Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Seventy-Five Years Ago: Vacation Plans Dashed by the Navy, for the Duration

This postcard depicts the Nansemond Hotel in the West Ocean View section of Norfolk, Virginia, before it was selected to became headquarters for Amphibious Force, U.S. Atlantic Fleet in August, 1942.  It would not welcome vacationers again until after the war. (  
No one likes to have their vacation plans dashed, but anyone taking time off for some beach fun in the Ocean View section of Norfolk 75 years ago should not have been surprised.  After all, there was a war on.  August 1942 was also shaping up to be the rainiest on record, but those vacationers spending their hard-won off-time at Ocean View's largest hotel, which advertised itself as "A Bit of Old Spain" would be in for a rude awakening on August 15 for other reasons.  That morning, the Navy officially took over the hotel, located on the shore of the Chesapeake Bay, and any remaining guests would have to clear out of the hotel that afternoon.  A three-sentence story buried on page 11 of the Norfolk Ledger-Dispatch on Monday, August 17, revealed that "Mrs. Walter C. Brick, manager of the hotel until the Navy moved in, said all guests of the hotel left Saturday."

Rear Adm H.K. Hewitt (NHHC Image)

Amphibious Force Atlantic Fleet (AMPHIBLANT) had been established five months earlier under Rear Adm. Roland M. Brainard, who was replaced by Rear Adm. H. Kent Hewitt the following month.  Its headquarters was originally posted to Building 138, near the docks of Naval Operating Base Norfolk that was already functioning as headquarters for the Subordinate Command, Surface Force Atlantic Fleet.  "It was like the Joads moving in on country cousins," wrote one junior member of the staff of the experience of trying to coexist in a "two-story wooden shack... that bulged with more life than a guinea-pig hutch."  When Hewett arrived to inspect his new office, wrote the lieutenant, "[t]he admiral said nothing, but in his astonishment, he replaced his pipe in his mouth, bowl first."

Hewett quickly came to the conclusion that a larger headquarters would be required for his joint Navy-Army staff.  "Early steps were inaugurated," he wrote later, "to find a satisfactory location which would give us what our enemies would have called lebensraum."  No larger buildings could be secured on NOB (now known as Naval Station) Norfolk or the adjoining naval air station, so he turned to the nearby Nansemond Hotel, built on the site of an earlier Nansemond Hotel that had been erected to welcome visitors to the 1907 Jamestown Exposition, but had burned to the ground in 1920.  The 125-room hotel already housed an Army squadron headquarters, but that was to change after AMPHIBLANT came knocking.  

By the time it was officially established as Headquarters, Amphibious Force, U.S. Atlantic Fleet in early September, the hotel had been transformed into a garrison.  Nissen huts to billet enlisted Soldiers and Sailors were also constructed next door at the Susan Constant Shrine Park, advancing the military mission of the former vacation retreat.  With its red tile roof, Moorish architectural features and stucco exterior, surrounded by barbed wire fences and armed sentries, the hotel became Norfolk's latter-day version of the Alamo.  Like the Alamo, it was prepared to be attacked.  Troops stormed the beach in front of the hotel, day and night, over the following months.  Unlike the Alamo, it was all for training. 
The lobby and registration desk of the Nansemond Hotel in 1940. (Courtesy of the Ocean View Station Museum, Norfolk, Virginia)
Within weeks of its opening as a headquarters, Maj. Gen. George S. Patton would arrive from California to help plan the invasion of Vichy French-held Morocco during what promised to be the biggest amphibious operation originating from Hampton Roads since the attacks upon Fort Fisher, North Carolina during the Civil War.  Hewlett recalled, "[Patton] and his staff were fine soldiers and fine gentlemen but, initially, at least, were handicapped by being almost completely ignorant of the technique and requirements of amphibious operations."

The Nansemond Hotel entrance, taken sometime during the 1940s.
(Courtesy of the Ocean View Station Museum, Norfolk, Virginia)
For awhile, Patton and his staff resisted moving to the Nansemond Hotel, preferring instead to be nearer the War Department in Washington, yet as the operation neared, Patton relented.  "Shortly after our move into Nansemond, General Patton and his staff did shift headquarters to Hampton Roads, thereby greatly facilitating the final planning," recalled Hewlett.  At dawn on October 24, Hewett left the commandeered hotel in the hands of his deputy, Rear Adm. Lee Payne Johnson, and boarded the heavy cruiser Augusta (CA 31) to take Gen. Patton and his 34,000 Soldiers of Task Force 34 across the Atlantic during the first big amphibious operation of World War II, now known as TORCH.
The heavy cruiser USS Augusta (CA 31) in April 1942. (NHHC Image)
Maj. Gen. George S. Patton, Commander, Western Task Force, shares a light moment with Rear Adm. H. Kent Hewitt, Commander, Western Naval Task Force, aboard USS Augusta (CA 31) before going ashore in Morocco during Operation TORCH in November, 1942. (NHHC Image)  
After Adm. Alan G. Kirk took command of AMPHIBLANT in February 1943, the Nansemond Hotel continued as the planning venue for the invasions of Sicily, Italy, Southern France, and, ultimately, Normandy.  The hotel finally reverted to its former role as a vacation destination on August 20, 1945. 

In addition to an "Operation Torch Room," a "Casablanca Room" was also dedicated at the Nansemond Hotel many years after the operations planned in secret there became public knowledge. (Courtesy of the Ocean View Station Museum, Norfolk, Virginia)  
Needless to say, its military trappings were gone, yet its historical role in the defeat of Nazi Germany would not be forgotten.  An "Operation Torch Room" was dedicated at the hotel in October 1969 to commemorate the special role the hotel played in retaking North Africa and Europe from the Axis powers.  Tragically, many of the artifacts and mementoes put on display there were themselves torched as the 52-year-old hotel went up in flames in November 1980.

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