Naval Station Norfolk’s first 100 years: World’s largest navy base anchored to community
By COURTNEY MABEUS | The Virginian-Pilot (Tribune News Service) | Published: June 24, 2017
A drum-and-bugle corps led 1,400 apprentice seamen as they left the Navy’s St. Helena’s training station in the Berkeley section early the morning of Oct. 12, 1917, and marched more than 11 miles north across the city.
They paused as they entered their new, 474-acre home on Sewells Point around 10:30 a.m. to salute Rear Adm. Albert C. Dillingham. He had spent the past four months whipping the site – which 10 years earlier had hosted the Jamestown Exposition – into shape for this moment.
Orders were read. The band broke into the national anthem. Flags were hoisted.
A training facility that would eventually grow to become Naval Station Norfolk was born.
“The simplicity with which the great naval base was placed in operation was impressive,” The Virginian-Pilot reported the next day. “Not a cog slipped as the wheels of the machinery began to move. In the passing of only a few minutes the grey-green rows of barrack buildings, that had been empty, were teeming with occupants, were alive with bustle and activity.”
Cross the Hampton Roads or Monitor-Merrimac Memorial bridge-tunnels on any given day and the glimpse of massive, gray-hulled aircraft carriers tied up to the naval station’s piers symbolizes the important role the region plays in the country’s defense.
But the world’s largest naval base took root in more humble beginnings. It required the United States’ entry into World War I and a decadelong lobbying effort from local residents who recognized the dual benefits of the region’s mild weather and the unique position of the deteriorating exposition site at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.
“Now, there’s history every place. Every place. But the history of the Navy is here,” retired Rear Adm. Byron “Jake” Tobin said.
The first 100 years of Naval Station Norfolk have witnessed name changes, reorganizations and technological advancements in aviation and sea power. Social forces in the larger community also transformed the military and the faces of sailors and airmen here. As the naval station has grown, at times painfully, so has Hampton Roads.
Naval Station Norfolk’s presence is forever interwoven into the region’s tapestry.
“You can’t talk Navy and sea power and not mention Norfolk,” said Capt. Rich McDaniel, the base’s current commander.
Congress authorized President Woodrow Wilson to obtain land in Hampton Roads for the naval base and, on June 28, 1917 – less than three months after the country’s entry into World War I – Wilson signed a proclamation for the $1.2 million purchase of the former exposition site and additional acreage as well as another $1.6 million for its development.
Civilian and military workers, under Dillingham’s direction, began clearing land and creating living quarters for recruits on July 4, 1917, turning some of the grand homes and structures built for the exposition – several of which now compose Admiral’s Row – into offices and housing, according to a history of the base from the Hampton Roads Naval Historical Foundation. A major dredging project also began to deepen berthing for ships, which was used to nearly double the size of the base by 1918.
The naval station grew quickly, expanding to include as many as 34,000 shore-based sailors by Armistice Day a little more than a year later. That year, 1918, also saw the formal commissioning of the Naval Air Station, where revolutionary innovations in carrier-based operations eventually would be tested. Though a separate entity, the air station grew alongside the other activities on base and later was absorbed into it as part of a 1999 consolidation.
Downsizing followed the end of the war. Manpower dropped to a little more than 6,000 by May 1920, and the training station turned out about 1,600 new sailors annually.
A national emergency swelled the base when World War II began in Europe in 1939. Modern piers and barracks and a 1.8 million-square-foot supply depot were built, and the air station was expanded by 1,441 acres to accommodate carrier groups and patrol squadrons as well as aircraft overhaul facilities, according to the historical foundation.
The war also would strengthen the Navy’s connection to Hampton Roads.
Former Rep. Bill Whitehurst remembers the influx of sailors on the city’s streets.
“Everybody felt we were going to be in it,” he said of the war. “There was just a sense of anticipation.”
As a congressman, Whitehurst played a role in the early 1970s in securing money for the naval station to grow. But as a 16-year-old in summer 1941 – months before the attack on Pearl Harbor – he worked as a carpenter’s helper constructing the supply depot during his break from school.
“I was paid $20 a week,” said Whitehurst, who later would enlist in the Navy and serve in the Pacific in a torpedo squadron. “It was more money than I’d ever seen before.”
After World War II, the nation endured the Cold War and later, the conflict in Vietnam. The Civil Rights movement was gaining momentum, and the Navy opened all jobs to black sailors in 1946. Full integration began in 1949, and a Pilot story called it all but complete in 1954.
Changes within the military also affected life outside the base’s gates. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Elmo Zumwalt Jr. lifted a regulation in the early 1970s that long had prohibited sailors from bringing civilian clothes back to their ships. A strip of bars, locker clubs – places where sailors would stash their civilian clothes off-base – and other shops on Hampton Boulevard that catered to the thousands of young, single male sailors living on base began to stagnate under relaxed dress codes and increased mobility.
When T.C. Oneyear arrived in Norfolk in the early 1960s, the strip “was a sea of white hats,” said the now-retired master chief petty officer.
The military was not yet all-volunteer, and junior sailors lived paycheck to paycheck, most without cars. Places were open late, the jukeboxes were loud and a beer was cheap, about 30 cents. A good steak and potato cost Romeo Villania about $2, the retired chief petty officer said.
Villania, who came to Norfolk in 1966, remembered walking in a neighborhood off Hampton Boulevard when he spotted a sign warning sailors and dogs to keep off the lawn.
“During one time, they kind of despised us,” Villania said of some residents. He said he no longer sees that sort of ill will.
The strip – just like the popular East Main Street in downtown Norfolk before it – was razed in the 1970s. The Navy, with Whitehurst’s help, bought up the 495-acre tract that would allow the service to construct new piers and extend a runway.
The clearing seemed to have a secondary consequence as well.
“We’re interested in having as good an approach to the base as we can,” Adm. E. W. Walton of the Naval Facilities Engineering Command told The Virginian-Pilot for a 1975 story about the strip’s final days.
As the naval station literally worked to construct a more welcoming, professional approach, the service was opening itself to more leadership roles for women. The naval station was bound to become a proving ground with such a large fleet.
Ronne Froman was a commander when she moved to Norfolk in 1986 to serve as the naval station’s executive officer, becoming the first woman to serve in such a capacity at any major U.S. naval base. She remembered an admiral telling her she’d never be able to win over the male sailors working on the piers.
“At least he told me to my face,” said Froman, who retired as a rear admiral in 2001. “Anyway, I showed him.”
Froman, who went on to command Navy Region Southwest, worked six or seven days a week for the first few months and spent hours on the piers with her radio, she said from her California home.
“I was very visible, and I had a great team,” she said. “Everybody on the team accepted me.”
Congress lifted the ban on women serving on combat ships in fall 1993. Norfolk made headlines months later when the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower became the first aircraft carrier to welcome women into its crew.
Retired Master Chief Petty Officer Beth Lambert was among them. Breaking that gender barrier was something Lambert had pushed for since 1988, when she achieved another Navy and Norfolk-based first by becoming the first woman to be named the services’ Shore Sailor of the Year.
Lambert was a young petty officer first class when she joined the Fleet Logistics Support Squadron 40 and won the Atlantic Fleet’s competition for shore sailor of the year. As she prepared to go to Washington to face off against others in the Navy-wide competition, a master chief called her into his office.
“They wanted to let me know how proud they were of me and that they really thought that they had picked the best sailor who was in the competition, but he wanted to make sure I knew I couldn’t win,” Lambert said, recounting the conversation nearly 30 years later.
When Lambert asked the man why, he told her: “We’ve come a long way, but, you know, I just don’t think the Navy’s ready to make that big a leap.”
Lambert would add another notch to her belt of firsts in 2002 when she was selected as command master chief on the Norfolk-based carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, the top enlisted job among a crew of thousands.
The naval station was Norfolk’s biggest tourist attraction when Rear Adm. Byron “Jake” Tobin took over as commander of U.S. Navy Base, Norfolk, in 1991. Even then, Tobin said, security was becoming more of a concern. Fences and cameras were being added, he said.
Tobin was responsible for a region that extended from Dahlgren, near Fredericksburg, to Harvey Point, N.C., and included several subordinate commands, including the naval station. But Tobin said he had no money to fix deteriorating infrastructure, including when he learned that sailors were living in decrepit housing, and turned to Congress to fight for it.
“Termites, mold, mildew, the structure,” said Tobin, recounting his visit to the off-base Ben Moreell community that was later rebuilt. “The walls were caving in.”
Tobin’s advocacy for a funded, streamlined management approach helped push the Navy to realign its structure, leading to the creation of regional commands, including the Mid-Atlantic Naval Region, in which Naval Station Norfolk now takes a starring role.
The relative quiet of the end of the 20th century was punctured in the early morning hours of Sept. 11, 2001. Patriotism surged, as did a sense of urgency over securing ourselves against a devious new kind of threat.
Capt. Joe Bouchard was in his office on the naval station when his executive officer yelled over to him. One of the World Trade Center towers in New York City had been struck by a plane and was burning, but, at that early hour, it wasn’t clear yet what was happening.
Bouchard had spent several years working in the White House and the Pentagon before taking command of the naval station in 2000. He’d seen the intelligence and was aware of emerging terrorist threats, he said. He prioritized beefing up security on the water and on the base.
“When I took command, the gates didn’t have gates,” he said.
As it became clear that an airliner had struck the tower, Bouchard called for the base to go to Force Protection Condition Delta, the highest alert for a terrorist attack. The Defense Department wouldn’t make that call until later, he said.
“A whole bunch of admirals got mad at me for setting Delta because people couldn’t get on and off base,” he said. “I caused a huge traffic jam on Hampton Boulevard and all the roads around the base.”
The Navy ordered the fleet to sortie and all the ships that could got underway within about 18 hours.
“This caught everyone flat-footed,” Bouchard said. He described the situation as “total chaos for about three days.”
Retired Chief Petty Officer Doug Hoffman already had been underway for a couple hours for training on the submarine USS Boise the morning of Sept. 11.
“We were getting ready to do drills,” Hoffman said.
The Boise was one of the first submarines to be equipped with an antenna allowing it to receive live television, Hoffman said. The ship’s captain was feeding the crew updates on what was happening. Another crew member – a chief – had been sleeping that morning; when he later heard news about the attack on the ship’s announcement system he took it as part of the drill, Hoffman said.
“He thought it was actually a scenario that was going on,” Hoffman said. It was, “but not a fake one.”
Hoffman, who retired from the Navy in 2008 and now works as a contractor on the base, said one of his fondest memories was returning home from a three-month deployment to the Middle East in 2003. Patriotism was running high. His children met him on the pier.
“We were not supposed to deploy,” Hoffman said. “We went over there just to shoot off missiles.”
The Navy in Norfolk remains very much in the fight as conflicts continue from the last decade. The bustle and activity of a naval station coming alive with recruits 100 years ago is mirrored in the faces of sailors as they stream off ships into the arms of loved ones who line the piers for each homecoming.
As the naval station reflects on its past, a new, hulking vision of the Navy’s future is preparing to get underway. The aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford was tied up to Pier 11 one recent hot day. The Ford, set to be commissioned in a July 22 ceremony at the naval station, is expected to join the service for at least 50 years.
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