret windowless building, we learned that scientists at the Naval Post Graduate School have confirmed that some of the hydrophones are still working. No longer analyzed to yield the presence of whales, freighters or enemy submarines, their sonar signals go unheard. A proposal in 2007 to reactivate the facilty to train future Navy commanders in making decisions about combat situations with sonar technology went unheeded.
Like the loyal servants of Briton’s WW II Bletchley Park decoding center, former workers will not reveal details of their service. However, several have visited the site and were happy to talk about the joys and tribulations of daily life on the base here at the Point Sur Naval Facility.
A strong sense of community and belief in the mission were challenged by irregular steam-heating and other discomforts of life in the cool, damp coastal climate. Facility managers recall a problematic waste water treatment plant and other issues in meeting the daily needs of more than 100 residents on an isolated coastal base that kept them busy day and night.
Living, dining, and off-duty facilities reflected a resident’s rank. The only large two-story structure on campus, a long dormitory with little privacy housed bachelor enlisted personnel. Married families and officers enjoyed a dozen or so detached cottages hidden from the road by a dense grove of Cypress trees.
Park docents look forward to the day when some of the homes can be restored and open to public view with furnishings based on each of the decades the base was open. Our tour concluded in the Administration building, the only restored interior on the base. White-painted concrete block walls are decorated with documents and photos from Cold War days. A small gift shop sells books and the original NAVFAC fake Oceanographic Research Station logo patches worn by our guides. An embroidered sea horse image on an ocean blue background and “Strength in Unity” slogan reveal nothing about the true nature of the operation.
But even after my extensive tour of Point Sur Naval Facility, this unique addition to California’s inventory of historic places, it’s clear that not all secrets have been revealed. I’d certainly like to know more about the origins of the legend of a Navy submarine base hidden in giant man-made caverns under Point Sur.
IF YOU GO: Plan for cool ocean winds year-round. Wear layered clothing. Point Sur State Historic Park is located at 44350 Cabrillo Highway (California Highway One), 25 miles south of Monterey. The NAVFAC entrance is immediately south of the gate to the light station. Guided walking tours on level ground lasting about 90 minutes are scheduled on Saturdays and Sundays at 10:00 AM. Fee is $10 for adults and $5 for children. Children under 5 are free. Visit http://pointsur.org for current information.