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Chapter 29

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Navy's Air War

the Aviation History Unit OP‑519B, DCNO (Air)

Harper & Brothers Publishers
New York and London

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 31
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p345  Chapter 30

The Expansion of Shore Establishments

Mud Flats into Air Stations — 1942

The outbreak of war in December, 1941, found naval aviation shore establishments getting under way on a huge program of expansion. The first year of war was to witness significant progress toward the achievement of this program. There were two main functions to be performed by these stations: They were to assist in anti-submarine warfare to protect our own shores and they were to provide space and equipment for the expanding training program for both pilots and enlisted personnel.

There is no space to trace in detail the story of the development of each of these air stations. A few examples, however, may give an indication of the problems that had to be solved and of the work that was accomplished.

One of the largest naval air activities that developed on the east coast was at Norfolk, Virginia. Like many another air station, it was built on what had formerly been mud flats or swamps. Air stations, in general, need room. The fewer the surrounding obstructions, either natural or man‑made, the better could be the air approaches and the less possibility there would be of danger to the innocent bystander in case of training accidents. Where seaplanes were to be employed, access to the water was an obvious necessity. At Norfolk, for example, Willoughby Bay was dredged to provide fill‑in material for the surrounding swamps, with a result that over 350 acres of land were reclaimed to provide satisfactory beaches for the landing of seaplanes. The original sites proved to be too small for the expanding requirements made on the station. Consequently, ten outlying fields, for the most part in low, swampy areas surrounded by level ground, were acquired in Virginia and North Carolina, and reclamation and construction were pushed during 1942. One of the main functions of NAS Norfolk was the training of carrier groups that engaged in landing and take‑off practice and gunnery exercises on the outlying fields.

 p346  The outstanding naval air station in New England was at Quonset Point, Rhode Island. Situated between Providence and Newport, Quonset Point was constructed from low land and filled by pushing back the waters of Narragansett Bay. This huge station was used not only for training but for operational purposes. Patrols swept the seas off New England in the war against the German submarine. At the same time advanced flight training was carried on at the base for carrier and other duty. As noted elsewhere, Quonset was the site of two of the Navy's outstanding schools for Naval Reserve officers, the indoctrination course for A‑V (S) officers, and the ACI (Air Combat Information) school, and as the war progressed, other important training was also carried on at this base, especially in the field of anti-submarine warfare.

Perhaps the best example of the creation of something from nothing was the construction of Floyd Bennett Field, New York. The original site was a spot in the bay aptly called Barren Island, whose only "improvements" consisted of garbage heaps and a glue factory that acted as a receiving station for the city's dead horses. The Navy entered the scene, removed the "improvements" and lifted some 6,000,000 yards of sand from the bottom of the bay. The field was raised to a level of 16 feet above high water and had adequate layers of subsoil and topsoil above the sand base. The result was that Barren Island ceased to be barren — and ceased to be an island, for filled land now connected it to Flatbush Avenue and Brooklyn. During the war, this field was used as a base for anti-submarine warfare and also as a center in which naval aircraft were assembled, serviced, and delivered to the fleet.

The three largest naval aviation flight training centers that were to develop during the war were at Pensacola and Jacksonville, Florida and Corpus Christi, Texas. The expansion of Pensacola was natural in view of its pre‑eminence in the prewar period. Facilities were expanded, new fields were added to make this one of the leading training stations in the country. In Texas, along the southern Gulf coast, Corpus Christi carried on functions similar to those at Pensacola.

NAS Jacksonville became the hub of a network of stations devoted to operational training. The spot had certain advantages that caused it to be selected over other suggested sites. It possessed a superior strategic location, with good operating conditions. The site was immediately available, and was suitable for immediate construction. Transportation facilities were good, there were no local objections to the proposed development, and the region was relatively free from possibility of hurricane damage.

 p347  In 1942, in addition to the development of important stations along the coast, there was the beginning of a new trend, the establishment of large training stations in the heart of the country. As early as February, 1942, the Secretary of the Navy had approved a recommendation that Naval Reserve aviation bases be established at Memphis, Tennessee, and Norman, Oklahoma, for primary training. These bases were also designated for technical training, and it was through this function that they acquired their greatest significance. These bases were huge inland enterprises, on which only the training smacked of the sea. Such huge bases as these naturally took time to construct. On 15 September 1942 the first class of twenty cadets took off at Memphis in Piper Cubs. At that time there were no outlying fields, the main base mat was only 20 per cent complete, and the base itself was still a huge construction camp, lacking in permanent heating, telephone service, water, electricity, and even a sewage disposal system. In contrast, it should be noted that this station was to develop a capacity of nine hundred cadets or aviation pilots.

The construction of naval air stations was a co‑operative work of various bureaus in the Navy Department. The Bureau of Aeronautics and the Bureau of Yards and Docks working together formulated policies on construction. BuAer and the Bureau of Supplies and Accounts co‑operated on matters of storage, and BuAer and the Bureau of Ordnance on the establishment of arsenals and magazines. In addition, there was close liaison with two agencies outside the Navy Department. Close contact was maintained with the Army Air Force, and a mutual exchange was made of information regarding air facilities. The most important relation­ship, however, was with the CAA (Civil Aeronautics Authority).

Many of the fields used by the Navy were municipally owned airports that normally were under control of the CAA, but were leased to the Navy for the duration of the war. While the Navy was developing such stations as Norman and Memphis, the CAA was also constructing fields at the Navy's request and then turning them over for use upon completion. This action was made possible by an authorization of Congress under a program known as the DLA (Development of Landing Areas for National Defense). Under this program airfields were chosen by the CAA, upon the approval of either the Army or the Navy, in locations that would be useful to civil aviation after the war. Under the usual procedure, local governments acquired these sites, and the CAA allotted funds for the construction of appropriate runways,  p348 lighting, fencing, or the clearance of normal approach zones. Fields of this sort usually had few other improvements, since they were employed as auxiliary landing places. NAS Quonset Point, for example, made frequent use of this type of facility.

Another valuable contribution of the CAA was in the construction of navigational aids throughout the country, such as airway beacons and localizers. They also carried on important experiments on landing devices, and conducted a number of helpful aeronautical surveys.

More Planes Need More Bases — 1943

The second year of war saw the greatest actual increase in new construction facilities, since much of the half billion dollars worth of such work that had been contracted for in 1942 was completed and made available in 1943.

During 1943 an ambitious project for the construction of a string of lighter-than‑air bases was completed. A great deal of oil and ship production was being carried on in southeastern Texas. German submarines had found their way into the Gulf of Mexico and had inflicted considerable damage on shipping in that area. Part of the Navy's program to protect shipping from the Gulf ports to the east coast was to provide blimp coverage over this route. Accordingly, bases were constructed at such spots as Hitchcock, Texas; Houma, Louisiana; Richmond, Florida; Glynco, Georgia; and South Weymouth, Massachusetts. The technique of construction was essentially the same in each of these, with the exception of Richmond, which was designed and constructed as a sizable assembly and repair base to service blimp squadrons that were beginning to dot the Caribbean and Latin American areas. The stations were relatively small, self-contained bases, with huge wooden hangars, large enough to hold six blimps, and even a rigid airship, if and when such a craft should again be constructed. As in the case of Norfolk and other large air stations, most were built upon marshes. The usual inconveniences were encountered. Irritated personnel often complained that they could walk knee-deep in mud and at the same time have the dust swirling along the surface. Mosquitoes, the indigenous occupants of most of these sites, carried on a bitter struggle against the intruders. Station newspapers were filled with boasts concerning the size and potency of these insects. It was asserted that six flying in formation could bend a prop, and that one could bowl over a seaman if he did not brace himself for the attack.

 p349  Adding these LTA bases to auxiliary air stations, air facilities, and outlying fields, by the end of 1943 naval aviation had constructed a combined total of 148 aviation shore activities. Against this figure should be placed the total of 41 in use on December 7, 1941, and 78 a year later. These 148 activities were able to take care of 16,000 aircraft. All this growth during 1943 testified to a truth that the layman had found hard to grasp during peacetime, that navy planes, whether based ashore or afloat, needed shore facilities in the United States.

In addition to these physical conditions, there were important developments in the use of naval aviation shore establishments. There was a tendency to make more use of smaller auxiliary fields for primary training. Another trend was the sharp increase of operational training. The addition of new carriers had laid an emphasis upon the need for land-plane training. Coastal bases increased their capacity, and interior bases, such as Traverse City, Michigan, and Clinton, Oklahoma, were shifted to this type of training. As 1943 drew to a close it was seen that submarine warfare was on the decline. Bases along the Atlantic coast, especially, began to turn from anti-submarine operations to operational training, and several LTA bases were closed when squadrons were shifted to more active regions. Marine Corps training during 1943 also made added demands, and facilities were provided for this expansion. Outstanding in this connection was the establishment of imposing Marine Corps air stations on the west coast.

New fighting techniques created a demand for specialized stations. Toward the end of the year, more attention was paid to the development of night fighters. Separate fields were designated for this training, since natural hazards to flying had to be reduced to a minimum. Furthermore, men who fought at night had to sleep in the daytime, and it was therefore unsatisfactory to have planes carrying on daylight operations at these fields.

A specialized use of a naval aviation base was that of commissioning and delivering new aircraft. Increased production placed a heavy burden on the aircraft delivery unit at NAS New York (Floyd Bennett Field). To relieve the pressure, a similar unit was established at Trenton, New Jersey. The function of this unit was to deliver to the fleet aircraft received from east coast manufacturers. During its first eighteen months of operation the Trenton Naval Air Facility equipped, flight-tested, and delivered to the fleet 9,183 fighters and bombers. A somewhat similar unit was set up in the west. In the Arizona desert an Auxiliary Acceptance Unit accepted PB4Y aircraft from the Consolidated-Vultee  p350 Aircraft Corporation, San Diego, and other sources, tested this aircraft and installed radio and radar equipment.

Stabilizing the Shore Establishments — 1944

The main development in naval aviation shore establishments during 1944 was the co‑ordination and consolidation of administration. Such a development was natural and essential, for the heavy work of construction had been completed. Building was to continue, but the high mark had been reached, and the problem for the remainder of the war was to make the best possible use of the facilities at hand.

Needs were continually changing. Lighter-than‑air bases had passed their real usefulness, for example, and bases created to handle this type of craft could be and were shifted to other uses. Sometimes this shift was gradual, and for a time blimps and heavier-than‑air aircraft operated from the same bases. Newer techniques of fighting, such as rocket warfare and night fighting, continued to become more and more important and required special facilities. Naval Air Transport was rapidly expanding, and additional bases were assigned to this activity.

As a result of these and similar problems, late in 1944, a general order of the Secretary of the Navy set up three major types of air base commands. The most inclusive of these was known as the Naval Air Bases Command, which was an outgrowth of an earlier administrative organization, the Naval Air Center. With few exceptions, these commands corresponded to the naval districts, and gave the commander of the naval air bases administrative control over the naval air bases in the district. Normally, Marine Corps air bases were included under this control. In the case of Cherry Point, North Carolina, however, a separate Marine Corps Air Base Command was established, with functions similar to the naval air bases. The training bases were already well organized, and rather than disturb this organization, naval air training bases were exempted from the naval air bases organization.

Shore Establishments Keep Pace with Needs — 1945

In 1945 naval aviation shore establishments underwent continuous changes to meet fluctuating needs. As the war drew toward its close, certain activities became less important. With the passing of the German  p351 submarine, lighter-than‑air activity became less important. More and more LTA bases were turned to other uses, and huge hangars that had once housed operating blimps were, in 1945, converted to storage purposes. Some of the bases were shifted to heavier-than‑air use, and others maintained curtailed blimp operations and assumed other duties in addition. NAS Houma, for example, in the swamps of Louisiana, devoted itself to fleet training. NAS Santa Ana, in the orange groves of southern California, on the other hand, continued blimp operations but was assigned a special project (Drones).

Primary training in 1945 became less important than operational training, and as a result there was a good deal of shifting about to meet these changing training needs. At the beginning of 1945, the Navy had 171 air facilities. It was able to refrain from further construction by two means. The first, as already indicated, was to convert stations from one use to another as rapidly as possible. The other was to reassign facilities between the Army and the Navy. Through joint committees, the Army transferred a number of facilities that it no longer needed for the use of the Navy in critical areas. This work had begun in 1944 but was carried on into 1945, and by the use of army facilities the Navy was saved the expense and effort of new construction.

We have noted that in 1944 new techniques, such as night fighting, had imposed a burden upon shore establishments. These burdens were increased in 1945. Rockets and jet‑propulsion affected not only the problems of training but of research. One of the outstanding developments in this connection was the growth of the Naval Air Test Center at Patuxent, Maryland. Authorized shortly before our entrance into the war, this center was of immense value to the prosecution of the war. In view of the emphasis upon scientific developments during the war, it is likely that this activity will be of great assistance in the future in keeping naval aviation in the fore in technical equipment. Some sixty miles from Washington, in a rural community, Patuxent covers a large area, some six miles across. Its main functions have included flight, radio-radar, and armament testing, as well as experimental work. In addition, the station had functioned as an eastern terminal for NATS.

In April, 1945, it was decided to make important changes on the west coast. Most important of these was the decision to make improvements at Moffett Field, originally devoted to lighter-than‑air aircraft, to carry on NATS overhaul of 4‑engined transports. A novel feature of this plan was to use one of the 1,000‑foot hangars for the creation of a "production line" type of preventive maintenance, which on a mass  p352 production scale would apply maintenance to engines before rather than after repairs actually became necessary.

The end of the war in Europe naturally reduced the pressure on certain shore establishments, and by V‑J Day more than twenty stations had been reduced to a caretaker status or otherwise taken off the "active" list.

The influences of the naval aviation shore establishments have been manifold. Without them, of course, the tremendous training program could never have existed, nor would anti-submarine operations from our shores have been possible. As in the case of other production, these establishments stand as witnesses to the ability and determination of a united people.

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Page updated: 12 Dec 20