A Century of Service: Naval Station Norfolk, Then and Now

The largest naval station in the world has been in service since June 28, 1917.


13News Now's Mike Gooding looks at the beginnings of Naval Station Norfolk and traces its development to the present day.

Part One: A Look Back

For 100 years, Naval Station Norfolk has been a fixture in the Hampton Roads area.

Founded shortly after the United States entered World War I in 1917, the largest naval base in the world has supplied ships, aircraft, and sailors for every war and conflict that America has fought, including the current fight against ISIS.

"When you understand the relevance and the meaning of Naval Station Norfolk to the U.S., the Navy, and its history, I'm obviously very honored and very proud to  be in the position today," said Captain Rich McDaniel, the 47th commanding officer of the base. "The mission of the base, to support the fleet and the family and the war-fighter, I take that very seriously. It's very humbling.”

McDaniel added, "It's pretty amazing the reach that Naval Station Norfolk has had over time, over the years. When you look at the history, I mean, you can't go anywhere on this base without touching a piece of the history.”

President Woodrow Wilson was in office when an Act of Congress on June 15, 1917 cleared the way for the founding of a naval operating base.

Workers broke ground on July 4 of that same year, and construction began on the site of the 1907 Jamestown Exposition.

Crews dredged eight million cubic yards of mud to provide appropriate docking facilities. On October 12, less than four months later, the first regiment moved in, and "NOB," as it was called, became operational.

PHOTOS: Naval Station Norfolk through the years

Retired Admiral Bill Gortney knows all about the base and its history.

From  2012 to 2014, he served as commanding officer of commander, U.S. Fleet Forces Command, based at Naval Station Norfolk. He's a booster of the base now as a member of the Navy League of Hampton Roads.

“I'm a history major, and quite frankly, you're not going to know where you're going to go in the future unless you know where you came from in the past,” he said. “So, I'm a firm believer in understanding our history and our rich heritage of our history of our great nation, and then of our naval forces that man, train and equip and prepare to go fight and win our nation's wars, and maintain the peace in those few years that are peaceful."

Gortney told 13News Now what has made Naval Station Norfolk successful all these years is its people.

“It's the great patriots, whether they're in uniform or they're civilians, the elected leadership, the business community, they do all work together to make it all finally happen in the end,” he said.

There were some dark days, including when the bombing of USS Cole took place in Yemen.

"There was increased interest in what the military calls force protection, counter terrorism, and that gave us  a little bit of time to prepare for the 9-11 attacks,” explained Retired Captain Joe Bouchard who was commanding officer from 2000 until 2003.

Bouchard explained that prior to the Cole attack and the September 11 attack in 2001, the base was pretty vulnerable.

"We had no way to protect the ships on the waterfront,” said Bouchard. “The water and the piers weren't even closed to the public. It was not a security zone until after  9-11, but whole base was wide open. at the end of the Cold War. The Navy had decided to make its bases open bases, so for example, the gates didn't have gates.  Anyone could come on, so the problems of the waterfront, in many respects, that was the least of my worries."

More than decade and a half later, the base is far more secure.

As for the future of Naval Station Norfolk, Bouchard and others believe it is bright.

"The base is going to be as important over the next hundred years as it has been the last hundred years,” Bouchard stated.

Gortney said, "I think the people of this great part of the state have nothing to fear because there is no place quite like operating out of the Tidewater area. He added, "And God is not creating any more waterfront. That's a certainty."

McDaniel told 13News Now, “As I look to the future, I'm excited, because as you look at the changes, with our ships, we're still going to be in the business of deploying ships globally, so I'm excited when I look ahead."


A look at plans for addressing transportation infrastructure in the Hampton Roads area given current and anticipated volumes of traffic tied to Naval Station Norfolk.

Part Two: Naval Station Norfolk and the Future of Transportation

The fact that President Donald Trump is looking to increase military spending by $54 billion dollars and grow the U.S. Navy's fleet from 275 ships to more than 350 ships highlights the importance of examining the Hampton Roads transportation infrastructure.

The possibility that the Navy could expand its fleet, the reality that the expansion could translate into more work for local shipyards, could bring an influx of sailors, skilled workers, and families to the area. If they come, they'll need to get from point to point.

"What's the future of light rail in Norfolk? What's the future of our road systems? What about our high speed rail coming down from the northeast? What about our air service?" asked President and C.E.O of the Hampton Roads Chamber Bryan Stephens when talking about how potential growth will be handled.

"You would also see the sailors go off base, rent housing, buy automobiles and motorcycles, spend at grocery stores." Robert McNab told 13News Now.

McNab, a professor of economics at Old Dominion University's Strome College of Business, monitors economic benefits of Naval Station Norfolk on the entire area. He also keeps track of factors that could have adverse effects.

"We need to be vigilant and to be prepared as a region to fend off any attempts to close bases here," he warned in reference to Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC).

The federal government has been using the BRAC process to close military installations for many years. Its goal is to increase efficiency in the U.S. Department of Defense.

BRAC led to the 2011 decommissioning of Fort Monroe.

Bill Crow, President of the Virginia Ship Repair Association, which represents 240 companies across the Commonwealth, said, "As we lose ships out of here, what you end up doing in regards to the naval station, the piers and everything that's built up for the Navy is that some of that many go unutilized."

Crow told 13News Now that, in Hampton Roads alone, ship repair companies employee some 40,000 workers.

If Trump's efforts to increase military spending and expand the fleet are successful that number would likely grow, and more workers means more commuters.

The Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization (HRTPO) monitors current transportation issues and examines ways to mitigate anticipated trouble tied to future growth.

"We got a pretty good idea of what commuters were experiencing," said Sam Belfield, a senior transportation engineer for HRTPO.

The organization conducted a survey of commuters, which found that it takes the average military commuter 45 minutes to get to work every morning. The time for other commuters was only 24 minutes.

"We've looked at ways of getting them out of their cars into other means, whether its car pools, van pools," Belfield told 13News Now.

While improvements to Interstate 564 are expected to help, there is a continued effort to encourage people to use mass transit.

The survey of military commuters found that many drivers (69% of respondents) don't know about incentives for using mass transit. That includes a $125 reimbursement for using Hampton Roads Transit to commute to and from Naval Station Norfolk. Belfield said the HRTPO and the Navy are spreading the word out about the program.

There is a study underway looking at the possibility of expanding the Tide light rail system to Naval Station Norfolk. Currently, that study is looking at potential routes and the impact the extension would have on some neighborhoods.

Although fully autonomous cars are not available yet, HRTPO already is looking at how the technology could help improve driving in Hampton Roads.

Automakers have sold vehicles with limited versions of it, and the U.S. Department of Transportation released its policy guidelines for automated vehicles in 2016. The guidelines highlight the benefits of autonomous vehicles such as their abilities to detect hazardous conditions and and prevent crashes. Autonomous vehicles also can communicate with other cars on the road which allows them to make adjustments that prevent slowdowns and keep traffic moving smoothly.


13News Now Marcella Robertson has the story

Part Three: 'It's like a game of Tetris'

Naval Station Norfolk is home to dozens of military ships. You can find everything from aircraft carriers to destroyers docked at more than a dozen piers. Each ship has a mission and an assignment, but moving them is no easy feat.

“It’s like a game of Tetris,” said Lt. Jay Collette.

Inside a small watchtower that overlooks the piers, you will find watch standers. They are in charge of all of the ships' movements, making sure they are exactly where they need to be. The process of moving a ship involves a lot of teamwork and trust. It begins with scheduling, figuring out which ships need to leave base, and which ones are coming home.

“On a busy day, our average is about 10 to 13 moves, ships getting in and out,” said Collette.

It is the watch stander’s job to keep an eye on commercial ships, small boats, barges, divers, and, of course, military ships. They have to ensure that none of those ever come in contact with each other unintentionally. Without the okay from the watchtower, nothing is moving anywhere on the water. While the people in the tower are the eyes in the sky, sailors known as dock masters are the ones on the pier who actually walk the ships in.

“We’re the ships' eyes and guiding them to where they need to go. We’re talking with tower and scheduling to make sure we put the ship exactly where it needs to be,” said Boatswain’s Mate First Class (BM1) Joshua Carrell.

Together, they make sure every arrival and departure is as smooth as possible. When you’re in charge of moving billion-dollar military ships, trust is critical.

“Without all of us working as a group, we wouldn’t be able to do it,” said Carrell.

PHOTOS: Ships and Tugboats

Tugboat captains and their crews also are a major part of this operation. Pete Bailey has been working the waterways in Hampton Roads for nearly two decades. He’s the captain of one of seven tugboats assigned to Naval Station Norfolk.

The tugboats are really the ones doing all the work because the military ships are too big to get in and out of the piers on their own. If a ship is coming back to port, tugboats take people called pilots out to the ship once it’s close.

“That’s why we’re here, to help the Navy run their show,” Bailey told 13News Now.

The tugboats' tremendous versatility allows them to get close enough so that pilots can climb from one ship to another. Once the pilot is on the ship, it’s nothing but teamwork from there.

“You have the band conductor who is the pilot, and then, you have all the instruments -- or the tugboats -- who are under the order of the pilot to get the ships safely in and out of the pier,”

The tugs maneuver, push, and pull the ship until it’s in the right position to go off on its own.  

“It’s a sense of accomplishment after every job is done. Either the sailors are safely at the dock and they can go home, or the ship is safely out to sea to do its mission,” said Bailey.

These tugboat captains and their crews may not wear a traditional military uniform, but they are doing their part to serve their country.


The primary objective of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron Five is search and rescue and providing anti-surface warfare while at sea.

Chapter Four: The Nightdippers

For Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron Five, known as "The Nighdippers," the day typically starts with a morning brief.

On this particular day, the squadron will be working with special operations. More specifically, its members will be performing drills with the Explosive Ordinance Disposal Unit you may have seen in the movie The Hurt Locker.

“It’s probably the most fun mission we do,” said Lt. Cole Fahey.

Fahey is a helicopter pilot with the squadron.

The squadron’s primary objective is search and rescue and providing anti-surface warfare while at sea.

“I think my job is the best enlisted job in the military,” said PO Darren Brown. “I get to fly, for one, and I’m always seeing new things.”

The mission has a team of four taking off from Naval Station Norfolk which the squadron calls home.

“I’m definitely proud to be here,” said Fahey. “I’m proud to be a part of the Navy’s team.”

Squadron members end up at Fort Story where they meet up with their special ops unit.

“Spin back up and load them into the helicopter,” said Fahey. “Then, drop ropes out of the side of the helicopter, and then they’ll slide down the ropes.”

The exercises are fast and oftentimes repetitive, and that’s the point.

Getting it right the first time is the difference between life and death when they leave these training grounds.

"They're putting their life in your hands, and you're putting your life in their hands," Fahey told 13News Now. "I can't imagine doing anything else."

13News Now's Mike Gooding looks at the significance Naval Station Norfolk holds in the identity of the Hampton Roads area.

Chapter Five: The Tradition, The Future

"The Navy has both a tradition and a future, and we look with pride and confidence in both directions," said once Chief of Naval Operations Arleigh Burke.

The same could be said for Naval Station Norfolk.

Old Dominion University historian and former Congressman Bill Whitehurst was part of the tradition.

In 1941, when Whitehurst was 16 years old, he got a job at the base as a carpenter’s helper. He helped build a warehouse. He was paid $5 a day.

Years later, as a member of the House Armed Services Committee , Whitehurst did what he could to steer federal dollars into the base.

He said the installation has played a pivotal role in the American story, and it is a vital piece of the fabric which makes up Hampton Roads.

“I will say this. It's been a very, very good neighbor,” said Whitehurst, "and the people who came here, personnel and their families, the children attend our schools, they're good people. They pay their taxes. They obey the laws, and it's nice to have them here, and they add a cosmopolitan quality, I think."

Author Amy Yarsinske wrote a book called The Navy Capital of the World: Hampton Roads.

"It's that legacy of service," she said, "service above self and service that were provided from this particular point on the East Coast that is more extraordinary than I've seen come out of any other places that I've covered."

It's a story that Joe Judge never gets tired of telling to the 120,000 people who visit the Hampton Roads Naval Museum.

"The story of Naval Station Norfolk is the men and women who work there, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, supporting the fleet  and they've done so for a hundred years, through every major conflict our country has faced,” said Judge, who is the museum's curator.

He noted the tale of Naval Station Norfolk has many more chapters to come.

“I don't think the base's mission for the Navy -- protecting American interests and the world -- is ever going to change,” explained Judge, "and I think the amount of infrastructure and the different commands here are going to mean there's always going to be some kind of Navy presence here."

WATCH: 13News Now presents a special report - Naval Station Norfolk: 100 Years of Service

JOIN THE CONVERSATION

To find out more about Facebook commenting please read the
Conversation Guidelines and FAQs

Leave a Comment
Chapters