Thursday, June 28, 2018

Captain Paul Merwin and the Renaissance of Naval Station Norfolk

Editor's Note: Sewells Point, home of the world's largest naval station, was once crisscrossed by lush salt marshes bordering creeks that were filled in many decades ago. A modest nature park has reintroduced some of the original flora to the area, bearing the name of a man who reintroduced order, discipline, and cleanliness to the Naval Station Norfolk at a critical time in its history. This is his story.

A Great Egret flies across a small lagoon at Captain Paul Merwin Salt Marsh Park and Wetlands Area, a stone's throw from Naval Station Norfolk's carrier piers. (M.C. Farrington)
By Captain Alexander G. Monroe, USN (Ret)
HRNM Docent & Contributing Writer

At a lovely spot overlooking Willoughby Bay, nestled between carrier pier overflow parking lots and the Vista Point Ball Fields at Naval Station Norfolk is an area known as the Captain Paul Merwin Salt Marsh Park and Wetlands Area.  It is named for the man who commanded the naval station from August 1974 to June 1977. Merwin had previously served as commanding officer of USS Talbot (DEG 4)[1] and was one of three executive assistants to Admiral Stansfield Turner when he served as president of the Naval War College. The newly-promoted captain was chosen to lead Naval Station Norfolk by Admiral Ralph W. Cousins, Commander in Chief of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet. He was only 42 years old when selected for the job. [2]  As he reported for duty, Merwin was mindful of the counsel of a flag officer in Washington DC who advised him to “be prepared for real problems down there and arrive running at full speed.”[3]
Captain Paul Merwin (Courtesy of Capt. Paul Merwin, USN (Ret.)

When Merwin arrived, he found there were fundamental but related problems. The station physical plant was deteriorating, and military courtesy was nonexistent. There was trash and litter throughout the base, and it was not secure from outside intrusion.  He noted that after he took command it was discovered that one “sailor” living in J-50 was actually a civilian vagrant from downtown Norfolk. Most importantly, the barracks were not secure, especially in Building J-50, where temporary, or "transient" personnel were berthed.[4]  The streets of the naval station were not safe at night, and marauding gangs of thugs set upon Sailors returning to their ships late at night.[5] Admiral Cousins had become so concerned with the report of physical plant deterioration made by his inspector general that in a June 1974 letter he ordered the commandant of the Fifth Naval District and the station commander to provide weekly reports on remedial action.

The deteriorating and dangerous conditions for junior personnel came to the attention of Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm via a letter sent by Fireman Apprentice Reginald K. Wakefield in April 1974.  She sent a staff member to interview Wakefield.  She wrote to Naval Station Norfolk’s commander at the time, Captain Samuel G. Anders, on June 17, 1974, requesting a report on racial conditions on the naval station.  Anders responded on June 26, advising that there were no indications that there was impending trouble and that perceptions could be interpreted in different ways.  Anders spoke of the difficulty bringing about attitudinal change, with racial overtones being a constant problem.[6]  Conversely, black Sailors opined that they had been singled out—“profiled” in today’s patois, for attention because of their race.  According to a black civilian base police sergeant, the possibility of night attacks, particularly if a white Sailor appeared intoxicated, were good, adding, “If he’s staggering, he’s hurt.”[7]
The northeast corner of Naval Station Norfolk near Pier 14 (center of photo) as it appeared in the late-1970s, looking east-southeast. The area that later became the salt marsh park is due east of the pier. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file
A major contributing factor to the strife was overcrowding. The number of Sailors temporarily assigned to the naval station was anywhere from 2,100 to 3,000 at any given time.  Many, though by no means all, were awaiting discharge from the Navy under other-than-honorable conditions. Even with augmentation, the legal staff was not able to separate those who were to be discharged rapidly. Finally, a source of extreme difficulty was the Tradewinds Enlisted Club, which had become a center for racially-tainted, often alcohol-fueled violence.  Patrons tended to separate themselves racially and mingled only when departing through a common lobby that became a scene of donnybrooks.[8]  In addition to being a site of brawls among customers, it was a center for other crime.  In one instance, the Station Chief of Police, Jake Hardison, noted a late model sports car in the club parking lot that had been observed in other parts of the base.  He had the car’s license number traced and discovered that it belonged to a seaman deployed to the Mediterranean on a carrier.  Its owner was later arrested for narcotics offenses.  Criminality on the naval station also spilled over into the civilian community, evidenced by the indictment of two Sailors, residents of Barracks Lima, for the abduction, robbery and murder of Elizabeth Young, a Norfolk taxi driver.[9]  There was, in sum, a clear need to re-establish control.
The northeast corner of Naval Station Norfolk as it appears today, looking east-southeast in this virtual view.   The salt marsh park is at center left, opposite Pier 14. (Google Maps)
Captain Merwin took immediate action to meet the challenge.  He sought a new executive officer (XO) and chose Commander (later Vice Admiral) Jimmy Pappas.[10]  Pappas recalled later that he had orders to a duty station in Greece, but that they had been changed for him to be Merwin’s XO. He described the interlude as a “fun tour.”  Moreover, he described the long hours that he and his boss worked.  He worked in tandem with Merwin, who used techniques such as unscheduled inspections that he and his staff might conduct at unusual hours, such as 3 am. Together, they set out to improve military courtesy, reduce the number of transient personnel crowding the naval station, clean up trash, and improve security.  A key part of the effort was that one of the two would always be in the field and the other in the office.  One of his staff, the port services officer, recalled seeing Cdr. Pappas driving all over the station, picking up litter and throwing it into the trunk of his personal automobile.[11]
Captain Paul Merwin, commanding officer of Naval Station Norfolk, and his executive officer, Commander Jimmy Pappas, during the mid-1970s. (Courtesy of Capt. Paul Merwin, USN (Ret.)
Certain specific steps ensued. As noted, the most serious barracks safety problems existed in Building J-50, later renamed Nimitz Hall.[12] A security watch was immediately instituted, and only those who were positively identified were admitted. In an interview, Capt. Merwin recalled that in one instance he took Adm. Cousins on a tour of the building, and even the admiral, who was in uniform, was required to show his ID card! This was in contrast to a situation noted in the Atlantic Fleet Inspector General’s report in which it was noted that watch standers were poorly attired and did not seem to know their duties. Further, the fire doors were shut to prevent entry by unauthorized persons, although the Fire Marshal opposed this step. “We just took this step, and the security problem went away,” recalled Merwin. The same technique was used in responding to bomb threats. They were ignored, and the problem, according to Merwin, “went away.” This was a method that was used to eliminate many problems: take action and see what happened. [13] In one case, a sign noting a railroad crossing was removed because the tracks were no longer in use. In another, a deteriorating, unsightly sign at the entrance to the Naval Station was removed. “We just did it,” recalled Merwin. The most significant step was temporarily closing the Tradewinds Club, a source of chronic difficulties described earlier. The club had been closed earlier, twice in a ten-day period, in what was called “the Summer of our discontent.”

Application of routinized procedures where there had been none and a “hit the ground running” approach brought about immediate results. Merwin realized that he needed to make a bold impression early to break the sense of ennui and dispiritedness that he believed enervated the command. A key component of this was requiring his department heads to give him candid written evaluations of their most pressing problems. He used these contributions to fashion the “Norfolk Naval Station Plan;” a description of what was required to achieve the objectives he and his XO wished to reach. It was clear from a review of statistics that the team efforts put in place were working. As noted in the press, in certain categories such as assaults there was a marked reduction in crime aboard the Naval Station, while such crimes in the civilian community were increasing.

The most telling and significant praise came in a Ledger-Star editorial which held that the most important factors in changes to date were a “a fresh and vigorous program for getting at the various perceived roots of difficulty…with station personnel themselves canvassed for ideas and marshaled for an extensive upgrading of performance.“ The editorial ended by saying that “the degree of recovery to date, and that yet promised, must be given earnest applause.” Though both civic leaders and Navy officials urged caution in the interpretation of such initial data, the news was encouraging.[14] Concurrently it was reported that a retired Washington D.C. Police Chief, Jerry Wilson, had visited the station at Captain Merwin’s invitation and reported that the efforts to ensure safety were worthwhile and appropriate.

In recalling those times, Capt. Merwin spoke of the accumulation of trash and litter all over the station and set out a scheme to combat it. With XO Pappas spearheading the effort, a series of blue and gold trash cans were placed station-wide. The skipper gave a personal push to the venture by appearing, smiling, in front of a poster containing a poem promising condign punishment to litterers, which involved working with the First Lieutenant in cleaning the station. 

(Courtesy of Capt. Paul Merwin, USN (Ret.))
The large group of transient personnel on board was a robust source of labor. This reduced the problem Merwin perceived when he assumed command of having too many people “doing nothing, not given productive work and getting into trouble.” Those who still littered could be dealt with by their commands or, in the case of civilians, cited and brought to a U.S. Magistrate’s court for appropriate action. Some of these steps were documented in a February 1977 issue of All Hands Magazine and provided the impetus for later efforts that gained national attention.[15] The key actors in the effort were: Cdr. Pappas, Chief Master at Arms Hugh G. Wade, and Chief Constructionman Donald Oswald.

The Ledger-Star editorial mentioned earlier cited the role of Captain Merwin’s subordinates in fashioning solutions to the problems that he faced when assuming command. The edition of December 9, 1974, reported on the work of his Command Advisory Team (CAT), a group of representatives who decided what was best for the command, with his concurrence.[16] This innovation, made three months after Merwin took command, assembled a cross section of the station personnel, both transients and permanently assigned, military and civilian, who strived to identify areas of difficulty where procedures and customs might be altered for the benefit of all hands. Working with the Human Resource Office, meeting regularly after their first meeting on October 30, 1974, the group learned how to identify problems and recommendations. They also brainstormed about how to deal with areas of potential conflict, such as Sailors performing auto maintenance in front of the barracks. The group initially developed about 13 areas in which attention might be merited, also addressing the notion that “no one cared for transients.” Merwin recalled that during his tenure, the chaplain staff began a ministry specifically for them.

The Ledger-Star issue of November 25, 1974, reported the travail which ended in a general discharge under honorable conditions for Fireman Apprentice Wakefield, whose letter had attracted the attention of Congress. His difficulties began when his mother became ill while he was on leave. He was given an extension of his leave but then ran out of money. After finally returning to Norfolk, Wakefield became enmeshed in the disciplinary system, spending 124 days in custody. Because he had missing pay records, he could not be paid. The upshot was that the charges that accumulated were dismissed and in one instance the Navy judge scolded the service for holding him for eight months without pay, calling it an “oppressive delay.” To help keep such embarrassing personnel gaffes from happening again, the captain and his staff began sending service records by helicopter each week directly to the Bureau of Naval Personnel in Arlington, Virginia for quick processing. A hotline system was established so that those awaiting transfer or separation could check their status. Close liaison with the Navy Regional Finance Center was established to do away with pay foul-ups.[17]

The disestablishment of the Portsmouth, New Hampshire Naval Prison in 1974 also presented a challenge to Capt. Merwin when prisoners were transferred to the Correctional Center (Brig) at Norfolk Naval Station, imposing an added burden on station resources. Merwin selected Lieutenant Commander James Keller, whose firm yet fatherly demeanor marked him to Merwin as an ideal candidate. Keller took charge with a firm hand, yet he was capable to relate to both the staff and those detained there. The wisdom of this assignment was borne out when, within a story about Merwin’s tenure as CO, the Norfolk Brig was called “the best in the Navy.”[18]

While Merwin’s team focused on immediate issues such as safety, transient census reduction and base cleanliness, the captain also took steps to increase recreational opportunities for all hands. In so doing he changed the milieu of an institution that had existed since before 1942 under different names, the Commissioned Officers Mess (Open) commonly known as the Sewell’s Point Golf Course. The course was originally a part of the Norfolk Yacht and Country Club, and had been known by other names until it was acquired by the Navy in 1942 from the Norfolk Golf Club as a recreational site. It was created as an officers-only entity and had retained that stigma over the years. The financial picture was marginal, but the chief goal was removal of the elitist flavor. Merwin decided that it should be continued as a “fine recreational facility open to all entitled to use Special Services [now known as MWR] facilities.” The small number of remaining members was still able to use the course, but memberships no longer existed, and users paid modest green fees. Merwin remembers that the reaction was favorable except among a few retired officers who denounced him as an “upstart.” [19] The golf course thrives to this very day, a testament to the wisdom of the decision.
(M.C. Farrington)

By the application of steady pressure, security problems began to decrease. Merwin then turned his attention to more permanent improvements. Older buildings were modernized, sidewalks were widened. Catch basins were cleaned.  Merwin noted that over 800 trees were planted.  Wives’ clubs adopted fire hydrants and sentry stations were repainted using the red, white and blue paint scheme associated with the 1976 Bicentennial Celebration. Eleven thousand new parking spaces were created in areas that had formerly been a vacant dusty field, an innovation of no small importance to the ordinary Sailor.   The operating theory was that a clean place is likely to remain so.  By a fortuitous coincidence, the Navy was required to obtain land for an extension of Runway 27. That led to the demolition of a group of seedy locker clubs, bars and jewelry stores at the end of Hampton Boulevard known as “the strip.” [20]   In summary, the base's appearance began to change, and with it, its reputation.  Security and cleanliness went hand in hand.

The successful implementation of cleanliness, sustained by rigid enforcement, was such that Merwin's team submitted an application for formal recognition to an organization known as Keep America Beautiful, under its Clean Community Systems project.  Somewhat to his astonishment, Merwin later received a telegram from the organization's staff announcing that the Naval Station Norfolk had won first place in the “Government Agency” category.  Naval Station Norfolk had exceeded the performance of all other military and civilian governmental entities.[21]  For Merwin, the award was not only important in and of itself, but also in its contribution to “safety, morale, good order and discipline.”
Signage on a platform overlooking the lagoon describes the park's purpose. (M.C. Farrington)
The achievement for which Captain Paul Merwin is most remembered more than four decades later is in the elimination of “chaos,” to be read also as “crime.” The Norfolk Portsmouth Bar Association annually confers the Liberty Bell Award to someone who "promotes a better understanding of the rule of law or encourages a greater respect for Law and the courts.” Those honored have typically been congressmen, governors, chiefs of police, and newspaper editors, but in 1976, the individual earning the award was Captain Paul L. Merwin, in recognition for his reestablishment of a sense of order on the station.  Rear Admiral Robert R. Monroe, commander of the Operational Test and Evaluation Force, praised Merwin for, “improvements everywhere and the manner in which you have balanced functional advances with attractive landscaping and better maintenance has been most effective…the changes evoke not only great pride in our Navy but pleasure in our home and neighborhood.”

Paul Merwin reviewed his accomplishments of the previous 34 months within the pages of the Norfolk Ledger-Star of June 29, 1977.  He recalled wryly that one of his chiefs had cautioned him shortly after his arrival in 1974 against walking from his quarters to his office for his own safety![22] Yet he noted that by May 1977, there only one robbery on the station.  By that time, there were only 400 transient Sailors on board, and the base was clean.  Merwin declared, “Attention to detail in every respect…pride and hard work had come back.”

After completing their tours in Norfolk, the two top members of the team moved on. Capt. Paul Merwin became operations officer for the Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor and retired in 1980. He went on to a distinguished career at Matson Steamship Lines, retiring a second time in March 2018.  Cmdr. Pappas went on to be commanding officer of Naval Base San Diego.  Ultimately, he retired as a vice admiral after a tour as Director of Logistics for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  

Paul Merwin emerged as a leader at a time when leadership was sorely needed at Naval Station Norfolk, and the Captain Paul Merwin Salt Marsh Park is a fitting and appropriate recognition of his priceless contributions.

A Great Egret emerges from the lagoon at Captain Paul Merwin Salt Marsh Park, located near the northeast corner of Naval Station Norfolk (M.C. Farrington)


[1] Talbot was homeported at Newport, Rhode Island during Captain Merwin’s period in command, and later its homeport was changed to Norfolk.

[2] “Anders leaves ‘heat” to young successor,” Norfolk Ledger-Star, Section B1, September 6, 1974, Harry Padgett. Earlier practice had been to assign an officer approaching retirement to this post.

[3] “Departing CO cleaned up ‘chaos” at base,” Norfolk Ledger-Star, Section B1, June 29, 1977, Harry Padgett. Cited hereafter as "Departing CO."

[4] “Naval station incidents cited,” Norfolk Ledger-Star, Section B1, August 29, 1974, Jack Kestner.

[5] ‘Wave of discontent rocks naval station,” Norfolk Ledger-Star, August 28, 1974, Jack Kestner;

[6] See again end of note 4.  Lt. Henry Wingate, a Navy lawyer, complained that after he moved into the station Bachelor Officers Quarters he was subjected to unjustified ID card checks that were in his opinion based on his race. He wrote of these incidents in a letter alleging “discrimination and racism by base police.” This letter came to the attention of Vice Admiral David H. Bagley and Vice Admiral Douglas C. Plate, Deputy Commander in Chief, U.S. Atlantic Fleet.

[7] Ibid. This is the statement of Sgt. “Eddie” Edmonds. His boss, Chief Jake Hardison, noted that "racial assaults are at an all- time high” in an article “Discipline, A Navy dilemma,” in the August 30, 1974, Norfolk Ledger-Star.

[8] Telephone Interview of April 12, 2018 of Captain Paul L. Merwin, USN (Ret.) by Captain Alexander G. Monroe, USNR (Ret.), cited hereafter as "Merwin Interview." Also see end note four above.

[9] The key factor here, which will be discussed below was that the two Sailors had not received pay during the time they were awaiting discharge, and they allegedly committed the crime to get money.

[10] Cdr. Pappas had earlier served as commanding officer of USS Rigel (AF 58).

[11] This is the recollection of retired Lt. Cmdr. Anthony V. D. Angelo.

[12]  “Naval station incidents cited.” According to the story, some residents were so fearful for their safety that they slept in their cars.

[13]  Merwin Interview.

[14] "Naval Station Crime does about face,” Norfolk Ledger Star, Section B1, October 30, 1974. See also “Naval Station: a turn,” Viewpoint, Norfolk Ledger-Star, November 1, 1974. The editorial appeared 56 days after Paul Merwin took command and credited the Fifth Naval District Commandant Rear Admiral Richard E. Rumble, Captain Paul L. Merwin and “all hands.”

[15] “A Winning Recipe in Norfolk,” All Hands, February 1977, pp.28-30, JO2 Gary Grady and PHC Milt Putnam. Cited hereafter as "Winning Recipe."

[16] “CAT watches base problems,” Norfolk Ledger-Star, December 9, 1974, Section B1, Jack Kestner.

[17] "Wakefield gets Navy discharge,” Norfolk Ledger-Star, November 25, 1974, SectionB1, Jack Kestner.

[18] Departing CO.

[19] “Sailors to swing at golf club,” Norfolk Ledger-Star, November 4, 1974, Jack Kestner, and “Royster remains club pro,” Norffolk Ledger-Star, November 5, 1974, Page A.14, Jack Kestner. See Also Interview between Captain Merwin and Captain Monroe of April 18, 2018

[20] "Winning Recipe."

[21] Ibid.

[22] Merwin Interview.

About the author: Captain Alexander "Sandy" G. Monroe, a retired surface warfare officer, is the author of In Service to Their Country: Christchurch School and the American Uniformed Services (2014) as well as official histories on U.S. Atlantic Command counternarcotic operational assistance to civilian law enforcement agencies and the treatment of Haitian asylum seekers at Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He was also dispatched to the Arabian Gulf on assignment for the director of naval history during Operation Earnest Will.

Editor's note: This and every HRNM blog post by a contributing writer reflects the opinions and core beliefs of the writer and should not be construed as representing the official policies or opinions of the museum, the Department of the Navy, or the United States Government.

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