Long-time Rhode Islanders have many memories of Quonset Point Naval Air Station and the neighboring Davisville Seabee Base: 20th century additions to the Navy’s longtime commitment to the Ocean State. A Naval aviation presence began here in 1918 with the first tests of air-dropped torpedoes in the waters of the Bay. Before long, the sight and sound of military aircraft became familiar in our skies.
As America geared up for its eventual entry into World War II, the Navy acquired a huge tract of land in North Kingstown, RI. It would become one of the largest Naval Air Stations in the east. Within a year and a few months, following a whirlwind construction program by thousands of workers, the Navy commissioned NAS Quonset on 12 July 1941. The adjacent Davisville Seabee Base (Camp Endicott) that trained more than 100,000 men during the war was completed the following year. But that’s another story.
NAS Quonset quickly became a major training and support facility. Over the years, it would be home to a variety of squadrons from carrier-based fighter and torpedo bombing units to anti-submarine fixed wing aircraft and helicopters of the Cold War era. Quonset played an active role in the Navy’s transition from propeller to jet-powered planes. Its overhaul facilities (later known as Air Rework) serviced and returned thousands of damaged aircraft to duty during (and after) World War II. But, for those who lived along the shores of the Bay between 1941 and 1974, perhaps one of the most memorable sights were the aircraft carriers that regularly called at NAS Quonset, from the small, but vital WW II-era escorts to modern angled flight deck ships. Over the years, several flattops were also home ported in Rhode Island.
Before the naval air station was fully complete, PBY seaplanes were already operating from a single hangar and ramp, participating in the Neutrality Patrols the protected our coastline. Following the Pearl Harbor Attack, things really heated up at Quonset and remained so until its closure. During the war, fifteen thousand pilots (including the late President George H.W. Bush) received advanced training at NAS Quonset and the auxiliary airfields at Charlestown and Westerly, RI. Thousands of aircraft moved in and out of the base, either new to be prepped for shipment overseas or arriving for repair or refit. As part of their training, pilots practiced carrier takeoffs and landings and also participated in anti-submarine patrols. During training, there were countless training mishaps and crashes, with the base earning the nickname “Crack-a-Day Quonset” at one point. Sadly, there were also a number of training fatalities. According to some records, more F6F Hellcats were lost in training here than were shot down by the Japanese in air-to-air combat. Pilots also trained in the use of airborne radar, which was perfected at a top-secret facility on Conanicut Island.
Many people think that the base was homeport to a number of carriers during World War II. In fact, during those years, only one full-sized carrier was based here: USS Ranger (CV-4). Although she was a frequent visitor, she was actually homeported at Quonset for just a brief period in 1944. Commissioned in 1934, Ranger was the first to be totally designed and built as a carrier (the Navy’s first flattop, Langley, was a converted collier. Lexington and Saratoga were built on battle cruiser hulls).
Ranger was a little under 15,000 tons and 730-feet long. She could accommodate up to 86 aircraft, but usually carried fewer than sixty. Too small to serve with the large Fleet carriers in the Pacific, she never saw combat there. She spent virtually all of her service life in the Atlantic theater and was the only large carrier to regularly serve out of Quonset. Between January and April 1944, her homeport period here, she trained pilots in carrier takeoffs and landings. Later that year, she sailed for Panama, transited the canal and eventually served briefly out of the Pearl Harbor Naval Base providing training for night fighter pilots. However, one of her more important missions occurred in April of 1942, when she ferried fighter aircraft from Quonset Point for eventual service with the famed Flying Tigers in China. Curtis P-40 Warhawks pilots took off from the carrier and landed ashore in Accra. The carrier returned in July with a second squadron of Warhawks bound for China.
In November, Ranger would launch her own aircraft, fighters and bombers, against targets during the invasion of North Africa (Operation Torch). She then served in the North Atlantic, at one point participating in attacks on German forces in Norway sinking 3,000 tons of enemy shipping. She remained a high priority target for the Germans who, in 1944, claimed to have sunk her, but their propaganda broadcast was quickly refuted. In 1945, near the end of the war, Ranger transited the Panama Canal to briefly serve at Pearl Harbor. She then returned to the east coast, was decommissioned in Philadelphia in 1946 and scrapped the following year. All in all, from 1941 to 1974, Quonset was visited by more than three dozen carriers, from the little workhorse escorts to the famed fleet carriers.
Quonset saw frequent visits by the smaller escort carriers (or CVEs) during the war. They not only ferried aircraft to and from Europe. They were also active in hunter-killer groups that protected vital convoys, seeking out and attacking U-boats. Built on merchant hulls, lightly armed, and carrying between fifteen and thirty fighters and torpedo bombers, they were too slow to serve with their bigger sisters, the Fleet carriers, but they provided much needed service in supporting convoys.
Ships including the Bogue, Core, and Croatan were familiar sights at the Quonset carrier pier. A total of seven were serviced at Quonset in 1944 alone. Two escorts, both named Block Island, carried the Hope State’s name into the war. The first, CVE-21, was sunk by a U-boat in the South Atlantic in 1944. Her crew (all but six men survived the sinking) was given the unusual opportunity of transferring to a new carrier (CVE-106) with the same name. The first Block Island did make a brief visit to Quonset, but was never stationed here. The second Block Island, spent her entire service in the Pacific (although the ship’s bell is today proudly displayed in Block Island’s Memorial Park). At one point, escorts would moor off the Naval Operating Base in Newport if there was no room for them at Quonset’s only carrier pier. If needed, they would offload damaged aircraft that would be barged up to Quonset for repair.
Quonset provided maintenance and supplies as well as brief shore recreation for carrier crews between patrols. Among the more famous Quonset visitors was the escort carrier Guadalcanal, that participated in the capture of the U-505 in the South Atlantic in June of 1944 (that U-boat, recovered intact, is now on display at Chicago’s Museum of Science). Thanks to the pilots and crew of the Guadalcanal, and the other ships and men of the anti-submarine warfare (ASW) unit, the Navy had a unique chance to go over a state-of-the-art German submarine inch by inch. They recovered numerous secret papers and a valued Enigma code machine that greatly aided the war effort.
With victory in 1945, things downsized briefly at Quonset, but soon geared up again with the outbreak of fighting in Korea. During the brief peacetime interval, the jet age arrived at Quonset and the light carrier, USS Saipan (CVL-48), while based here, qualified the Navy’s first operational jet fighter squadron in 1950. Quonset also became a staging and modification facility for Naval aircraft that would operate at the South Pole in the decades to follow. Another Pacific veteran, the USS Cabot (CVL-28) arrived at Quonset after her commissioning in 1943 and served throughout the Pacific before returning to Quonset after the war. She was reconfigured as an anti-submarine warfare training vessel and remained in that capacity until she was mothballed in 1955 and eventually transferred to the Spanish Navy. Plans to return her to the U.S. as a museum ship failed and she was eventually scrapped in 2002.
The Korean War brought new levels of activity to the base. The Fleet carriers Leyte, Randolph, and Kearsarge were frequent visitors to the carrier pier. Damaged aircraft were repaired at the rework facilities and returned to the fleet. With the Fleet’s conversion to jet aircraft, a new type of carrier deck layout was mandated. The USS Antietam (CVS-36) became the first angled deck carrier and Quonset was chosen as her first home port.
Almost as soon as the Korean Armistice took effect, the Cold War began and soon intensified Quonset’s role as it became a principal player in anti-submarine activities in the Atlantic. Carriers in the Atlantic rotated between NAS Quonset and the Norfolk (VA) Naval Base, with our ships and aircraft shadowing Soviet submarines and surface craft off our coastlines. Rotary aircraft had advanced to the level where they became important platforms in ASW patrols and Quonset saw its share of helicopter squadron activities.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis and blockade, the Korean War veteran carrier USS Champlain (CVS-39), known as “The Champ”, provided valued service. She was homeported at Quonset between 1958 and 1960. Converted from her original role as a Fleet carrier to ASW service, she went on to participate in the space program recovering our early astronauts as they landed at sea. She was the only Essex-class carrier not to be reconfigured with an angled flight deck and the last to remain in service with a straight line, or axial flight deck.
As one of the finest deep water ports on the East Coast, Narragansett Bay’s Quonset was home port to some of the Navy’s most famous Fleet carriers, including Essex (CV-9), Intrepid (CV-11), Wasp (CV-18), and their respective air groups. These 27,000-ton ships were state of the art with deck edge elevator and addition to a pair of center deck elevators, making launch and recovery of aircraft much more efficient. Catapult systems accommodated the heavier fighter and torpedo bombers of the war. Essex-class carriers (except Lake Champlain) that remained active into the 1970s were also equipped with angled flight decks. Quonset would be intimately involved in carrier air group training as these innovations were added to the Fleet.
In the 1970s, Quonset based and operational carriers were active in the growing space program acting as recovery vessels for the first manned space flights including the moon landing missions. Among these was the Quonset-based Intrepid, which served from World War II through the Vietnam War. She became flagship of Carrier Division 16 in 1969 while at Quonset. Today, of course, Intrepid, a National Historic Landmark, is moored in New York where she serves as a world-famed sea, air and space museum.
But, at Quonset, things were not as rosy. The Nixon-era military budget cuts in the 1970s had Quonset and other Rhode Island military facilities in its sights. On 28 June 28 1974, Quonset was decommissioned. The Navy offered the land and buildings to the State of Rhode Island and Quonset would begin a new life. Today, the Quonset Development Corporation oversees the QPD Industrial Park, home to some 200 companies employing more than 11,000 workers. (The Seabee base at Davisville would survive until 1994 when it was finally decommissioned and the property also turned over to the state).
Naval Station Newport saw cutbacks as well in 1974, with the departure of the Atlantic Destroyer Force. But, NAVSTA Newport remains a vital military facility today, home to some fifty education and support commands as well as the Naval War College and the Naval Undersea Warfare Center. These facilities are a major contributor to the state’s economy.
For three and a half decades, four wars, and the evolution of the space program, NAS Quonset Point served as a major component of our country’s naval operations. Generations of young men and women learned their military skills ashore, in the air, and at sea here in Rhode Island. Their exploits in every corner of the globe, from the war-torn skies of the Pacific, to the stormy waters of the Atlantic, the submarine infested Mediterranean, the frigid Antarctic, the uncertainties of the Cold War, and the challenges of the Space Age, Quonset remained a mainstay in our country’s readiness to preserve and protect our freedom.
Today, North Kingstown still retains some Quonset memories. There are streets named after the carriers and the former carrier pier itself is home to the Sonesco Marine Barge repair facilities. The original breakwater beside the carrier pier is still there. Today, it shelters the vessels of the Rhode Island Fast Ferry fleet. Take a ride down Williams Way past the Electric Boat factory and you’ll see the original NAS Quonset seaplane hangars on the right, turn into Compass Rose Park, and then take a look over at the breakwater beside the ferry pier. Imagine looking up at a majestic 820-foot long, 27,000-ton Fleet carrier with her decks filled with the Navy’s finest aircraft. What a sight!
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