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HOTEL DEL CORONADO'S WORLD WAR II HISTORY: ORAL HISTORIES TELL STORY
Coronado, CA - Even before Pearl Harbor was attacked, California was gearing up for the possibility of war. In San Diego, local airplane manufacturers were hiring thousands of new employees (many from outside the state), and Navy bases were beginning to bulge with the country’s new recruits. As a result, available housing in San Diego hit an all-time low. To help solve the housing crunch, the Hotel del Coronado provided accommodations for Navy personnel stationed in the area.
In an attempt to learn more about its World War II years, The Del undertook an extensive oral history project. “We launched the project,” notes Christine Donovan, director of heritage programs, “because we wanted to learn what part the war played in The Del’s history. In the process, we learned that The Del played a part in the war’s history too.”
According to Donovan, “Throughout the war, the hotel provided a memorable – and oftentimes happy – backdrop to a sad and serious history that was being played out thousands of miles away. That The Del remains in the hearts of so many is a gift we never knew we were giving.”
Some of the memories are lighthearted: For instance, one Navy man surprised his wife with baby ducks, which she kept in the hotel’s bathtub. Other memories are more star-studded: There were sightings of Maureen O’Hara and Gene Tunney (who taught Navy physical fitness classes on the beach), as well as Robert Montgomery in uniform (“gorgeous,” according to one interviewee).
Included are memorable occasions – Del weddings and honeymoons - as well as details of daily life: One couple still has the 1943 letter from the hotel’s manager that references the military knapsack, flashlight, shoes and notebook the husband inadvertently left behind. Also included are reminiscences from Coronado residents. Those who were children at the time remember swimming in the hotel’s pool, running in the hallways, and even exploring the hotel’s turreted roof!
Heroic Fighter Pilot Housed at The Del
Stan Abele, a fighter pilot who lived at the hotel for six months during his training in 1944, recalls, “At that time, the hotel was the party place. They had girls galore!” That all came to an end on January 1, 1945, when Stan left The Del to join the USS Bunker Hill in Pearl Harbor: “Imagine that – eight o’clock on New Year’s morning, you’re going to fight the war.”
Four months later, Stan’s good friend, Gene Powell, was killed aboard the Bunker Hill when their ship was attacked by two kamikazes. Stan and Gene had served together, side by side, since 1942 and had been roommates at The Del. The photo of Gene taken before the ship’s departure – surrounded by his buddies and standing happily in the winter sunshine of the hotel’s garden patio – reminds Abele of the wonderful days they all shared at The Del. Abele, who went on to fly more than forty combat missions in the Pacific, earning a Distinguished Flying Cross and three Air Medals, says, “That six months at The Del … that was the best war I ever fought.”
A Carefree Girlhood Spent at The Del
Clarice “Ducky” Price Laughlin was only seven years old when her family moved to Coronado in 1942. Although her Navy father immediately shipped out, Ducky’s mother stayed behind to care for Ducky and her younger brother in Coronado, where they rented out spare rooms to Navy personnel in need of housing. Mrs. Price also trained and worked full time as a volunteer nurse’s aide for the San Diego Red Cross (Ducky remembers her mother eating bowls and bowls of iron-enriched “Cream of Wheat” so that she could donate blood as often as possible).
Ducky and her friends, meanwhile, enjoyed The Del. They swam in the pool, fished off the rocks, ran “up and down the halls a lot,” and even got out on top of the Del’s roof (something Ducky says most kids in Coronado could - and did - do back then!). Ducky spent many happy hours at The Del, but war still loomed large, and she remembers “looking out over the water and knowing that over the water somewhere was Japan, and my daddy was fighting over there, and maybe one day I’d see his ship come back.”
Teenager’s Social Life Revolved Around The Del
Melody Hyde Morgan lived in Coronado her whole life and was 11 years old in 1941 when Pearl Harbor was bombed. Her father, who suffered from severe diabetes, was not in the military, but their home was a designated “haven,” and they kept a ready stock of food, water and medical supplies. Melody’s mother was also the volunteer administrator for Coronado’s rationing coupon center, which was located on hotel property. While Mrs. Hyde worked, Melody and her older sister made the most of The Del’s irresistible hallways, where they “ran around ... or played hide-and-seek.” They also played tennis (serving as fourths for hotel guests), went swimming in the hotel pool, and even volunteered at the hotel’s American Women’s Volunteer Services canteen, where they “served refreshments to the servicemen.”
Melody was celebrating her fourteenth birthday in the hotel’s Crown Room on June 6, 1944, the day the Allied Forces landed in Normandy, “When we came out of the hotel, the paperboys were yelling ‘Extra’ ... yelling about the D-Day invasion.” Melody and her sister were also at The Del the day the war with Japan ended. As Melody recalls, an announcement was made over the hotel’s loudspeaker, accompanied by the ringing of church bells and the blasting of sirens. On that happy day, Melody remembers, “My sister and I ran all the way home.”