Thursday, October 12, 2017

One Century Ago: Naval Station Norfolk Officially Opens

As we turn our attention to the birthday of the United States Navy, October 13, 1775, we should also remember one of the most important milestones in the history of the Navy in Hampton Roads, which took place just one day shy of 142 years later.  Not only is it little-remembered today, but even the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot relegated the story of the event to page three.

The front page of the Saturday, October 13, 1917 edition was dominated by the headline “Dope in favor of Giants, Says Grantland Rice,” concerning the prognostications of the syndicated sportswriter about the ongoing world series championship between the New York Giants and the Chicago White Sox (which turned out to be wrong), followed by news of the ongoing world war.  On page three was the headline: 

Formal Opening of Naval Base 

1,400 Sailors March from St. Helena To New Training Station

Simple Ceremonies Mark Great Event 

An early postcard for "Naval Operating Base Jamestown," later known as Naval Operating Base Hampton Roads and now known as Naval Station Norfolk, shows recruits marching across what was then called the Lee Parade Field. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum Collection)
The following is an excerpt of the story:
“Early yesterday morning, a column of 1,400 United States sailors passed through Norfolk, moving from St. Helena to the government reservation at Sewall’s [sic] Point.  Headed by a drum and bugle corps and a band, the men turned into the entrance to the base at about 10:30 a.m., and a little later swung out upon the parade ground, where, awaiting them, were drawn up the ship’s company, stationed at the base, and reviewing officers of the navy, standing before the flag pole.  Following the sailors, a squad of air-men, training at the base, advanced upon the grounds.  The regiment drew long white lines against the green of the field and then, in regimental front formation, with flags flying and band playing, marched toward the reviewing officers.  The line halting and coming to the salute, Rear Admiral A.C. Dillingham delivered over the training station to Captain J.H. Dayton, commanding officer of the base and at St. Helena, orders were read, and the band broke into the national anthem, the Stars and Stripes were hoisted, and the training station at the base was in operation.  As stated by Admiral Dillingham to a Virginian-Pilot reporter, 'The base has begun to function, and is now fulfilling the use for which is was planned.’    

“The simplicity with which the great naval base was placed in operation was impressive.  Not a cog slipped as the wheels of the machinery began to move.  In the passing of only a few minutes the gray-green rows of barrack buildings, that had been empty, were teeming with occupants.  Officers went back to their desks in the administrative buildings, more busy from now on than ever before.  And the government wrote upon the map the name of its greatest factory for the turning out of sailors fully equipped for service.”

Albert Caldwell Dillingham (1848-1925) had been brought out of retirement to establish a naval training station at Sewells Point north of Norfolk, partially due to an influential article of his that appeared in the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings in 1910, alleging deficiencies in the training of Navy recruits, particularly in Hampton Roads.  At the time, a training station existed across the South Branch of the Elizabeth River from Norfolk Naval Shipyard, but Dillingham, who once commanded one of the receiving ships there, called it woefully inadequate. (Naval History and Heritage Command image)
On October 12, 1917, Rear Adm. Dillingham succeeded in what the Virginian-Pilot called earlier that summer, “the fulfillment of the nation’s need- the building of perhaps the greatest naval base in the world, a task that would really cause Hercules to negotiate with Aladdin for the loan of his lamp.”

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