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NAVAL AIR STATION ATLANTIC CITY
Each branch of the military put its preparation-for-war plans into effect in order to bring the United States military machine up to its full fighting strength. The Navy Basic Plan was promulgated in May 1941, and supporting plans were given the highest priority.
Once the war broke out as per statute, the United States Coast Guard was transferred from the Department of the Treasury to the Navy Department. Previously deactivated facilities were brought back into service as part of the preparation and expansion program for this new emergency.
One such facility was the old Navy station at Cape May, originally a Navy/Coast Guard Station until 1934, when it was closed. When it became evident that the Cape May Station would be required, again, the property was rehabilitated and recommissioned on September 16, 1940 (War Hist. 1:1:93-94). The station at Cape May lies within an area known to the Navy as the Fourth Naval District, consisting of Pennsylvania, Delaware and the southern half of New Jersey, including Burlington, Ocean, Camden, Gloucester, Atlantic, Salem, Cumberland and Cape May Counties.
The strategic importance of the district arises from the presence of gas, oil, and large coal deposits nearby, as well as oil refining plants: Atlantic, Sun Oil, Gulf, and others; large chemical plants, such as DuPont; and commercial ports: Wilmington and
Philadelphia; and ship building facilities, including New York Ship Building Company of Camden, New Jersey; along the Delaware River. This area was one of the largest centers for the production of petroleum products in the East. (War Hist. 1:4:9)
Once the Cape May station was back in service, the need for additional facilities along the east coast was clear. War plan schedules were accelerated after the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. As part of those plans, the construction of new Naval Air Training facilities was begun in earnest. Even though the number of new stations had already been determined, two more were added to the list in 1942. One was to be in Brunswick, Maine, the other in Atlantic City, New Jersey; with the total number and arrangement of hangers, barracks, dispensary, and personnel the same for both stations. The only exception was that Brunswick was scheduled for three hangers and Atlantic City for two (Building 1:237). In 1942-43, the importance of aircraft was not fully understood or appreciated by the United States military, but officers were learning fast as the number of planes increased. The need for qualified pilots was growing faster than plane production. Clearly training facilities were needed.
In 1941, in its attempt to stimulate the local economy, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) had begun clearing a wooded area in Egg Harbor Township for the construction of a municipal airport to service the Atlantic City area. The Works Progress Administration approved $1.5 million for construction (Atlantic City Press/Evening Union 3/28/41). The Project was to employ 1,187 men to cut and clear
land for three, one-mile long concrete runways (Atlantic City Press/Evening Union 11/41).
Recognizing the airport project as a perfect site to train new pilots, the Bureau of Aeronautics, through its Bureau of Docks and Yards, asked the Secretary of the Navy for the authority to construct Naval Air Station Atlantic City (NASAC) at the site in Pomona. The request was granted on October 13, 1942. The bureau had requested 1,200 acres of land and housing and subsistence facilities for 280 officers and 1,600 men. Plans called for increasing the facilities to accommodate 305 officers and 1,624 men as needed. A twenty-year lease was signed with Atlantic City (Unbound NASAC 1).
By December, 1942, enough ground had been cleared for construction to begin. Within another month, thousands of civilian workers were on the job. By April, 1943, most of the buildings, including the two hangers, were nearly completed. The runways were about one-third finished (Unbound NASAC 6). The paving was planned so that a completed runway could be used while new ones were added. Thus, the field was opened months ahead of its original schedule.
Why Atlantic City? What could this area offer the Navy that it couldn’t get elsewhere? The answer is relatively simple--the weather. When snow or fog closed airports like Newark, New York and Lakehurst, Atlantic City’s flying weather was usually clear enough to allow planes to fly. Radar and computer flight control systems did not exist: both were in the beginning stages of development. Radio contact between planes and the ground or among planes was still new. Thus, clear skies were essential.
Every military installation, whether a base, post, fort or station, has a specific mission to perform. Atlantic City was no exception. Naval Air Station Atlantic City was to support all Fleet activities based there. The main objective of every unit of the station and of each person working there was to ready the squadrons and their crews for combat (Unbound NASAC 1).
As with any military installation, Naval Air Station Atlantic City, maintained its own weekly newspaper called The Boardwalk Flyer. It reported on activities of the station’s sports teams, social dances, training schedules, and war news. [Only a few copies of the The Boardwalk Flyer remain in existence. Notably several issues are on display in the Round House Museum of the Egg Harbor City Historical Society. These copies were saved because they contain the photos of a local resident who kept them as mementoes. No other issues have been located.]
On April 24, 1943, the Naval Air Station Atlantic City, New Jersey, was commissioned and placed on active duty in accordance with message number 061845 from the Vice Chief of Naval Operations to Lt. Comdr. W. J. Junkerman, United States Naval Reserve. On that date, he officially assumed command of the station. Rear Admiral C. T. Durgin, USN, Commander Fleet Air Quonset, delivered the main address. The proceedings were heard on the Columbia Broadcasting radio series "Spirit of ‘43 (Unbound NASAC 7)."
In a commemorative magazine issued on August 1, 1992, titled World War II: Atlantic City Remembers, a photograph (courtesy of Dave Gross) shows a Navy landing craft docking at Captain Starn’s Inlet Pier. On this craft were a number of planes. They were taken to Bader Field (a civilian airfield), then to the Naval Air Station. According to declassified naval documents relating to the station, the first aircraft arrived from Corpus Christi and Norfolk in March and April, 1943. These aircraft were kept at Bader Field because the taxiway to the apron was not finished (Unbound NASAC 7). Another possible explanation was suggested during an interview of Jim Smith, a member of the original ship’s company at the station. He guessed that there were not enough qualified pilots available to fly the planes to Naval Air Station Atlantic City (Smith interview, 10/92).
The planes traveled from Bader Field to the station in a variety of ways: One method was aboard flatbed trailers with wings folded back. Another was by being towed over local roads. The latter method was also used after the war when damaged or inoperable planes were loaded by crane onto a ship at Captain Starn’s Pier for a return to the manufacturer, according to "Buss" Will, who was a civilian employee at the base after his discharge from the Navy in 1945.
According to an article in 2 Dec. 1943 issue of the Egg Harbor News, no fewer than six cadets died at the station during 1943. The first fatality occurred less than two months after the station was commissioned when a cadet was killed by the propeller of a taxiing plane. No reference to specific accidents or deaths from crashes was found among the declassified Naval documents that were examined. However, the Navy has recently released accident reports which revealed that at least fifty fatalities occurred at Naval Air Station Atlantic City, according to Michael Stowe, Technical Sergeant with the New Jersey National Guard, who researched the reports (Stowe interview, 6/95).
From the start, the station suffered from extreme growing pains. More of everything was needed. One of the most serious problems was maintaining the fuel supply. The Navy solved it in a practical way. Official records report:
As work on the huge gasoline storage tanks continued, aircraft were not grounded for lack of gas. With large refineries located in nearby Paulsboro, NJ, a phone call would bring 4,000-gallon tanker trucks to the base. The problem, of transferring the gas from the large trucks to the smaller supply truck, was solved in the following manner: The big tanker was parked at the top of a gravel pit. The supply trucks were driven to a spot down in the pit. This enabled gravity to help reload the smaller trucks. The reward in all of this was the fact that no aircraft training flights were canceled due to lack of gas (Unbound NASAC 8).
The problem of wheels-up landings by inexperienced pilots was solved by placing a truck near the end of the approach runway. As the plane approached, the observer on the ground could advise the pilot if his wheels were up or down (Unbound NASAC 9). This method proved so effective that it became a standard landing procedure for all Air National Guard training flights.
The following figures dramatically illustrate a one-year’s growth in Naval Air Station Atlantic City activity.
May 1943 May 1944
Officers 28 625
Enlisted 182 2,595
Civilians 192 493
Squadrons 2 9
Gasoline consumed 95,000 gals. 1,261,000 gals.
(Unbound NASAC 22)
Despite the size of the station, the availability of hangers, taxiways, aprons and housing space was determined to be inadequate as early as July 1943. As a result, requests were made and approval granted for the construction of more barracks, more taxiways, and 50,000 square feet of new apron in September 1943 (Unbound NASAC 22).
An urgent need for a training center for carrier Combat Information Center teams was met when the Navy contracted for the use of the Brigantine Hotel in June 1943 for a Fighter Director School. By December 15, 1943, more than $68,000 had been spent on renovations to the hotel and equipment needed for its operation (Unbound NASAC 17).
On January 6, 1944, Comdr. Junkerman turned the command of the Brigantine station over to Lt. R. K. Jacobson. This station had several functions:
- To act as the base for furnishing fighter direction for interception training of fighter squadrons at the fighter training center ( Unbound NASAC 2);
- To train Combat Information Center teams including fighter direction officers as a unit;
- To develop Combat Information Center training;
- To develop interception tactics; and,
- To operate and maintain radio-radar equipment at the Naval Air Station Atlantic City. (Unbound NASAC 15)
Such an organization was an important link in the defense of a considerable section of the Atlantic coast. It rendered another valuable service when it gave aid in bad weather and assisted lost aircraft to return to their bases at night (Unbound NASAC 15-16).
The Brigantine Hotel was not the only satellite facility needed and used by Naval Air Station Atlantic City. There were landing fields at Woodbine, Wildwood, Warren Grove, Coyle Field, Clark Field. The Navy considered these outlying facilities "necessary to reduce overcrowding at Atlantic City, and for safety reasons." (Unbound NASAC 18) The field at Woodbine came under Atlantic City’s control on December 27, 1943, at the same time as another field at Georgetown, Delaware, was designated as an outlying field for Naval Air Station Wildwood. Woodbine was primarily used for field-carrier landing training. The next year, Woodbine was also used for day and night catapult launchings and arrested landings (18). By August 1944, two HE-catapults were
in use. In September, rocket-loading operations were also added for safety reasons (Unbound NASAC 19).
Other facilities included a bombing range at Warren Grove, which is still used by the New Jersey Air National Guard. In April, 1945, the Navy created gunnery ranges near Great Bay [a large body of tidal water located just north of Brigantine] and a rocket range in Tuckahoe, the present site of the Tuckahoe Wildlife Management Area. At the height of war activity, 3,000 bombs a week were released on these ranges (Unbound NASAC 27).
An emergency landing area, Clark Field, is now the municipal airport of Ocean City, New Jersey. Coyle Field was a dirt airstrip, originally designed to assist fighting forest fires and leased to the United States Navy to relieve congestion at Naval Air Station Atlantic City. It is located on Route 72, between mile markers ten and eleven, a few miles northwest of the Warren Grove range and is still operated by the New Jersey State Forest Fire Service.
Fighters F4F "Wildcat," F6F "Hellcat," F4U "Corsair," dive bombers SB2C "Helldiver," SBD "Dauntless," and TBF torpedo planes were among the types of aircraft stationed at Naval Air Station Atlantic City and at Naval Air Station Wildwood. Squadrons included between eighten and thrity-six planes, depending on the type. When these squadrons were put together, they formed a group consisting of one hundred eight aircraft. At times each squadron trained separately; at times they combined their training
in a coordinated effort, according to Frank Creveling, a Navy petty officer stationed at Wildwood in 1944-45 (Creveling interview, 10/92).
Several events worth mentioning occurred during 1944. The first was precipitated by the arrival of a group of Women’s Accepted Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) in December 1943. They were housed in private homes in Pleasantville until construction of a barracks could begin in January 1944. It was completed and occupied by that April (Unbound NASAC 20). Personnel shortages made women welcome in positions formerly held by men. The control tower, the parachute loft, the post office, the photographic lab, and the dispensary were some of the posts in which they worked.
Naval Air Station Atlantic City participated in "Operation Boardwalk" in which Atlantic City hotels contracted to provide a comfortable environment for the many casualties returning from combat. By May 1944, large numbers of C-47 transports loaded with wounded arrived each month. The wounded were transported from the Pomona field to Atlantic City for "Rest and Recuperation." Their first stop was Thomas M. England General Hospital (Unbound NASAC 27).
Warnings on September 13 triggered steps to safeguard all aircraft from the approaching hurricane: Thirty-eight fighter planes were flown to Lakehurst; one hundred and thirty-eight fighter planes were secured in the two hangers; and forty-five planes were moored on the apron. The exposed planes were tied down headed in an easterly direction since the strongest winds would come from that direction (Unbound NASAC 28). All other aircraft were evacuated to fields away from the coast. Winds of more than eighty miles per hour were recorded before power went out, making it impossible to record the
full force of the storm. A civilian guard and the fire department maintained continuous shifts throughout the storm.
Although more than five hundred trees were uprooted at the station, and certain buildings sustained some water damage, no injuries or deaths were reported. Since there was no Marine Detachment at the station, security was maintained by civilians and the Coast Guard K-9 units (Will interview, 10/92). No damage to aircraft was noted. The diligence and farsightedness of the station personnel had paid off.
The towns of Atlantic City and Brigantine were not as fortunate as the Naval Air Station. All of Atlantic City and the training facility at the Brigantine Hotel (the Navy’s Combat Information Center) were hit hard. Shirley Youshaw, who lived in Atlantic City at the time, remembers water everywhere. The force of the storm broke off sections of
the Boardwalk and carried them as far as Arctic Avenue, four blocks away. The entire Heinz Pier was washed away, and never rebuilt (Youshaw interview, 10/92).
The Brigantine Hotel received the full force of the storm. More than seventy panes of glass were broken. The high tides put eighteen inches of water in the recreation hall and sixty-four inches in the boiler room. Four hundred tons of coal were washed away, but largely recovered later. The Navy sustained about ten thousand dollars worth of damage (Unbound NASAC, 32). High tides washed away the only bridge linking Atlantic City and Brigantine. Representatives of the Navy and Atlantic County agreed to split the cost of providing passage of personnel and freight by ferry service for those
living on Brigantine from November 1, 1944, to June 30, 1945. The Navy’s share amounted to $540 per week (Unbound NASAC 33).
The presence of the Naval Air Station had a clear and positive effect on the local community. The Navy spent six to eight million dollars building Naval Air Station Atlantic City (the figures differing among newspaper accounts), which created construction jobs for local contractors. Additional contracts are listed below:
July ‘43 Synthetic training building $55,000
July ‘43 New taxiway 35,000
July ‘43 Storage magazine 150,000
Jan ‘44 WAVE barracks 58,000
June ‘44 Rehabilitation of Brigantine Hotel for use 68,000
June ‘44 Coyle Field rocket range 12,910
Sept. ‘44 Hurricane damage to station 10,000
Sept. ‘44 50% of cost to supply Brigantine for 30 weeks 16,200
Apr. ‘45 Lean-to 200' x 20' 21,824
(Unbound NASAC 17, 20, 26, 32, 36)
Other projects for which no-cost figures were found consisted of: 50,000 square yards of paving in September 1943, and 44,000 square yards of new apron in March of 1944.
Navy personnel interacted with local residents when time permitted, although the demands of training limited liberty (free time). There were United Services Organization dances at the station. Ruth Stamps, of the Presbyterian Church in Pleasantville, remembers that church groups from the surrounding communities sponsored dances, parties or socials for Naval Air Station Atlantic City sailors (Stamps interview, 11/92).
Local merchants delivered produce and supplied other perishable products. Because housing was always a problem, local people who owned rental property also were kept busy providing apartments for sailors and their families.
In 1942, sailors’ pay of $50 per month put $106,000 into the economy from 2,116 enlisted men. Another $15,000 was available from 168 officers’ pay of $90 per month.
Nearly five hundred civilians were hired to work on the base. Some of these workers commuted to the base from Cape May, Lakewood, Trenton, Philadelphia and Norristown, Pennsylvania (Will interview, 10/92). Pay was modest, $900 to $1,000 a year. However, houses sold for $3,500 to $5,000, one area resident remembers. A Maytag wringer washing machine sold for less than eighty-five dollars, a gallon of gas for eleven or fifteen cents, a loaf of bread for between five and ten cents (Will interview, 10/92). Ten cents’ worth of candy would nearly fill a small paper bag; the Atlantic City Press/Evening Union cost three cents, and a movie just a dime (Youshaw interview, 10/92).
On January 15, 1945, Comdr. R. M. Signer, United States Navy, relieved Comdr. W. J. Junkerman, United States Navy Reserve, as commanding officer of the station (Unbound NASAC 36).
By the spring of 1945, as it became evident that World War II was drawing to a close, the United States Navy made plans to reduce all military training operations to consolidate and revamp the entire Fourth District’s future needs and to conserve manpower. Victory over Japan (V-J) Day saw this reduction in force greatly accelerated (War Hist. 6:4:18). At that time, Naval Air Station Cape May (hdqrs.), Naval Air Station Wildwood, and Naval Air Station Atlantic City were part of the Naval Air Base Command. Subsequently, the importance of these stations, as with others in the command, was greatly reduced.
The Navy declared the Cape May station as surplus by the spring of 1946. Before the year was over, Wildwood and Atlantic City stations had also been declared as surplus. Two big satellite fields with long runways at Georgetown, Delaware, and Woodbine, New Jersey, which were not close to populated areas, were reserved as emergency fields (War Hist. 6:4:19).
From August 15, 1945 onward, the status of Naval Air Station Atlantic City would seesaw back and forth. Would the Navy remain or would it close the station? Throughout the years, various articles appeared in the Atlantic City Press regarding the station’s fate. The Navy claimed it had the right to decide what aircraft could use the field. Atlantic City officials demanded that the Navy allow civilian aircraft to use the civilian terminal, where construction had begun originally in 1941. Finally, negotiations sponsored by State Senator Frank S. "Hap" Farley and United States Congressman Charles Sandman, succeeded in keeping the air station open at the same time that the commercial field was put in operation ("Planes," Atlantic City Press).
The issue, however, had not been finally resolved. As the jet replaced the propeller plane, the Navy had to keep pace. That meant longer runways and more space. By June 1957, the Navy announced that operations at Naval Air Station Atlantic City would end by July 1, 1960 (Atlantic City Press, 21 June 1957).
The Navy cited eight reasons for the closing:
1. The station’s location in a populated area generated public complaints of noise and hazards.
2. Air traffic density in the area was increasing.
3. The airfield was used jointly with civilian aircraft.
4. Adequate training required an outlying field for Field Carrier Landing practice, which was not available for Naval Air Station Atlantic City and could not be developed in the near future because of budgetary limitations.
5. Atlantic City lacked a suitable target for the required continuous practice of special weapons delivery tactics. Movement around the present target was restricted by civil airways.
6. Training was restricted by numerous confining airways and restrictive identification procedures. Further restriction would result from an
offshore airway between Dover, Delaware, and Cape Cod, Massachusetts, which was to be established.
7. Feasibility studies showed that runways could not be extended to the 10,000-foot sea level equivalent runways required for the type of operations carried out at Atlantic City.
8. Modernization of the temporary World War II facilities would cost many millions of dollars (Atlantic City Press, 27 June 1957).
The Navy claimed that the closing of Naval Air Station Atlantic City would save more than $3,000,000 a year (Naval Air News, 1958).
Again the field was saved. In 1956, a midair collision over the Grand Canyon, by two jetliners, forced Congress to create the Airways Modernization Board to develop a system for aircraft safety. State Senator Farley applied as much influence as possible to encourage the Secretaries of Commerce and Transportation to locate their field-testing experimental facility at Pomona, New Jersey, on the site of Naval Air Station Atlantic City ("Planes,"Atlantic City Press). In 1958, the newly created Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) took control of the Pomona Air Station from the Navy. The field’s new title was the National Aviation Facility Experimental Center (NAFEC).
At the same time, the New Jersey Air National Guard (then based at McGuire Air Force Base) was looking for a new home. In cooperation with the Federal Aviation Administration, the 177th Air National Guard Unit moved its operations to Atlantic City, where they both occupied the temporary buildings and hangers vacated by the Navy.