By Gina Nichols, Senior Archivist/Head of Collections Department, U.S. Navy Seabee Museum
How did a small Bureau of less than 100 people support the burgeoning fleet during WWI?
In 1916, prior to joining World War I, the United States began a gigantic six-year program of naval expansion. In that year, Congress allowed the Navy to contract for 813,000 tons of new vessels, the biggest step toward naval power the U.S. had taken thus far in its history. From 1916 to 1922, the Navy added 10 battleships, 1 aircraft carrier, 287 destroyers, and 88 submarines to the fleet. This process, which would place the United States second on the list of world naval powers, taxed the naval shipbuilding facilities and exceeded their capabilities early on.
The Bureau of Yards and Docks (BuDocks), charged with the design and construction of all Navy facilities and structures, oversaw an enormous amount of construction during World War I including building training and hospital facilities, shipyard development, dry docks, power plants, ordnance depots, and storage facilities. The Shore Station Development Board, established in 1916, served the dual purpose of coordinating the various BuDocks construction and public works programs and making general long-range plans to guide the development of the shore establishment to support the fleet.
Once the U.S. declared war, the Navy underwent phenomenal growth in war materiel and personnel. The total expenditures for all construction projects completed from 1916-1918 were more than the total expenditure made at all navy yards and naval station during the preceding 116 years. The overall shore establishment more than doubled in value from about $211 million to $469 million.
Two major developments during this period were the creation of air stations and submarine bases, which required concept drawings and plans for the new type of naval facility. When the U.S. joined World War I on April 6, 1917, the Navy had 38 pilots, 163 aviation assistants, and 54 airplanes, though none was capable of or equipped for war service. Pensacola remained the only naval air station in the country although its facilities were limited, consisting of only three steel seaplane hangars, a brick structure used as a hangar, an airship shed mounted on a barge, and a few service buildings.
Upon declaration of war, the possibility of submarine depredations and the effectiveness of air patrols as a protective measure led to the immediate establishment of air-patrol stations at strategic points on the Atlantic coast. BuDocks constructed thirteen naval air facilities from Nova Scotia to Panama to guard the coast against German submarines. By the end of the war, the Navy also built forty-four naval air installations in Europe to assist our allies.
The first continental submarine base in New London, Connecticut was commissioned by the Navy in December 1915. From 1916-1918, BuDocks built eight finger piers at New London, together with storehouses, shops, and barracks for the new “Silent Force.” Other submarine stations were soon established at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii; Coco Solo, Panama; and Hampton Roads, Virginia.
Another new construction challenge revolved around the fleet transitioning from coal to oil as the major propellant for naval vessels. This required the construction of Petroleum-Oil-Lubricant (POL) storage and refueling facilities, including tanks, pipelines, and pumping plants, at numerous strategic bases around the country to stockpile fuel reserves and maintain fleet operations.
While the Navy had begun exploring radio as a means of rapid communication between the fleet and the shore establishment at the turn of the 20th century, the number and capacity of transmitters at naval radio stations increased exponentially during the war. Early naval radio stations used small antennae supported from wood-guyed masts at a low height. With increasing demands for distance, more powerful equipment and larger antennae became necessary.
During World War I, the Navy built towers, buildings, and other facilities in addition to the construction of several 600-foot high radio towers at Cavite, Pearl Harbor, and San Diego. Similar stations were also built at Cayey, Puerto Rico, and Greenbury Point, Maryland. In 1919, the Navy was instrumental in helping to create the Radio Corporation of America. It began scheduled broadcasts in 1920 from Naval Support Facility Anacostia making it the first radio broadcast in the District of Columbia.
Other major accomplishments during the war include construction of the massive Navy and War Department buildings near the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial; the U.S. Helium Production Plant for lighter-than-air craft; and the U.S. Naval Hospital Washington, D.C. Pneumonia Wards used during the 1918 Influenza Epidemic. After the war, BuDocks managed the salvage and disposition of surplus materials, constructed berthing for deactivated ships, and administered the deactivation or disposal of stations, hospitals, and training camps.
The year prior to the U.S. entering the war had been a time of rapid transition from a peacetime to a wartime economy, and the Navy’s public works program had to align itself with the country’s wartime plan. Part of the Navy’s successful construction effort during the war can be directly linked to the previous 116 years of public works construction, management, and growth. This structure and experience increased the Navy’s ability to react and effect change quickly in the face of impending war and, unknowingly, prepare for the global war to come.
Nichols, Gina. The Stone Frigate: a pictorial history of the U.S. Naval Shore Establishment, 1800-1941. Pennsylvania: Schiffer Publishing, 2013.