By the time the Japanese launched their sneak attack on Pearl Harbor 75 years ago this month, Rhode Island had already been gearing up for America’s potential entry into World War II. At the mouth of Narragansett Bay and along the shoreline facing ocean waters, the Army’s massive coast defense forts were manned primarily by members of the Rhode Island’s National Guard 243rd Coast Artillery Regiment, which had been called up to Federal service in 1940 as part of the Harbor Defense Command (Company I, the Searchlight Battery, had been stationed at the Varnum Memorial Armory). Coast defense installations would soon be operational from Watch Hill to Little Compton, supporting similar installations along the Eastern Seaboard.
The U.S. Navy had maintained a massive presence in Rhode Island for many years, and a beneficiary of President Franklin Roosevelt’s preparedness initiatives was the massive pre-war expansion that included the Quonset Point Naval Air Station, new facilities at the Naval Operating Base in Newport and the Torpedo Station, the Naval Construction Battalion facility at Davisville, the Motor Torpedo Boat Squadrons Training Center at Melville, and auxiliary naval airfields in Charlestown and Westerly. The Navy would train hundreds of thousands of men and women at these facilities during the war.
The U.S. Army Air Force took over Hillsgrove State Airport in April of 1942 and trained fighter pilots there throughout the war. Also early on in the conflict, the Harbor Defense Command completed the construction of Fort Varnum and Fort Greene (the latter one of two sites for massive 16-inch naval gun batteries capable of hurling a 1-ton projectile some 25 miles out to sea. A second 16-inch battery was built at Fort Church in Little Compton). An integrated fire control and observation system along the coast and on Block Island controlled all the state’s coast defenses.
Almost immediately, Rhode Island’s coastline was sealed off to civilians. The military, along with civilian volunteers, patrolled the beaches. Blackouts soon went into effect as far north as Woonsocket and were strictly enforced. Meanwhile, the state’s industries, recovering from the devastating impact of the Great Depression years, continued their rapid changeover from manufacture of peacetime goods to supplying the tools of war from anti-aircraft guns, to Liberty ships and patrol boats, uniforms, rubber products, and so much more. Civilian workers rallied to the cause, including thousands of women who entered the work force in traditionally male jobs.
We’ve shared stories of the Liberty ships built in Providence and the secret listening post at Chopmist Hill in previous editions of the Varnum News. In future columns, we’ll weave a few tales about harbor defenses, PT boats, torpedoes, and other aspects of our state’s contributions to the war effort. But this month, here’s the story of Block Island’s role in the war.
The state’s populace was reeling with the news of Pearl Harbor by the end of the day on Sunday, December 7, 1941. Military bases were under high alert around the state, and the civilian population was worried about sneak attacks by … well, whoever might try (Germany was already sinking ships along our coast and on December 11, would join Italy and Japan in the war against the U.S). There would be instances of sabotage during the war as well. Our own Block Island, 8 miles from the closest point on the mainland, is actually at the greatest distance from the mainland or other islands, than any other town on the Atlantic coast. In the minds of some state and Federal officials, that put the island’s residents in jeopardy.
On December 8, an officer from the First Army Command (which covered New England) landed on Block Island and went straight to the home of William Doggett, who in 1928 had built a handsome stone cottage and tower on Beacon Hill, the island’s highest point. Doggett was told to move his family out immediately. The army was taking over the property for the duration. Six years would pass before they were to return home.
The Army wanted Beacon Hill as one of a series of six sites for eight observation towers to support the massive 16-inch gun batteries on the Rhode Island coast. Heavy caliber weapons were also in place on Fishers Island in Connecticut and Montauk Point on Long Island. The huge 16-inch weapons, originally intended for use on battleships that the U.S. Navy never built as a result of the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty, were being brought out of storage for coast defense. The guns could send a shell the size of a small automobile high over Block Island and some 25 miles out to sea well beyond the current site of the wind farm off Mohegan Bluffs (the USS Massachusetts in Fall River is armed with the same size main batteries). Their combined ranges could cover an arc from Martha’s Vineyard across the eastern end of Long Island.
The Doggett House with its stone tower was ready made. The Army soon built a concrete observation post disguised as a cottage adjacent to the Doggett house and completed a total of eight structures, all designed to look like summer cottages, at key points ringing the island’s coastline. Similar examples can be found today at the National Guard’s Camp Varnum in Narragansett: wood shingled on one side with 12- inch thick concrete walls facing the ocean. These fire control points were equipped with Depression Position Finders, sophisticated telescopes that could measure the distance and compass angle of any targeted ship. The information would be communicated to the Harbor Entrance Command Post at the tip of Beavertail, the Narragansett Bay Defense Command Headquarters at #Fort Adams#, and ultimately to the Army’s Regional Command Center on Governors Island in New York harbor.
In 1940, the Army had built four 40-foot by 100-foot barracks north of the Weather Bureau at New Harbor. But they were never occupied. After the war, they were sold and the owners converted them into rental apartments and a bait shop. The small numbers of Army personnel assigned to observation duty were housed in the cottages attached to the fire control posts. The Navy converted the Pier 76 Yacht Club near Champlin’s Pier into a barracks and used it during the war.
None of Rhode Island’s coast defenses were ever fired against an enemy. They were test fired several times during the war, including the 16-inch battery at Fort Greene, much to the dismay of people living the vicinity and the Block Islanders who lived under the test shells’ trajectories. (The 16-inch battery located at Fort Church in Sakonnet was never fired.) Eventually, as the threat of invasion disappeared, smaller anti-boat and anti-aircraft weapon were installed along the coastline to replace the large caliber guns.
In World War I, the Navy had maintained a significant presence on Block Island, with some 350 sailors and nurses. The old Narragansett Inn overlooking the Great Salt Pond served as headquarters. Sailors lived in tent camps, and several other buildings were taken over for various purposes and several small caliber harbor defense batteries were installed. The Navy stationed a squadron of anti-submarine patrol vessels in New Harbor throughout the war.
But when World War II came around, there were no similar plans in place. The Army and Navy’s huge presence on the mainland was considered sufficient. However, the State Defense Council in its wisdom decided that the island’s 671 residents should be evacuated. They came calling in January of 1942 and met with island officials who were adamant in their opposition to evacuation. As far as defenses were concerned, they retorted they were quite capable of enforcing a blackout from the island’s central power station. They had more volunteers for firefighting and beach patrol than needed (besides, the Coast Guard also provided an armed coastal patrol force). If any Germans tried to land on the island, said the residents, the Navy could be there by air in minutes and by sea pretty fast as well.
The mainland bureaucrats were getting more frustrated by the minute with these hard-boiled Yankees. Finally, they tried to convince the residents’ committee they might starve on the island. Not a problem. The islanders could feed themselves and live off the bounty of the surrounding ocean, thank you very much. As one grizzled islander pointed out, “you can’t trap lobsters or dig clams on Westminster Street (in Providence).” In the end, the Block Islanders viewed evacuation as running away, something they hadn’t done since the first settlers arrived in the 1600s.
The meeting ended and the state officials were sent home on the next boat. On January 28, 1942, the General Assembly passed a resolution congratulating the islanders on their bravery and their patriotism. And that was the last said about evacuation.
A number of fishermen served as volunteer observers, keeping watch for enemy submarines in nearby waters during the war. Ninety-five Block Islanders fought for their country. Only one man, Albert Gooley, was killed in action when his destroyer was sunk in 1944. We’ve told you the story of the two U.S. Navy escort carriers that bore the name USS Block Island. The first was sunk in the Atlantic; the second served through the end of the war in the Pacific. Her ships bell is enshrined in Veteran’s Park near New Harbor.
The closest the island came to the ravages of the war came in May of 1945. Rhode Island’s coast defense facilities were already in caretaker status when, on the day before Germany surrendered, Navy and Coast Guard ships sunk the U-853 7 miles east of Block Island, a well-known piece of local history. Ironically, it was sonar that assisted in the destruction of the U-853, and not the island’s fire control stations.
So what happened to the Block Island observation sites? After the war, the Doggetts returned to their home. Rather than go through a lot of red tape, the Doggetts settled for keeping the observation post and cottage the army had built on their property and restored the old cottage themselves. Of the eight observation posts constructed during the war on the island, only four (including the Doggett’s tower and the Army-built cottage) remain today. All are private homes. The Doggett’s stone cottage still stands proudly on the highest point on the island, its panoramic view now somewhat marred by a McMansion that was built in 2004 right on the coastline in front of it.