Whenever Ed Marsh walks the pathways of Liberty Station, nostalgia pushes his mind past the vibrant storefronts and trendy eateries: There’s the grinder where he learned to march. That building was once the administrative command. That other one, the barracks he once slept in.
This year marks Liberty Station’s centennial, and while it is now a haven for shopping, events, and dining, it’s spent most of its life as a naval training center.
“It’s always a trip to go down there and see how it’s changed,” Marsh said. “I think they’ve done a fantastic job turning it into a community resource for arts and culture while still retaining the historical link to the (United States) Navy.”
The NTC saw more than 1.75 million reports from the time it opened in 1923. Marsh reported for boot camp at NTC fresh from high school in June of 1976.
“I was a typical, scared 18-year-old who was away from home for the first time,” he said. “I look back and marvel at how young and naïve I was.”
Boot camp soon changed that, though.
“You show up with long hair and feel like a real outsider because everyone has a buzz cut,” Marsh said. “You stand out, you visibly aren’t a part of the culture, so you can’t wait to get your hair cut and your uniform on so you fit in.”
And then, Marsh said, he got yelled at. A lot. And he stood in line. A lot.
It was overwhelming at first, and Marsh was aware that he was training himself away from individualism to become a part of a team. But he also knew the military was an opportunity to get him where he wanted to go: He loved telling stories through writing and photography.
After ten weeks of boot camp, Marsh attend the U.S. Navy School of Photography in Pensacola, Fla. Not only was he able to hone his skills, but also, he was able to photograph subjects most civilians could only dream of.
“I got to do a lot of aerial photography,” Marsh said. “We’d fly over Russian trawlers and take photos for the intel guys, we’d chase submarines, all while rubbing elbows with pilots and (U.S. Navy) SEALs.”
His five years of service were bookended at NTS when he returned to the training facility as a photographer.
“It was fascinating, because I would see the recruits, and by that time I was an E5 petty officer second class,” Marsh said, “so I would both sympathize with them and also laugh at them, because five years earlier, I had been in the same boat.”
After his time in the Navy, Marsh used his G.I. Bill allocation to earn a degree in biochemistry from the University of California San Diego before working in biotechnology for 35 years.
“Like a lot of kids, I didn’t really appreciate everything that the Navy had to offer at the time,” Marsh said. “I was young, rebellious, and had some of that resentment toward authority. I look back on it now, and it was such a golden opportunity. I got to become a photographer, I got to do some photojournalism, and then I got to go to school.”
Marsh is retired now, and like his time at NTS, he’s reached another full-circle moment: He’s back to journalism. While he once aspired toward adventure photography, he is now focusing on human interest stories and using his science background to make research more accessible. His portfolio of articles and photography can be viewed on his website.
“I owe a lot to the Navy,” Marsh said. “Liberty Station is one of my favorite places in San Diego.”
Learn more about how Liberty Station will celebrate its hundredth birthday at the centennial’s website.
Edited on 5/2/2023 to correct university information.