My first encounter with “The Rock” in San Francisco Bay happened in May 1946. With World War II ended, our troop ship was returning home. We had sailed from the Philippines and were nearing the Navy base on Treasure Island, located under the Oakland Bay Bridge, between San Francisco and Oakland.
As our ship passed close by Alcatraz, we could see Navy landing craft unloading armed Marines as they climbed onto the rocky shore. It resembled wartime operations, so we at first believed it was a realistic training exercise.
We could hear gunfire and see puffs of smoke from Marine artillery. We joked that the Marines put on this great show just to welcome us home. Some of our crew and passenger GIs lined the ship’s rail and cheered the realistic show.
We soon found out it was no exercise. Convicts had murdered two prison officials, and then barricaded themselves in a cell block with stolen weapons. After hours of intense fighting, the battle ended. In addition to the two prison officials, five ringleaders of the uprising were dead.
Several times through the years since Alcatraz closed its prison in 1963, I’ve visited the now-popular tourist attraction. More than a million people a year come to see what “The Rock” was all about. They explore prison cells where some of the most notorious criminals in American history served time.
On our scenic 20-minute ferry ride from San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf’s Pier 33, we listened to the narrated history. Since the early 1930s, the island was a Federal prison for such guys as Al Capone, Alvin Karpis, Machine Gun Kelly and the Birdman of Alcatraz, Robert Stroud.
When we stepped ashore, we were met by a National Parks Ranger, who told us about various areas to explore. An introductory video was available in the island theater, and we listened to audio players as we progressed through our visit.
We took the outdoor Agave Trail. It’s easy to walk along the ocean shore, and gives great vistas of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco city skyline. Volunteers plant seasonal flowers, adding to the beauty of the surroundings. You almost forget that “The Rock” was once a prison.
Inside the cellblock building, we saw older men talk among the tourists. They were retired guards and ex-prisoners, now guides several decades after their relationships had been less friendly.
Some of us went into maximum security cells, where all light was cut off, and spent two or three scary minutes in total darkness. That gave some indication of how it would feel to live days, weeks or months in isolation.
For visitor info, go to alcatrazislandtickets.com