The Charleston Naval Base provided defense for the United States from its formation in 1901 to its closure in 1996. Originally designated as the Navy Yard and later as the Naval Base it had a large impact upon the local community, the tri-county area and the entire State of South Carolina. Hundreds of thousands of people were employed, two hundred fifty-six vessels built, thousands of others supported and millions of dollars poured into the area’s economy.
Covering 1,575 acres the Base is located on the west bank of the Cooper River six miles north of the point where the Ashley and Cooper Rivers meet to flow into the Atlantic Ocean. Over the years, it has been home to numerous tenants and related support commands, ashore and afloat. These military organizations were collectively known as the Charleston Naval Base and provided berthing, logistics, training and repair services to U.S. Navy ships and submarines.
During wartime, base activity and employment increased, falling off during peacetime. Over the years, the base was periodically considered for closure, but through lobbying efforts by local leaders and state representatives, the Charleston Naval Base remained a highly productive working base until the end of the Cold War. In 1993, with the Cold War over and defense budget cuts looming, the decision to close the Charleston Naval Base was reached. On April 1, 1996, the Base officially closed.
The Early Years
In 1890, Charleston, having never fully recovered economically from the Civil War, was awarded the contract for a naval yard. Charleston Mayor J. Adger Smyth and Senator Benjamin Tillman had persistently lobbied the Navy for a shipyard in order to revitalize the area’s economy. The 56th Congress of the United States passed an act authorizing the Secretary of the Navy, the Honorable John D. Long, to investigate this proposal. Although Charleston proved to be the ideal location, in reality, the decision was probably based as much on the political maneuvering of Senator Benjamin “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman as on naval strategy. On August 12, 1901, the Navy formally took possession of the property with Captain Edwin Longnecker as the first Commandant.
The Yard was quickly surveyed and laid out, a work force organized, and the construction of buildings and a dry dock began. The first dry dock, the largest on the east coast, was completed in 1907. In 1909, the powerhouse to supply electricity to the dry dock pump was ready and the first ship was placed in dry dock. Other improvements such as officers’ quarters, the five main shop buildings, an administrative building, several piers, a dispensary, railroad facilities, a sewer system, and streets were completed and placed in service between 1903 and 1909. Work began on vessels of the fleet in 1910. Initially, the Navy Yard focused on the repair and the supply of stores to ships rather than on new construction; however, new construction did take place. Two dredges were built for the War Department and patrol cutters were built for the Coast Guard. Gunboats, submarine chasers, tugs and barges were also constructed. In 1913, two paddle-wheel steamboats were produced for the Army Corps of Engineers and a ferryboat was built the following year. By 1915, there were approximately 800 civilians employed in the Yard, up from 478 in 1909. In March 1917, just before the United States entered the First World War, there were 1,708 employees at the Yard.
World War I
President Wilson declared war in April 1917. As the United States entered the Great War, production at Charleston’s shipyard accelerated and there was further expansion of facilities, land area, and workforce.
The declaration of war prompted the seizure of five German freighters interned in Charleston Harbor. The ships were overhauled, refitted, and sent into action as part of the U.S. Fleet. Eighteen new vessels were constructed and work started on the Yard’s first destroyer, the USS Tillman. Alterations and repairs were made to 160 vessels from destroyers to small craft. A Naval Training Center, Camp Bagley, was established and up to 5,000 Navy recruits at a time received basic training. One of the recruits was a young Norman Rockwell who spent time painting officers’ portraits and drawing cartoons for the Yard’s newsletter. A thousand civilians, mostly women, were hired to operate the naval clothing factory. Other improvements included the building of a naval hospital (influenza was rampant), two new building ways along the marine railway, a torpedo warehouse, additional buildings for the Machinist Mate School, and a concrete pier. This activity boosted Charleston’s economy by bringing jobs and commerce to city businesses. Employment roughly tripled from pre-war numbers, peaking at 5,600. By the end of the war, 93 officers were attached to District Headquarters and the Navy Yard’s combined annual payroll exceeded $9 million. The Navy had become a major force the Charleston economy.
Between World Wars
American participation in World War I lasted two years, and afterwards, employment at the Charleston Naval Shipyard dropped to pre-war levels. In 1919, the 6th District was expanded, the Navy Yard Commandant given the additional duty as District Commandant, and Headquarters moved from downtown Charleston back to the Navy Yard. Employment decreased to approximately 500 workers and only minor vessels were sent to the Base for repair along with the routine upkeep of mine sweepers and tugboats. Only six boats and tugs were built during 1920 to 1932 and civilian employment reached a low of 479 in 1924. The Navy considered closing the Yard in 1922, 1931 and 1933 due to lack of workload. However, the Base remained open largely through political pressure by congressional representatives and city leaders, especially efforts made by Senator E.D. “Cotton Ed” Smith.
The Depression was hitting Charleston full-force when good news arrived in 1933. Charleston was to be designated as a new construction yard, thus creating the need for greater facilities and a much larger work force. The Yard became active in repairing, altering, converting and building of vessels. Coast Guard cutters and tugs, destroyers and a Navy gunboat were built.
Production increased and by 1939 there was a $3.5 million expansion and improvement program underway employing 1,800 previously out-of-work civilians. President Roosevelt came to Charleston twice to check on the Yard’s modernization. Charleston benefited from defense spending and employment at the Yard climbed to 2,400. With a severe shortage of housing in the area to accommodate the increased work force, three apartment projects were constructed to house the new workers and their families. First to be completed was the Tom McMillan Homes in March of 1941, followed by the Ben Tillman Homes and the George Legare Homes in August 1941.
World War II
The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and subsequent entrance of the United States into World War II, found the Charleston Navy Yard well prepared to back the war effort. The Navy Yard became a first-class national defense activity during this expansion period with a mission to provide construction, repair and logistic support to the operating forces. Thousands of soldiers, sailors and airmen passed through its military facilities on their way to war.
Civilian employment increased rapidly, peaking at 25,948 in 1943. This force, working three shifts daily, was the largest civilian workforce employed at the Charleston Naval Yard/Naval Base during its history. By 1941, salaries for civilian shipyard employees caused per capita income in Charleston to soar to almost three times that of the rest of the state.
As employment skyrocketed, an area housing crisis followed as people were drawn to the Lowcountry by the opportunities Charleston war industries afforded. It is estimated that at least 55,000 people migrated to the area leading up to and during World War II. Workers’ wages financed the growth of area neighborhoods as evidenced in the number of nearby homes dating to the 1940s. These homes and buildings formed the base from which the city of North Charleston grew.
Korea, Vietnam and the Cold War
The Cold War and the threat of nuclear attack dominated international affairs from 1945 to 1991. In 1945, the Navy Department reorganized the various activities at Charleston by creating Naval Base, Charleston. During most of the Yard’s history, the commandant of the Charleston Navy Yard also served as Commandant of the 6th Naval District. In November 1945, this dual command ceased and the district commandant was given additional duty as Commander of the Charleston Naval Base. The Navy Yard became the Charleston Naval Shipyard, a component of the Naval Base. The 6th Naval District was enlarged in 1948 to include the seven states in the southeastern United States and 2,936 miles of coastline, the longest of any district in the country.
Between 1945 and 1955, with the advent of nuclear propulsion, submarines were transformed from diesel and battery powered vessels to nuclear powered, which enabled them to move and fight for weeks without surfacing. SSNs (“fast attacks”) and SSBNs (“boomers”) were considered the new tactical ships of the Cold War and Charleston became a center for testing and refitting these new weapons. Crews from Charleston were sent throughout the world to provide instruction to allied nations and their nuclear fleets and to refit and repair these modern submarines.
During the Korean War, 1950 to 1953, Charleston played a vital role in naval readiness, remaining active as an overhaul facility. Many mothballed vessels were reactivated and sent to Far Eastern waters. In 1951, the number of workers increased. Civilian employment peaked at 9,220 in 1952, decreasing again after the cessation of Korean hostilities.
Employment increased with the Vietnam War and the influence of Congressman L. Mendel Rivers brought growth to the shipyard and other military facilities in Charleston. DuPont, Lockheed, McDonnell-Douglas and General Electric Defense built plants in the area as war-related industries grew. In the late 1950s, the Base became a major home port for combatant ships and submarines of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet. Operation staffs and fleet support commands also arrived. New facilities for a Naval Mine Craft Base, Mine Warfare School, and Fleet Training Center were constructed and the ammunition depot became home to Polaris missile submarine weapons facilities. Construction began on new piers, barracks and buildings for mine warfare ships and personnel and two destroyer squadrons were moved to Charleston. In January 1958, the Base became responsible for the reactivation and modernization of several ships transferred from the U.S. mothball fleet to allied foreign navies.
As the Cold War intensified and the Base moved into the nuclear age, one of the largest ship conversion jobs ever attempted was initiated in 1959. The World War II ERA 530-foot submarine tender USS Proteus was moved into dry dock, cut amidships, and a 44-foot plug was installed in sections to accommodate the repair and transport of missiles. The Proteus served the Navy’s first squadron of nuclear-powered Polaris missile submarines and has the distinction of establishing, in successive order, FBM refit site I (Scotland), II (Spain), and III (Guam), remaining at each location until relieved by one of the newly constructed FBM submarine tenders.
When the Base was assigned the primary responsibility for the logistics and repair for the entire Atlantic Fleet Polaris Weapons System network, engineering and industrial support increased, and industrial shops were expanded and equipped. Cranes, waste-handling facilities, offices and a dry dock for Polaris submarines and other nuclear-powered ships were built. U.S. Representative L.F. Sikes described Charleston as “the only base in the world for complete and self-contained support of a major part of the Polaris fleet, the hub of the Polaris system support for the entire world.”
For the duration of the Cold War the Charleston Naval Base, and in particular, the Shipyard and the Supply Center, maintained their designations as the Navy’s principal support organizations for the Navy’s Fleet Ballistic Missile Submarine Program. In addition, these organizations, in concert with other base units, provided support to the United Kingdom’s Fleet Ballistic Missile Submarine Program.
In October 1979, naval districts were disestablished. However, the Charleston Naval Base Commander retained Atlantic Fleet regional coordination responsibilities for South Carolina and most of Georgia and Chief of Naval Operations area coordination responsibilities for naval shore activities and personnel in the former 6th Naval District.
In 1983, the Naval Base was the third largest naval home port in the United States, employing roughly 36,700 people, including 23,500 Navy and Marine Corps personnel and 13,200 civilians. This heavy workload of maintaining surface ships, overhauling nuclear submarines, and providing supplies and support to the U.S. Navy, continued until the Base closed in 1996.
The Charleston Naval Base remained the largest employer of civilians in South Carolina into the 1990s. The influence of Lowcountry legislators and the threat of nuclear attack played an important role in keeping Charleston’s base open in the face of periodic attempts at closure.
However, in the early 1990s, with the resolution of the Cold War and impending defense budget cuts, Charleston’s Navy Base was once again on the chopping block. In 1993, the Charleston Naval Base was given a closure date of April 1, 1996. The closing of the base was a blow to Charleston’s economy. Over the years, millions of dollars flowed into the Charleston area economy and hundreds of thousands of jobs provided to military and civilian personnel, the vast majority being civilians. Many military personnel who worked at or passed through the base returned to Charleston to retire. Since the closure of Charleston Naval Base, parts of the base and dry-docks have been leased out to various government and private businesses and community parks have been established on old base grounds.
Though now a part of our nation’s history, the Charleston Naval Base remains as a vivid memory to all who served here. Acquaintances made, friendships forged and a great sense of pride in what was accomplished here will endure forever for all who were a part of “Charleston Navy” from 1901 to 1996.