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Norfolk Naval Station History

The land on which Naval Station is located was originally the site of the 1907 Jamestown Exposition. During this exposition, high-ranking naval officers agreed that this site was ideal for a naval activity. A bill was passed in 1908 proposing Congress to allow $1 million for the purchase of the property and buildings, but it died when the Assistant Secretary of the Navy was given a choice between this property and a new coal ship. He replied that a new ship was an absolute necessity. However, immediately after the United States entered World War I in April 1917, the Secretary of the Navy was persuaded to buy the property. A bill was passed for the purchase of 474 acres; it set aside the sum of $1.2 million as payment for the property and an additional $1.6 million for the development of the base, including piers, aviation facilities, storehouses, facilities for fuel and oil storage, a recruit training station, a submarine base and recreation grounds for fleet personnel. Rear Admiral Dillingham was assigned the task of coordinating the area`s development.

Construction of the training camp began on Independence Day 1917, and within the first 30 days housing for 7,500 men had been completed. The next six months saw the establishment of the 5th Naval District Headquarters and the Naval Operating Base, which included the Naval Training Center, Naval Air Station, Naval Hospital and Submarine Station. By Armistice Day 1918, there were 34,000 enlisted men at the base. When the available land became insufficient, a large part of the flats on the west and north were filled from dredging done to allow large ships to dock. During the fall and winter of 1917, approximately 8 million cubic yards of dredging took place.

Important historical events were taking place on the air side of the station as well. November 14, 1910 marked the birth of naval aviation. Eugene Ely, a pilot employed by the Curtiss Exhibition Company, slowly accelerated toward the end of a 57-foot wooden ramp constructed on the bow of USS Birmingham (CL-2). The heavy cruiser was anchored in the James River, not too far from the site of the Civil War`s famous ironclad battle between the Monitor and Merrimack.

As Ely`s 50-horsepower Curtiss plane cleared the hastily constructed ramp, spectators on a nearby ship registered shock as it plunged downward toward the water. The plane`s forward speed wasn`t sufficient to provide the lift required to stay in the air.

It is said that Ely`s inability to swim may have provided him the motivation as he struggled to fly his plane out of the perilous situation. The wheels of the plane actually struck water before his speed achieved enough lift to propel the aircraft into a climb.

With the plane vibrating severely from a splintered propeller caused by water thrown up by the wheels, Ely knew he had to forego a planned exhibition flight over Norfolk.

Within a matter of minutes, he landed the Hudson Flyer safely at Willoughby Spit. In January 1911, Ely completed the earliest demonstration of aircraft adaptability to shipboard operations. He landed his Curtiss pusher on a specially built platform aboard the armored cruiser Pennsylvania (ACR 4). That same month, Glenn Curtiss made another important step in adapting aircraft to the Navy`s needs with the first successful hydroaeroplane flight.

NAS Norfolk started its roots training aviators at Naval Air Detachment, Curtiss Field, Newport News, May 19, 1917. Approximately five months later, with a staff increasing to five officers, three aviators, ten enlisted sailors and seven aircraft, the detachment was renamed Naval Air Detachment, Naval Operating Base, Hampton Roads. The aircraft, all seaplanes, were flown across the James River and moored to stakes in the water until canvas hangars were constructed. The new location offered sheltered water in an ice-free harbor, perfect for seaplane landings, good anchorage on the beach front, accessibility to supplies from Naval Station Norfolk and room for expansion. Its mission was to conduct anti-submarine patrols, train aviators and mechanics and run an experimental facility.

When the United States became involved in World War I, the size of the the Navy`s air component was eagerly expanded. In the 19 months of U. S. participation, a force of 6,716 officers and 30,693 enlisted served in naval aviation. The training of mechanics to support the aircraft began in January 1918 at the Norfolk detachment and the first patrol was conducted five months later.

By now, the air detachment was recognized as one of the most important sources of trained naval aviators. In recognition of its importance, on August 27, 1918, the detachment became Naval Air Station Hampton Roads, a separate station under its own commanding officer, Lt. Cmdr. P.N.L. Bellinger.

As World War I came to an end, the former NAS Hampton Roads saw erratic growth, growing to nearly 167 officers, 1,227 enlisted men and 65 planes. But, it was after the war that demobilization had threatened the future of naval aviation. Within seven months of the war`s end, Navy manpower fell to less than half its wartime highs.

The Republican party rose to power and promised fiscal austerity in 1920. Congress, however, cut naval appropriations by 20 percent and manpower Navy-wide was reduced. The carriers, which Congress authorized, were impossible to man. After the 1929 stock market crash and the onset of the Great Depression, President Herbert Hoover favored more naval limitation through international conferences, but the air operations in Norfolk continued.

On July 12, 1921, the name was changed again under the command of Capt. S.H.R. Doyle, to NAS Norfolk, with direct reporting to the Bureau of Aeronautics in Washington, D.C.

Using the same theories of Eugene Ely`s flight nearly 13 years earlier, another milestone was achieved. The air station developed an arresting device to train pilots for deck landings aboard the fleet`s first aircraft carrier, USS Langley (CV-1). At the same time, the station also began work on the development of the catapult.

In January 1923, the Secretary of the Navy ordered a detailed study of the capacity of the bases and stations during war and peace. In comparing the development of the fleet and shore establishments, only Hampton Roads met the requirements.

Lighter-than-air operations, important for off-shore patrols during the war, ceased in 1924. In an effort similar to base closure struggles the military has today, civilian employees of the Assembly and Repair Department (forerunner of the former Naval Air Depot) joined the Norfolk Chamber of Commerce in successfully fighting the planned suspension of aircraft overhaul work. The training of air groups from newly-commissioned aircraft carriers such as Langley, USS Saratoga (CV-3) and USS Lexington (CV-2) demanded expansion, but appropriations were meager for shore establishments.

During the 20`s and 30`s the Naval Station operated at a reduced operating tempo. The training component processed only 1,600 individuals by the late 1920`s. By 1927, the Naval Training Station, whose primary mission was to operate 12 service schools and train new recruits, had been reduced considerably from its wartime status, training only 560 recruits at a command with triple that capacity.

During the late 1930`s, major construction took place at Naval Station Norfolk. At this time, building K-BB (Naval Station headquarters), the galley, and many barracks were built. As the 1930`s came to a close, the station also began to prepare for total war. By 1939, when the Atlantic Fleet returned to the East Coast, the Naval Station was clearly the biggest naval installation on the Atlantic coast. In April 1939, in something of a test, the Naval Station refueled, restocked, and returned to service 25 ships in one week. This force was but the prelude to about 100 ships converging on Norfolk at the time. It included the battleships CALIFORNIA, IDAHO and NEW MEXICO and the carriers, LEXINGTON, RANGER, YORKTOWN and ENTERPRISE.

The expansion of shipboard aviation in the 1930`s brought renewed emphasis to Naval Air Station Norfolk. Reverting back to its experimental roots, development and testing of catapult and arresting gear systems took the highest priority at the Air Station. The commissioning of the aircraft carriers WASP, RANGER, YORKTOWN and HORNET increased the tempo of routine training in navigation, gunnery and aerial bombing as new air wings formed prior to World War II. This demanded expansion, but appropriations for shore activities were meager. Although congressional approval was gained in 1934 for the purchase of land that would expand the airfield by 540 acres, the matter was dropped. At the outbreak of war in Europe on September 1, 1939, Naval Air Station encompassed 236 acres with two small operating areas, Chambers Field and West Landing Field. During World War II, Naval Air Station had a direct combat support role in the area of anti-submarine patrols. President Roosevelt`s response to the start of the war in Europe was the National emergency Program of Sept. 8, 1939. It resulted in fantastic growth for all Navy activities in the Norfolk area. The combat support role began on October 21, 1939, when a 600-mile-wide Neutrality Zone was declared around the American coast. Four Norfolk-based patrol squadrons, VP-51, VP-52, VP-53 and VP-54 were among the first units to enforce the zone.

World War II, of course, profoundly changed the appearance of the Naval Station. With the eruption of war in Europe in September 1939, the station began to vibrate with activity. By December, the Navy had over $4 million in projects underway on the station. By the summer of 1940 the Station employed some 8,000 personnel, a number larger than any time since the end of World War I.

The Hepburn Board had made recommendations to Congress earlier in the year that would also double the size and workload of the station. Since Chambers and West Fields were encroaching on the activities of the former, Naval Operating Base, it was decided to expand to the east.

East Camp, with an area of about 1,000 acres between the east side of Naval Station and Granby Street, had been sold off by the Army at the end of World War I. Congress authorized its repurchase in early 1940. On June 29 of that year, a contract was signed with the Virginia Engineering Company of Newport News for the expansion of the station. The cost of expansion and construction was to reach more than $72 million.

Hangars, a new dispensary, three runways, magazine areas, warehouses, barracks and docking areas were patterned after similar existing airfields. The plan was revised and approved by Capt. P.N.L. Bellinger, returning as commanding officer 20 years after first holding the job. Bellinger insisted that as many structures as possible be permanent ones. The air station was still largely composed of temporary hangars and workshops left over from World War I. Many were unsafe and costly to maintain.

The last permanent structure added had been the administration building, constructed in 1930. Special attention was paid to control facilities. Prior to the expansion, operations from Chambers Field had no traffic control system except for a white placard inserted through a slot on the roof to indicate the direction of the runway in use.

Some 353 acres were eventually reclaimed at a cost of $2.1 million. Two large hangars and ramps for seaplanes, barracks, officer quarters and family housing were built. This construction cut off Mason Creek Road and the Navy compensated the city by improving Kersloe Road between Hampton Boulevard and Granby Street.

Norfolk responded by renaming the road, Admiral Taussig Boulevard, in honor of the retiring commander of the Naval Operating Base.

In July 1940, the Federal government began dredging Willoughby Bay and the Naval Air Station seaplane operating area at Breezy Point was constructed from reclaimed marshlands at the mouth of Mason Creek. By the time President Roosevelt visited at the end of July, the station was clearly reaching the point where it could support ships engaged in war overseas.

In 1941, the possibility of U.S. involvement in the war looked more likely. Construction of more new facilities was pushed forward to match increased requirements. Directives from Washington meant facilities had to be developed to operate five aircraft carrier air groups, seven to nine patrol squadrons, the fighter director school and the Atlantic Fleet operational training program for 200 pilots prior to their fleet assignment. Further requests were made to provide training and maintenance facilities for British aircrew from HMS Illustrious and HMS Formidable.

In June 1941, the personnel count at the Naval Station dramatically increased once again. There were now about 10,000 new recruits at the Naval Training Station, 15,559 officers and enlisted on station, and 14,426 sailors assigned to ships homeported in Norfolk. After Pearl Harbor, another $4 million was put into the receiving station to elevate its capacity by some 5,500 individuals. The Navy planned to double hospital capacity, as well as adding a full range of indoor and outdoor athletic facilities to go along with the construction of a new auditorium.

In all, these new requirements led to enlarging the construction project to five times its original scope. At the completion of the first round of construction, East Field was estimated to have the capacity for 410 land planes while Breezy Point`s capacity was estimated at 72 seaplanes. From a manpower viewpoint, Naval Air Station grew from an average of 2,076 officers and enlisted in December 1940 to 16,656 active duty in December 1943. For the first six months of 1943, the flight operations department recorded an average of 21,073 flights per month and an average of 700 flights per day. This represents a take-off or landing every two minutes, 24 hours a day.

The increased pace of operations made it necessary to further physical plant growth. In order to extend runways and provide more parking areas, an additional 400 acres including the old Norfolk airport were acquired. Finally, by 1943, the Naval Air Station had become the hub for a series of outlying airfields. Facilities were commissioned at Chincoteague, Whitehurst, Reservoir, Oceana, Pungo, Fentress, Monogram and Creeds, Va., as well as Elizabeth City, Edenton, Manteo and Harvey Point, N.C.

A new command, Naval Air Center, had been formed Oct. 12, 1942 under Captain J.M. Shoemaker, the 15th and 18th commanding officer of NAS Norfolk, to coordinate operations within the Norfolk area. The outlying fields were used for training, patrol plane operations, practice bombing and aerial gunnery. The assembly and repair department also offers an excellent example of expansion at Naval Air Station. In 1939, A & R occupied four World War I hangars and a few workshops. It employed 213 enlisted men and 573 civilians in the overhaul of aircraft engines and fuselages.

In 1940, the naval aircraft program passed Congress with a production goal of 10,000 new planes later increased 15,000. To support this effort, A & R, after Pearl Harbor, went to two 10-hour shifts per day, seven days a week for a work force that now numbered 1,600 enlisted and 3,500 civilians. Women, who had been employed only as seamstress for wing and fuselage fabric, began working in A & R machine shops as labor shortages became acute. During the summer of 1942, the apprentice school was opened to provide training in nine trades. By war`s end, assembly and repair had developed into a Class "A" industrial plant with peak employment of 3,561 civilians and 4,852 military workers.

As far as direct action against the enemy was concerned, Naval Air Station Norfolk, contributed in the area of anti-submarine patrols. In this respect, it was also one of the first American facilities to "go to war." On Oct. 21, 1939, a 600-mile-wide neutrality zone was declared around the American coast. Four Norfolk-based patrol squadrons (VP-51, VP-52, VP-53 and VP-54) were among the first units to enforce the zone.

After war was formally declared following Pearl Harbor, Germany began a U-boat offense, "Operation Drumbeat," against shipping along the Atlantic coast. The Eastern Sea Frontier, a command headquartered in New York, directed the American response.

Locally, Fleet Air Wing 5 units flew under its operational command of the 5th Naval District. Wing 5 units involved consisted of scouting squadrons, 12 Kingfisher seaplanes and VPs 83 and 84 equipped with PBY5A Catalinas. By 1942, NAS Norfolk was home to 24 fleet units.

In this early phase of the war, the U-boats had the best of it. With a peacetime mindset still prevalent, valuable ships sailed independently backlit by the lights of seaside towns.

From January through April 1942, the Eastern Sea Frontier recorded 82 sinkings by U-boats. During the same period, only eight U-boats were sunk by U.S. forces. Eventually, coastal convoys were instituted and more aircraft became available. German U-boats moved elsewhere and sinkings decreased. To move closer to their patrol areas and free up space for the training of new squadrons, NAS Norfolk-based patrol squadrons transferred their operations from Breezy Point to Chincoteague and Elizabeth City.

NAS Norfolk`s biggest contribution to the winning of World War II was in the training it provided to a wide variety of allied naval air units.

At the start of the war, training activities at NAS did not fall under the direction of a single overseer. This changed on January 1, 1943 with the creation of Commander Air Force Atlantic Fleet with Rear Admiral (later Vice Admiral) Bellinger in charge. The former NAS commanding officer was tasked with providing administrative, material and logistic support for Atlantic Fleet aviation units. AIRLANT also furnished combat-ready carrier air groups, patrol squadrons and battleship and cruiser aviation units for both the Atlantic and Pacific fleets. To complete this task, Fleet Air Wing 5 in Norfolk turned over its operational commitments for the Eastern Sea Frontier to Fleet Air Wing 9 at Quonset Point, R.I.

In December 1942, recruit training at the base was abolished since the base was now more suitably equipped for advanced training for men going directly to the fleet. With the change in the training station and the declaration of war, the mission became that of a pre-commissioning training station. Three 1,000-foot piers, which were used as convoy escort piers, were built during World War II.

On Sept. 18, 1943, FAW-5 assumed the primary mission of providing training under the direction of AIRLANT. The aviation service school offered courses in metalsmith work, engine repair, radio repair and ordnance. Aviation machinist`s mate A school consisted of two months of training and two months of practical experience in A&R department shops.

The advanced base aviation training unit helped sailors develop the skills necessary to maintain all types of aircraft at advanced bases in combat area. The aircraft they completed went to the fleet pool for distribution to squadrons in the process of commissioning.

A similar service for maintenance crews in squadrons awaiting the commissioning of new carriers was provided by the carrier air service unit. Among the earliest schools at NAS was the fighter director school, which taught fleet communications and tactics, radar operations and direction of aircraft from ships before moving to Georgia. The celestial navigation training unit instructed pilots being assigned to patrol squadrons. The aerial free gunnery training unit was originally located at Breezy Point, but moved to Dam Neck in 1943 to be able to carry out range work without restricting airspace.

Carrier qualifications training unit provided for field carrier landing practice, simulated carrier search techniques and qualification landings. Any carriers available in Hampton Roads were used to deck-qualify pilots, but the bulk of the load went to USS Charger (CVE-30). For most of the war, Charger acted as school ship for both squadrons in training and flight deck personnel assigned to newly commissioned carriers.

The air station`s impact on winning World War II was more extensive than most people think. With only a few exceptions, all Navy air squadrons that fought in the war trained in Norfolk. The air station also trained numerous British fighter squadrons and French and Russian patrol squadrons. From 1943 to the end of the war, a total of 326 U.S. units were commissioned and trained under the control of AIRLANT.

Undoubtedly, the loudest noise heard and one of the most devastating Navy accidents in Hampton Roads during World War II occurred at 11 a.m. Sept. 17, 1943. A NAS ordnance department truck was pulling four trailers loaded with depth charges on the taxiway between NAS and the NOB piers. Each trailer was designed to carry four aerial depth charges. To save time, two additional charges were loaded on top of each trailer. Compounding the problem, the charges on top were not properly chained down. One of the charges slipped loose and became wedged between the trailer and the ground. The friction of being dragged against the road caused the charge to begin smoking.

An alert Marine sentry spotted the smoke and notified the driver who immediately stopped the truck and ran to a nearby fire station. Assistant Fire Chief Gurney E. Edwards hurried to the scene and attempted to cool down the charges with a fire extinguisher. As soon as he started his attempt, the first depth charge exploded, killing him instantly. For several minutes, charges continued to explode. The blasts shattered windows up to seven miles away and were heard in Suffolk, 20 miles distant.

In the center of the explosion was a group of old enlisted men`s barracks opposite the dispensary, the vicinity of the current location of V-88. A total of 18 buildings were destroyed by the blast. They were so badly damaged that they had to be razed. Thirty-three aircraft were also destroyed with a monetary damage of $1.8 million.

According to official histories, the shock of the explosion found people scaling fences that had been considered man-proof and impossible to climb. Other persons found themselves some time later with shoes in hand, waiting for street cars, with no memory of the event. The casualties amounted to 426, including 40 dead. Among them was Seaman 2nd Class Elizabeth Korensky, the only woman killed and the first WAVE to die in the line of duty in the war.

NAS Norfolk responded to the tragedy by building six new brick barracks to house the troops and added industrial space by building R-80, the largest airplane hangar in the world. Winning the war was a full-time effort.

In March 1946, the Chief of Naval Operations directed the Commandant 5th Naval District, who also had been Commandant U.S. Naval Station, to include Naval Station Norfolk and Naval Air Station Norfolk as separate components under the military command of Commandant Naval Base, whose title was changed to Commander Naval Base and then to Commander, Navy Region, Mid-Atlantic.

Postwar period developments underscored the capacity of the Naval Station to change. The station at first stored inactive aircraft carriers, other reserve vessels, and finally submarines and destroyers. Fire fighting and salvage control now became specialties. The Atlantic Fleet Command came ashore in 1948 and placed its headquarters with a staff of 165 officers and 315 enlisted in an abandoned hospital. At the same time, the station rendered service to military as well as scientific pursuits.

Known officially as Naval Operating Base until 31 December 1952, on January 1, 1953 the name of the installation was changed to Naval Station Norfolk.

In February 1959, Naval Station saw the move of its headquarters building from Building N-21 to Building K-BB. Shortly after the Naval Station and Naval Air Station merged in February 1999, the headquarters of the new consolidated installation moved to Building N-26 and Commander, Navy Region, Mid-Atlantic moved off the installation to offices at the Navy compound on Lafayette River at Hampton Boulevard.

After the Second World War, the air side of the station continued to operate at near peak levels as well. It served as operational headquarters for the Fleet Air Command, and with the emergence of NAS Oceana as a "master jet airfield" in the late 1950`s, the tandem formed the nucleus of the biggest air base on the East Coast. The air station would be known as Naval Air Station Norfolk throughout the postwar period. In 1967 it came under the control of Command Naval Air Force, Atlantic.

The Norfolk facility remained the chief supplier of aircraft parts and a major rework plant. Classified as "industrial," the station employed about 7,500 civilians in 1946. In one postwar year the Navy invested $36 million in the overhaul and repair plant alone. The average annual payroll in the last had of the 1950`s came to nearly $45 million. By 1976, the air rework plant covered 174 acres and included 175 buildings. In the 1970`s and 1980`s its workers restored or repaired, among other craft, F-14 Tomcats, A-6 Intruders, and F-8 Crusaders. From June 1980 until June 1981, the air station handled over 135,478 aircraft operations, 29,832 tons of air cargo, and 132,000 passengers. In 1996, as part of the Congressional "Base Realignment and Closure" (BRAC) process this plant, known by this time as the Naval Aviation Depot Norfolk, closed its doors.

The air station, at one time, was host to more than 70 tenant commands, including several carrier groups, carrier airborne early warning wings, helicopter sea control wings, and Naval Air Reserve units. In addition, the station rendered support in photography, meteorology, and electronics to the fleet commands of the Hampton Roads naval community. The Naval Air Station also responded to national times of stress, such as Operation Sincere Welcome in 1994, when 2,000 civilian workers, dependents, and non-essential military personnel were evacuated to Norfolk from Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba. This influx of people was an instance of history repeating itself, as the station also welcomed evacuees during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

One other milestone in NAS`s history occurred in 1968 when the station assumed a major role in putting a man on the moon. The air station became Recovery Control Center Atlantic, providing command, control and communications with all the ships and aircraft involved in the recovery operations of Apollo 7.

On 6 August 1974, the Navy held a groundbreaking ceremony for the first construction project on 494.8 acres of land acquired that year from Norfolk and Western Railway at a cost of $17.4 million. The $60 million construction program resulted in new piers along the waterfront; beautification and improvements to Hampton Boulevard leading to Gate 2 (the main gate), and the widening of Taussig Boulevard to a 4-lane highway; and new warehouses.

Also in 1974, the Commanding Officer, Captain Paul L. Merwin, was instrumental in creating improvements to benefit the sailors. These included additions such as laundromat services, telephones, and additional lighting to improve security. In addition, Captain Merwin was responsible for purchasing land outside the gates and ensuring that area businesses were more sailor-friendly than they had been. He was instrumental in joining the separate sets of piers. Previously, one had to exit one gate and enter another to travel from piers 2-12 and 20-25.

Always seeking to provide the best service to its customers, the Naval Station has evolved and made necessary and/or convenient improvements such as the Navy Exchange Mall, which was opened at its present location in November 1989 and expanded again by another 189,000 sq. ft. in September 1998. Another momentous occasion in 1998 was the opening of Enterprise Hall, a new state-of-the-art bachelor housing building, centrally located in the heart of the Naval Station next to the Naval Station Galley.

As part of the Navy`s response to the post-Cold War drawdown of the 1990`s, many new initiatives were implemented at Navy shore installations to reduce their operating cost, improve their efficiency, and better match their capacity to the reduced size of the Navy. In 1998, the Navy began a major realignment of shore command organizations and processes throughout Hampton Roads in a process known as "regionalization". One of the biggest steps and efficiencies in this process was the merger of separate Naval Station and Naval Air Station (which were directly adjacent to each other) into a single installation to be called Naval Station Norfolk. This consolidation became official on February 5, 1999.

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Page last modified: 05-07-2011 02:54:22 ZULU