Thursday, August 16, 2018

Seventy-Five Years Ago: Beating Plowshares into Planes, Part 1

From right to left, Rear Admiral Patrick N.L. Bellinger, Commander, Air Force, Atlantic Fleet  attends the ceremony establishing Oceana Naval Auxillary Air Station on August 17, 1943, along with with Oceana's first officer-in-charge, Lieutenant Jesse Fairley, and his executive officer, Lieutenant W.J. Lee.  The Navy had experienced a profound transformation since Bellinger took his first flight on a Wright biplane as a lieutenant in the fall of 1912.  Although NAS Oceana grew to become the largest air facility in Hampton Roads during the decades that followed, its opening was only mentioned on the last page of the local daily newspaper, the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, while its chief rival, the Ledger-Dispatch, did not mention NAAS Oceana's commissioning at all. (Sargeant Memorial Collection, Norfolk Public Library
Once upon a time there was a little Virginia farming community called Tunis in what was then Princess Anne County, east of Norfolk. Then in 1883, the Norfolk Southern Railway line came through, creating the second-to-last stop to its new terminus at Virginia Beach. With the railroad came speculators who bought up surrounding lands on what was then called the Salisbury Plain, originally a tract of 500 acres which had been given to William Cornick by his father Simond in 1657 and remained in family hands until 1859. In 1891, Tunis’ name was changed to Oceana after it came to light that there was another town named Tunis in Western Virginia. For nearly a half-century it remained a quiet farming community. Hog raising was also a profitable activity in the area, and the expansive mud flats in the area were a testament to how ideal the land was for that activity. Besides agriculture, the only employer of note in the small town was a sawmill. That was, until the Navy came calling just before World War II.

Naval aviation had been a part of military activity in Hampton Roads since a temporary wooden deck was constructed atop the cruiser Birmingham for aviation experimentation at Norfolk Navy Yard in 1910, Glenn Curtiss began training military pilots on a 20-acre site in Newport News five years later, and one of the Navy’s first dedicated air stations was established on a 40-acre site at Sewells Point two years after that. In the wake of the USS Shenandoah (ZR 1) tragedy and the ongoing jeremiads of Army Air Service Colonel William “Billy” Mitchell (which would lead to his court martial) in the fall of 1925, President Calvin Coolidge convened a board under the leadership of banker and industrialist Dwight W. Morrow to study the role of aviation in national defense. The recommendations of the board and those from other studies which followed during the interwar period would make a huge impact on the economic development of Hampton Roads and change its landscape for decades to come.

One result of the board’s recommendations the following year was that the Navy was allowed to increase the number of its aircraft to 1,000 planes, which it reached by 1930. One of the Morrow Board members was Representative Carl Vinson of Georgia, and he would emerge over the following decade as the foremost champion of naval aviation in Congress. An act under his and Florida Senator Park Trammell’s names enacted in 1934 allowed the authorized number of naval aircraft to nearly double. Over a decade before, the collier USS Jupiter had been converted into the Navy’s first aircraft carrier, USS Langley (CV 1) at Norfolk Navy Yard, and the Navy’s first purpose-built carrier, USS Ranger (CV 4) had been launched from Newport News Shipbuilding in 1933.  The carriers Yorktown (CV 5) and Enterprise (CV 6) would emerge from the same shipyard later that decade, funded by these Congressional appropriations, yet only Chambers Field at Naval Air Station Norfolk and a smaller field at Naval Weapons Station Yorktown were in place to host the incessant training and maintenance that would be required to prepare squadrons for deployment upon these vessels.  

USS Yorktown (CV 5), shortly after launching on April 4, 1936 at Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company.  The next year, USS Enterprise (CV 6) would join the growing carrier fleet from the same shipyard.  yet its planes and pilots had an insufficient number of shore installations in Hampton Roads from which to train and maintain. (Naval History and Heritage Command image)
 With war clouds on the horizon in Europe, Vinson followed up Vinson-Trammel with the much bolder Naval Act of 1938 (also called the Vinson Navy Bill), which mandated a 20 percent increase in overall naval strength. The Vinson Navy Bill also authorized the number of naval aircraft to be increased from 1,910 to 3,000. Between June 14 and 19, 1940, however, that number was expanded to 4,500, then to 10,000, and finally a mind-boggling 15,000. Despite the giant runway expansion program nearing completion at NAS Norfolk in 1941, bringing the size of the facility to over 2,000 acres, naval aviation in the Fifth Naval District area, which comprised most of the Mid-Atlantic seaboard, was exploding at such a rate that a single air station would be insufficient to base them all. Making matters worse, the bills that Congress passed in 1934 and 1938 made no provision for shore facilities to support this breakneck expansion.

Seen here in 1939, Chambers Field at NAS Norfolk was the only major dedicated landing, storage and maintenance facility for the hundreds of new aircraft converging upon the area (until the East Runway complex was opened two years later). To alleviate the congestion, smaller grass and mud fields were established in satellite locations around Hampton Roads and in the farther reaches of the Fifth Naval District, but no paving was completed nor permanent structures built on them until the early-1940s. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
To cope with the massive influx of squadrons, planes, and pilots, plus provide all the storage, training, fueling and hundreds of other miscellaneous requirements that would come with them, Acting Secretary of the Navy Charles Edison appointed Rear Admiral Arthur J. Hepburn to lead a commission which in 1938 recommended to the Bureau of Yards and Docks that dozens of outlying airfields be established across the country to support major and secondary air bases. The Hepburn base program, which was approved by Congress and signed by President Franklin Roosevelt on April 25, 1939, appropriated $500,000 for land acquisition in support of NAS Norfolk. That money helped secure the land for a total of ten naval auxiliary air stations in the Fifth Naval District; seven in Eastern Virginia, and three in Northeast North Carolina.
The names and approximate locations of the ten Naval Auxiliary Air Stations supporting Naval Air Station Norfolk during the Second World War as labeled on a map of the Fifth Naval District that appeared in a guide to all the district naval facilities made in 1943. The colors denoted whether or not photographs of them originally appeared in the publication. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum File)
Although it ultimately became the biggest naval air station in Hampton Roads, NAAS Oceana, commissioned on August 17, 1943, was actually the last of the Naval Auxiliary Air Stations commissioned in the Fifth Naval District area during the war, all of which were commissioned that year. NAAS Manteo in North Carolina was the first on March 3, followed by Chincoteague on Virginia’s Eastern Shore on March 5, Elizabeth City, North Carolina on March 6, Franklin on March 8; Pungo and Creeds on April 5; Fentress on April 15; Monogram on May 15; and Harvey Point, North Carolina, on June 15.

No comments: