National Geographic : 1942 Aug
Baja California Wakes Up BY FREDERICK SIMPICH SE possibility that Japan may attack our west coast brings Mexico's peninsu lar territory of Baja, or Lower, Califor nia into the news. Even before Mexico's declaration of war on June 1, Mexican and American armed forces worked day and night in friendliest co operation to defend Baja California. Hung from the very southwest nook of the United States, this long, slim, dragon-shaped peninsula swings some 800 miles down into the Pacific, cut off from the Mexican mainland by the hot, tide-lashed Gulf of California, early known as the Sea of Cortez (map, page 258). This area joins our own California along a 140-mile frontier that stretches from the Pacific Ocean to the turbulent Colorado. Mil lions of Americans have swarmed across the border to visit the races, bullfights, casinos and cafes, curio and perfume shops of Tijuana, Agua Caliente, and Mexicali. Yet the peninsula as a whole is one of the wildest, least-known regions in all of inhabited North America. You may venture for days along many stretches of its hostile, empty coasts, and see never a human being-only gulls, cormorants, pelicans, seals, whales, and myriad fish. Spain knew this peninsula centuries before there was any Hollywood or San Francisco in our own California. Cortez explored its tip, and put in at what is now La Paz in 1535. From here the padres pressed north to settle "Alta," or Upper, California, which first Spaniards and then Mexicans owned and ruled until it went under the American flag after the treaty of 1848. Two Californias Face a Common Foe Now, facing a common foe from across the Pacific, we see the two Californias again united in arms with petty frontier frictions forgotten. "We have the men and the courage," a Mexican Army officer told me. "With the aid of guns and planes from your Uncle Sam, we'll guarantee to keep any Jap from ever getting a foothold in Baja California. "In fact, we've already started cleaning house. All Japs who used to fish and farm here-and draw maps-have vanished. Fish ermen fled under their own power, and we've packed the farmers off to inland camps, just as you're doing farther north." Disguised as fishermen and gardeners, Japanese spies for years have thoroughly ex- plored and mapped the whole long, lonely coastline of this peninsula, from magnificent Magdalena Bay around to the Colorado River Delta at the head of the Gulf. Mexico knows this, as do our own consuls, border-patrol men, and customs inspectors. Mexico also knows how easily enemy subma rines could use these deep, safe harbors, and how easily, unless she were alert, enemy planes might use many peninsula desert flats as natural airports. That is why former President Lazaro Cardenas, now commander in chief of Mexi can forces, set up headquarters in a town on the peninsula's west coast. He moved his troops through the United States to reach this exposed territory more quickly, and is now co-operating with United States air forces in constant joint patrol of the peninsula, whose northern border lies in the very shadow of our great Navy and Army bases at San Diego.* That is why, too, you see high-ranking Mexican and American Army, Navy, and consular officers now in frequent confer ence at border points, and elsewhere in Baja California. People Dwell beside the Fresh Waters When you look at this vast peninsula's 2,000 miles of undefended coastlines, with Magdalena Bay alone big enough to shelter all the navies of the world, you can see what tempting terrain it is for would-be Japanese invaders. Yet what an empty world! Even its map is misleading. Many of its place names are not towns at all, but merely ruins of missions, ghost towns, abandoned mines, lone ranch houses, deserted fishing camps, and rare way side waterholes. Though Baja California is almost as large as Florida, its population is less than two persons per square mile, and they are found only in the few spots where there is fresh water. Many small towns there are, of course, and a few limited areas where abundant crops are grown; of these, more later. You can drive through scenic cow country from the border south to Ensenada, which is 80 miles by road below San Diego, Cali fornia; likewise, you can ride east and west between the border towns of Tijuana and * See "San Diego Can't Believe It," by Frederick Simpich, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, January, 1942.