Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Seventy-Five Years Ago: America's Cloak & Dagger School Began with Hard Hats & Dynamite

Naval Construction Training Center Camp Peary, along the south bank of the York River near Williamsburg, Virginia, on August 18, 1943. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
Just outside Williamsburg on the Virginia Peninsula lies a large yet low-key government facility celebrating a quiet anniversary this week. The Armed Forces Experimental Training Activity at Camp Peary, Virginia, which began as a naval construction training center during the rapid expansion of U.S. Navy’s Seabees during World War II, was commissioned on November 16, 1942.[1]

Few Seabees alive today would remember it as a place where they received their initial and advanced military training before shipping off to Sicily or the Solomons, yet for generations of case officers and other unconventional warriors of the Central Intelligence Agency, this was where they completed basic training; a place they knew as "The Farm."

The rapid expansion of the Civil Engineer Corps during 1942 overwhelmed the capacities of the relatively new facilities at Camp Bradford (now a part of Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story), Camp Allen (now a Marine Corps facility near the Commander Navy Region Mid-Atlantic headquarters complex on the Naval Support Activity Norfolk), and Camp Endicott, Rhode Island (which no longer exists). The functions of the three separate posts would be consolidated into an 11,000-acre facility, named for the explorer and Civil Engineer Corps officer Robert Peary, made up of an administrative area and four regimental areas with the capability of training 50,000 men. On December 1, 1942, the disestablishment process for Camps Bradford and Allen began, and by March 17, 1943, Camp Peary had taken over all primary Seabee training from both stations. In fact, all Seabee recruits underwent initial training at Camp Peary in 1943 and the first half of 1944 before moving on to more advanced technical and military training at camp Endicott.

The basic training for Seabees, many of whom were older than the average recruit, was arduous to begin with, but the terrain making up most of Camp Peary, giving it the moniker “Swamp-Peary” by members of the 87th Naval Construction Battalion (NCB), just made it more challenging. One veteran of the 63rd NCB, whose recruits arrived in December 1942, even claimed that Camp Peary was “known to Seabees throughout the world as ‘the land that God forgot.’”

“Thirty days is all it takes,” wrote one member of the 103rd NCB, which was formed at Camp Peary in October 1943. “Thirty days of sweat like you’ve never sweat before. Thirty days of hip-hup an’ a reep. Thirty days of forward march, column right, column left an’ to the rear. We’ll make a Seabee out of you, matey. We’ll take that fat off your belly.”

Of the advanced training that followed their “boot” experience, the writer for the 63rd NCB wrote:

In advance training many men made the acquaintance of Island X, that humpy, bumpy and breezy ‘proving ground’ for the real Island X. Water purification and other crews learned to set up and operate the equipment needed to supply and maintain a sanitary camp under all conditions. The proof of the pudding came in the results of these Seabee ‘schools.’ One crew of 50 men became proficient enough to erect a mess hall, galley, clear a camp area, set up a water tank, showers and drinking water units in 3 ½ hours.
An early map of Naval Construction Training Center Camp Peary (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
Camp Peary also boasted specialized facilities in its advanced training area for special-duty battalions such as a full scale Liberty ship mockup for stevedores and facilities for mastering the construction of pontoon causeways. Seabees were trained in the art of combat construction and sustainment there, but it was also the place to learn the latest destruction techniques. Seabees bound for underwater demolition teams (the forerunners of today’s SEALS) passed through Camp Peary’s advanced training area, churning out Sailors adept at small arms and explosives. In all, over 90 Seabee battalions, amounting to well over 100,000 men, were trained there. In addition, nearly 5,000 men earned their commissioning from the officers’ school at the facility.

The rapid pace of change in 1943 once again affected Camp Peary’s mission as the Pacific became the primary area for Seabee operations, and in late-1944, Seabee training was moved once again back to Camp Endicott. The development of Camp Peary was then shaped by the rapid expansion of other armed service branches on American soil: In particular, the Wehrmacht and the Kreigsmarine. The first of what would ultimately be nearly 135,000 German and Italian prisoners of war began debarking at the Newport News Port of Embarkation in September 1942 for points west, but by the latter part of the war, it became clear that some German prisoners, the most virulent of the Nazis in American custody, needed to be removed from the more docile Deutsche POWs in Colorado and Nebraska to a more controlled environment. That place turned out to be Camp Peary, which had a detention area already in place, right next to its advanced training area, which had already proved valuable in extracting intelligence from captured U-boat crews, who were held in secret to prevent their superiors from knowing they had been captured.

As the number of German POWs being held in Virginia surged towards around 17,000 in 1945, a select 1,000 or so were being held at Camp Peary. As the war in Europe ground to a conclusion that spring, the number there and the nearby Chetham Annex doubled, and the camp authorities begrudgingly began allowing some of them to perform general labor outside the camp, as had become common at other POW camps across the Old Dominion.

After the end of the Second World War and subsequent repatriation of prisoners of war, perhaps for a time the future of Camp Peary as a government reservation was in doubt. But the passing of one war only set the stage for yet another. As many of the former operatives who wore the spear point of the wartime Office of Strategic Services on their uniforms took up their professions once again as civilians under the eagle and compass rose of the Central Intelligence Agency, they needed their own highly specialized recruit training facility; one that would impart many of the same specialized skills Camp Peary once provided the Seabees.

[1] As recorded in a Fifth Naval District listing of bases produced in 1943 and held in the Hampton Roads Naval Museum files. According to a history produced by the Navy’s Bureau of Yards and Docks in 1947, Camp Peary was officially established on November 4, 1942.

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