Narragansett Bay: A Friend's Perspective

The Navy in Residence

After the Revolutionary War, Congress took no steps to rebuild the fleet and establish a navy for the new nation. In the 1790s, when trouble with the French was developing, Congress did appropriate funds for a small navy. In the War of 1812, the British threatened merchant vessels on Lake Erie, and Oliver Hazard Perry of South Kingstown was asked to build a fleet and meet the British there. He took with him some local ship carpenters, journeyed to Lake Erie, and build ten small vessels. They fought a heavily armed British fleet on the lake in the battle of Put-in-Bay on Septemher 10, 1813. The British surrendered, and Perry sent the famous message "We have met the enemy and they are ours." It was Oliver's younger brother, Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry, who sailed into Tokyo Bay in 1853 with a squadron of warships and negotiated a treaty which opened the medieval nation of Japan to world trade.

The Navy didn't officially arrive in Rhode Island until the Civil War. The Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, was placed in jeopardy, and it was temporarily moved to Newport in 1863. Then in 1869, 24 men, including a chemist, started the Naval Torpedo Station on Goat Island, taking over Fort Wolcott, vintage 1794, from the Army. Meantime, a young lieutenant, Stephen B. Luce, was pursuing a dream creation—a War College where career Navy officers could polish their skills. He was opposed from within the Navy but persevered, and in 1884, a year after the Naval Training Station was started in Newport, he succeeded in setting up his naval "think tank" in the old Newport Asylum building on Coaster's Harbor Island.

The naval presence mushroomed in the decades that followed. The Newport Naval Hospital was established, also in 1884; the fleet Naval Reserve, in 1892; and the Melville Fuel Depot, first known as the Bradford Coaling Station, in 1901. The torpedo station, first planned as an experimental unit, periodically blew itself up, but expanded rapidly and began to manufacture and test torpedoes. The early spar torpedoes, fixed to the end of a pole lashed to the bow of a torpedo boat, were replaced by missiles with automatic guidance systems. New, fast torpedo boats were developed. The first of the new class was the Stiletto, launched by the Herreshoff Yard in 1887.

In 1900, the USS Holland, the Navy's first submersible, was brought to Newport, and torpedo station personnel manned her on maneuvers outside the Bay in which she penetrated surface vessel defenses and scored a theoretical 'hit' on a major United States warship. There were no underwater detection devices in those days, and the submarine soon changed military thinking about the strategy and tactics of naval warfare.

This was a period of rapid change in technology, and the Bay was the scene of many of the experimental approaches to naval warfare. The torpedo station took over Gould Island, farther up the East Passage, and established test facilities there which Included a seaplane base and balloon hangar. An early successful experiment involved the launching of a torpedo from a seaplane, a harbinger of things to come in World War II. During the First World War, the torpedo station employed 2,500 people. Later the numbers were to grow far larger.

The whole complex was known as the Second Naval District until after World War I, and the president of the War College was the commanding officer. Luce, who became a rear admiral, was the first president. After the war, another War College president argued that dual responsibilities were too great, and the Newport facilities were split and placed under the First Naval District in Boston.

When World War II arrived, further reorganization was necessary. The Newport Naval Base was created in 1941, and its commander was responsible in the chain of command for the new facilities on the North Kingstown shores across the Bay the Quonset Naval Air Station and the Naval Construction Battalion Center at Davisville.

Initially, World War I failed to affect activity on Narragansett Bay aside from the continuing buildup of naval facilities in the Newport area. America was a neutral nation for the first three years, although the industries of the Bay region turned out an impressive array of materials for England, France, and Belgium, and volunteers left the shore communities to serve under Allied commands and those at home rolled bandages and prepared packets of food and clothing for Belgian refugees.

The Bay communities, like those elsewhere, were subjected to constant campaigns by those who sought American commitment to the war and those who worked to maintain neutrality. Germany's submarine warfare helped to crystallize opinion. In May 1915, the British liner Lusitania was sunk with 1,195 casualties, including six from Rhode Island. On October 7, 1916, two German U-boats surfaced in New England waters, one entering the Thames at New London and the other sailing into Newport Harbor "to post a letter." The next day, six unarmed merchantmen were torpedoed and sunk off Nantucket.

By April 1917, when America entered the war, the industries around the Bay were well into war production. At Fields Point, on the Providence River, the Bethlehem Shipbuilding Company began to produce boilers for the new vessels that would carry troops and supplies to Europe, hitting a production schedule of one boiler a day - a record for those days. The Navy placed its vessels at the disposal of the Allies, joining the great British war fleet on blockade duty and in protecting convoys from submarine attack.

The Bay was a natural base for naval units. For almost 100 years the naval facilities expanded, and hundreds of millions of federal dollars went into construction, payrolls, supplies, and ships' stores. At the crest, 125 ships, including almost all of the Navy's destroyer force, were based in the Bay. Thousands of officers and men received their training at the Navy's Newport schools, and Quonset became the largest of the Navy's airbases and home port to a fleet of aircraft carriers.

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