Saturday, July 7, 2012

Navy Pier at War

United States Navy Planes over the Pier
in 1942 (Tribune Photo)
Just short of two months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States Navy began its occupation of Navy Pier in Chicago.  The process of acquiring the pier began in August of 1941 when the Navy leased both upper levels and the eastern half of the lower levels of Navy Pier from the city, paying $120,000 for the first year and $60,000 for the second.

On October 20, 1941 the first group of 184 sailors and 75 marines took up quarters at the pier.  The plan was to increase that number to 6,000 by January 1 and to 10,000 by the middle of 1942.

In preparation for this major effort 40,000 feet of pipe was installed for a half-mile of showers, a heating plant, toilet facilities, and kitchens.  Work was begun on a theater that would seat 2,500, a gymnasium, a 12-chair barber shop, a tailor shop, a cobbler, and a hospital to be manned by nine physicians and a dozen dentists.

Getting the grub ready for hungry sailors at Navy Pier (Tribune Photo)
When the kitchens and dining rooms were up and running, 3,000 sailors and marines would be fed every hour.  The operation would be run by 250 cooks, 50 bakers, and 300 ship’s cooks.  Among other things eight coffee urns with a total capacity of 480 gallons would be kept brewing.

When the facility opened, there were 2,102 triple deck beds, 6,304 mess kits, and 6,303 lockers.  Enough showers had been created to bathe 6,000 men in 90 minutes.

Contrary to modern-day opinion, the purpose of the converted Navy Pier was not to train aircraft carrier pilots.  (That training did take place on Lake Michigan, using two converted lake steamers as flat-tops, but the planes, for the most part flew out of Glenview Naval Air Station).  Navy Pier was responsible for the education of aviation mechanics with courses in everything from welding to parachute folding.

Airplane assembly at Navy Pier (Tribune Photo)
During the course of study for an aviation machinist’s mate, for example, a trainee would be educated in simple arithmetic, blinker and semaphore signaling, hand tool and bench work, rope and fabric technique, cable splicing, airplane wheels and brakes, propellers, plane structure, airplane electrical equipment and accessories, gunnery and airplane engines. 

By July of 1942 Navy Pier was the largest training school of its type in the world, a place where thousands of sailors and marines trained to become metalsmiths, aviation mechanics, and diesel operators.  Most of the instructors were furnished by Chicago vocational schools through the cooperation of the Chicago Board of Education.

Navy Pier Abandon Ship Drill (Tribune Photo)
By August of 1942 student swimmers were being taught how to slide down a 65-foot rope into the sea and how to protect themselves against sharks and barracudas.   “Our chief aim is to remove fear of water from the minds of the men,” one instructor said.  “Thousands of lives will be saved if they know how to swim and take care of themselves in the water.” [Chicago Tribune, August 28, 1941]  Sailors were also trained in how to prepare for a gas attack in a specially constructed chamber in which they donned gas masks as part of the training.

Navy Pier was one of seven major and 35 smaller training stations that the United States Navy established for maintenance men, ground crews, and technicians.  Chicago was the center of the network.  Rear Admiral Cushing Read, who supervised the Navy’s technical schools throughout the country, said of the Chicago operation, “Heroes from the war fronts are returning to the Navy Pier school and the training center at 87th and Anthony Avenue to become better prepared to keep planes, bombs and guns in fighting trim.  Others will instruct younger men in the work of keeping air supremacy under battle conditions.”

The massive gymnasium at the pier (Tribune Photo)
By November of 1942 the longest swimming pool in the city, measuring 75 by 164 feet, had been constructed in a building adjacent to the pier.  By March of 1943 the galley at Navy Pier was using 7,500 pounds of meat at a meal, 9,000 pounds of potatoes, 1,400 pounds of bread, 1,700 pounds of milk and 1,500 pounds of onions.

From the middle of November until December 3 of 1944 more than four million people visited the Navy’s Pacific Theater exhibit at Navy Pier.  Mounted to spur sales of War Bonds, the exhibit included landing craft, ordinance and other war material, along with celebrity appearances, and an opportunity, for two days, to tour the U. S. S. Wolverine.  Over the two weeks, further north, at least a half-dozen “invasions” of the Foster Avenue Beach were staged.

Keeping them airborne, the purpose of the WWII Navy Pier (Tribune Photo)
In the space of a year the war was over.  The U. S. S. Wolverine and the U. S. S. Cable, the two converted aircraft carriers, were retired after training 14,595 carrier pilots and conducting 136,428 landings.  In one month alone, November of 1944, on the two ships 889 carrier pilots passed their qualification tests.

By August of 1945 Navy Pier was being used primarily as a Separation Center as returning veterans made the transition to civilian life although this operation was soon quickly transferred to the Great Lakes Navy Training Center to the north.  In the middle of 1946 the Navy returned the pier to the City of Chicago after graduating 60,000 servicemen, an operation that clearly constituted an important contribution to the Allied war effort.

1 comment:

Eliza Winters said...

First of all, I'd like to thank you! The history of Navy Pier, especially at the influential time of WWII is very interesting. I am doing a history fair project for school that could benefit from your research. Would you mind posting the sources for this information? It would be greatly appreciated. :)