Friday, July 21, 2017

One Century Ago: Admiral Dillingham Inherits a Mess

As an example of a locality with almost ideal conditions for a training station, I would give the vicinity of Norfolk, Va.... The great possibilities of this strategic locality make it certain, that with the increase of the fleet, the Government will be obliged to have its principal training station and rendezvous there in the near future, and it is apropos of this consideration that is well now, to study plans for the best possible habitation for our men.
Rear Admiral A.C. Dillingham, 1910 
Great leaders don't make a recommendation or proposal unless they are willing to see it through personally.  Such was the case one hundred years ago this month for Rear Admiral Albert C. Dillingham, just after ground was broken at a former exposition site and fairgrounds just north of Norfolk, Virginia, for a huge facility he had envisioned seven years before.  In 1910, he had professed his belief in the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings that Norfolk would make an ideal site for a permanent new recruit training facility.  Officially, Norfolk was already one of four locations throughout the country where initial recruit training was conducted, but Dillingham, who had recently finished up a tour as commanding officer of the Receiving Ship Franklin opposite Norfolk Naval Shipyard, wrote, "At Norfolk there is officially no training station, there never having been any appropriation for the specific purpose of training at that place, although, as a matter of fact, it is the most important training station in operation."
A postcard marketed at about the time of the 1907 Jamestown Exposition showing the Receiving Ships Richmond and Franklin (the names on the postcard being reversed) at the St. Helena Annex in the Berkeley section of Norfolk, across the South Branch of the Elizabeth River from Norfolk Naval Shipyard. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum Collection)
This seemingly contradictory claim captured the conundrum facing those running the two receiving ships then located on the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River.  A decade into the 20th Century, the few hundred new recruits entering the Navy there were still trained much the way they were before the "New Navy" of the 1880s.  Receiving ships were not only too small to train large numbers of recruits, but, like the infamous British prison hulks of the Revolutionary War, diseases spread rapidly among the Sailors living and training there.  The Bureau of Navigation had concluded early in the new century that new Sailors needed more varied and technically sophisticated training than a receiving ship could provide, yet in Norfolk, there was little room to grow.  A shore-based training station had been established near the receiving ships at St. Helena in 1908, during then-Captain Dillingham's tour there.  In 1915, Franklin completed her 38-year tenure as the primary receiving ship of the station, yet when war against Germany was declared two years later, there were still two receiving ships, consisting of the bark Cumberland (IX 8) and former steam sloop Richmond.  With the modest shore station, St. Helena Annex had a maximum capacity of 3,555 men.
This portion of a panoramic series of photographs taken on January 2, 1917, shows the recruit training facilities of the St. Helena Annex, beginning with (from left) the Receiving Ships Richmond and Cumberland, the small boat training pier, parade and training grounds within the center image, concluding at the center right with modest bungalows for recruits. The demands of war that summer quickly overwhelmed the facility, which resorted to tents to contain the overflow of new recruits.  When those quickly ran out, some prospective Sailors showing up in Norfolk were told to go home until new accommodations could be found. (Norfolk Naval Shipyard Archives)    
Dillingham's wish to create a modern training facility finally came true in June, 1917, after President Woodrow Wilson signed a bill authorizing the purchase of the former Jamestown Exposition land and some adjoining properties, including the Pine Beach Hotel, to become Naval Operating Base Hampton Roads.  On the cusp of retirement after serving as a senior military liaison to the government of the Dominican Republic, Dillingham found himself back in Hampton Roads with a mandate to bring his vision to fruition.  Even with $1.6 million in funding and 4,000 construction workers suddenly at his disposal, however, Dillingham's twilight tour would not be a walk in the park.  He had inherited a monumental mess.  
The United States Lifesaving Station, which once stood where Chambers Field is located today, was beyond economical repair by the time it was surveyed on August 2, 1917.  Just ten years before, it was one of the many Jamestown Exposition buildings that merited its own postcard (Inset). (Hampton Roads Naval Museum Collection) 
The dilapidated fairgrounds were a far cry from the gilded city on Willoughby Bay envisioned by the Jamestown Exposition Company.  Even during the exposition itself in 1907, many of the larger pavilions were not quite finished, and the company went bankrupt shortly thereafter.  The sprawling fairground had in just a decade been reduced to ruin through neglect and by the dramatic storms that sweep across Hampton Roads.  The demise of many of the remaining buildings was also probably hastened by vandals and looters who had ripped everything that they could wrest from them, nailed down or not, by the time they were surveyed during the summer of 1917.  Only the state houses, the majority of which had remained for the most part in private hands, avoided the worst of a destructive decade.  Despite the degradation, housing for 7,500 men had been constructed by August 4, only one month after ground was broken and an epic cleaning and building effort began.
A photograph taken on August 12, 1917 from the overgrown and dilapidated Godspeed Pier that was created for the Jamestown Exposition shows the former exposition auditorium at center and its east and west wings (known as buildings N-21 and N-23 today), while the postcard (inset) created for the exposition shows what its creators intended for them to look like for visitors in 1907.  The Hall of History (now Building N-24) did not appear in the postcard, but it lies just to the right of the East Wing in the photograph. (HRNM Collection) 
The interior of the former Auditorium Building of the exposition, seen here on August 4, 1917, looked like this when Rear Adm. Dillingham made it his headquarters, yet its condition was such that many essential administrative functions still had to be conducted in downtown Norfolk until the buildings could be reconditioned. (HRNM Collection) 
ABOVE: The East Wing of the former Jamestown Exposition Auditorium (now known as Building N-21), seen here on July 18, 1917, shows signs not only of neglect but of vandalism.  The words, "Education Building" can barely be seen above its central bay.  BELOW:  The interior of the East Wing at around the same time, where exhibits from colleges and universities across America were displayed during the exposition, including a college diploma awarded in 1760. (HRNM Collection)  

Among the major buildings not constructed as residences, only the main auditorium of the exposition, where Dillingham made his headquarters, and its adjoining wings, along with the former Hall of History next door and the nearby Pennsylvania Building, which would become an officer candidate school, were not too far gone to be repaired.  The Pine Beach Hotel at the northwestern end of Sewells Point was also retained for a number of years, although it too had sustained fairly extensive damage during the interregnum between corporate control and the federal acquisition of the land.

The photographs above and below were taken roughly one month and five days apart from roughly the same vantage point during the fall of 1917, a testament to the furious pace of construction maintained during Rear Adm. Dillingham's tenure as commander.  Note the United States Lifesaving Station still standing in the background at the far left. (HRNM Collection via National Archives and Records Administration)

Just three months, one week, and one day after ground was broken on the first new recruit barracks at Sewells Point, 1,400 apprentice seamen marched north from St. Helena training station in the Berkeley section of Norfolk across the Eastern Branch of the Elizabeth, which represented a Rubicon of sorts from whence recruit training in the area would never be the same.  They marched past the northern reaches of the city along Jamestown Boulevard (now known as Hampton Boulevard) to the former Lee's Parade Ground, where Dillingham was waiting for them.  Taciturn to a fault, the admiral said only a few words before the assembled ranks and members of the press, concluding with the only words he was quoted as saying: "The Base has begun to function."  On Armistice Day, just shy of a year and one month after that, around 34,000 enlisted men were training and serving at the new naval operating base, which consisted of the training station, the new Fifth Naval District headquarters, a new naval hospital, and a submarine station.  As of November 27, 1918, 12,693 recruits were undergoing initial training at NOB Hampton Roads, more than three-and-a-half times the capability of St. Helena before the war began. 
The Naval Operating Base Hampton Roads Training Battalion poses for a group photograph on the former Lee's Parade Ground in December 1917.  Note Building N-42, now the main base gymnasium, in the background to the right. (HRNM Collection) 
Memorialized today by the boulevard that bears his name, sweeping past the historic houses of Admirals' Row, as well as the Pennsylvania House, which later became the birthplace of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, Rear Adm. Albert Caldwell Dillingham was a man of vision who could not only clearly articulate that vision, but could then lead thousands to translate that vision into reality.  In a less than a decade, from conception to completion, he revolutionized the training and development of Sailors in Hampton Roads, and helped transform an ossified institution still entrenched in the age of sail into a system most Sailors of today would still recognize. Despite the fact that what we now know as Naval Station Norfolk did not become a truly functioning "operating base" until after the First World War, Dillingham led the effort to make the training station fully operational well before the end of the war, and it remained that way until after the end of the Second World War.

ABOVE: The former Jamestown Exposition Hall of History, probably the most solidly-built structure still standing when the United States Government bought the property in 1917, was nonetheless still pretty beat-up when this picture was taken between 1918 and 1921.  BELOW: The same building today, known as Building N-24, serves as the main base gym of Naval Station Norfolk. (HRNM Collection/ M.C. Farrington) 

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