Did you miss World War II in Calvert County? Catch it this weekend on instant replay
by Mark Burns
Men balance on the deck of a small landing craft as it crashes through the chop. The vessel strikes the sandy shore, jolting the soldiers on board. The gate drops, and everyone surges forth, funneling through the narrow exit onto the beach. Guns at the ready, the forces fan out in search of cover. Platoons of men pulse forward in a ferocious onslaught to overrun enemy positions.
Fortunately, on this beach, there is no one to shoot back.
That's because the sands these men invaded were in the friendly waters of the Chesapeake. Marines, sailors and soldiers stormed Bay beaches by the thousands in World War II training exercises before fighting at the shoreline fronts.
Servicemen will storm Calvert beaches again this weekend as the U.S. Marine Corps' Historical Company deploys a full platoon, reinforced with Marines, on the beach near Point Patience in Calvert County.
Solomons' wartime legacy returns to the Patuxent shoreline from August 7 to 9 in commemoration of the 56th anniversary of the invasions at Guadalcanal and Tulagi. The event replays scenes that played out countless times on Cove Point, Drum Point and other Calvert County beaches during World War II.
National Archives Troops in training from Landing Craft Infantry 20 assault Cove Point in 1943.
"This is about as genuine as it gets outside of the real thing," said Thomas Williams, platoon sergeant and programming coordinator of the U.S. Marine Corps' Historical Company. Each historical interpretive specialist in the company is handpicked and trains in period drills to think and act like World War II servicemen. Most have military experience.
Back in the 1940s, many Marines, sailors and soldiers trained for amphibious service at the U.S. Naval Amphibious Training Base on Dowell Peninsula near Solomons. A total of 67,698 soldiers stormed Bay beaches between July 3, 1942 and February 6, 1945. Roughly 30 percent of these men would later join the millions of servicemen fighting the violent amphibious war that spanned the globe from the Pacific to Europe and North Africa.
Their modern-day counterparts will cast off not from Dowell but from the pier at the Naval Warfare Testing Center. Then they'll round Point Patience in the Liberty ship John W. Brown and come aground in landing craft. With a Liberty ship and landing craft, with waves and veterans and sand and beaches, there'll be much history to revisit.
One thing that you won't see is simulated conflict. "Veterans saw a tremendous amount of violence," says Thomas Williams. "Nothing, nothing we can do, can get across to the public or do justice to what they experienced."
What the fighting men of the Amphibious Forces did and saw is something few veterans will share. As New Bay Times' own Bill Burton, veteran Seabee and dean of Maryland's outdoor writers, plainly puts it: "I don't like to talk about what I did during the war."
One of the first groups to see action in the amphibious war was the 1st Marine Division, which trained at Solomons even as the base was being built. These men were later deployed to Guadalcanal and Tulagi in the Pacific's Solomon Islands chain. The assault of Guadalcanal became the first major offensive of the Allied Pacific campaign, followed by many bloody months of holding ground against vicious Japanese counterattacks.
As the war continued, Army soldiers prepared at Solomons for fighting in Morocco and Algeria in North Africa. By 1944, thousands of sailors, Marines and soldiers trained here before joining the largest amphibious force ever assembled to seize the beachhead at Normandy from Hitler's armies on D-Day.
Training for War
"It's a strange Navy, this new Amphibious Force," said a nameless old salt to Melville Bell Grosvenor in the July, 1944 National Geographic.
"All my life I have been taught to keep my ship off the reefs. Now I must steer full speed through the surf and hit the beach like a charging bull. What's more, I must keep her pinned there solidly, so the Army and its tanks can swarm ashore. Then I back off quickly and scram out of there."
These strange new tactics of amphibious warfare would, military strategists decided, win the war for the Allies. Soldiers and machines would pour out of landing craft in huge numbers onto the shore and, with the support of ship cannon and airplanes, break through the enemy's coastal fortifications to gain precious footholds.
As the Historical Company will depict, men training at Solomons for invasions overseas climbed down nets slung over the side of Liberty ships into smaller landing craft. From there they would speed toward the coast - in the real thing they'd likely be under heavy fire - and pour out in search of their objective.
"I did that," said Burton, who saw action in the Pacific with the Seabees. An informal group made up of seasoned construction workers, Seabees were charged with clearing beaches, building airstrips and erecting causeways, often under fire. "The World War II patch was red and gold and said 'Amphibious Maintenance Crew,' but we were really amphibious invasion forces," says Burton.
In the Pacific, these amphibious assaults tore through many thousands of miles of island strongholds held by the Japanese. The Pacific Ocean became the world's largest battlefield, stretching south to north from New Guinea, at the equator, to Alaska's Aleutian Islands chain and as far westward as the Phillipines and Burma. Liberating the Pacific depended not on just taking land but also on establishing support bases to keep the massive Navy armada steaming onward to Japan.
The amphibious training base at Solomons was key in training men for the many archipelago assaults to come.
David Holly, 82, who was a skipper of a Landing Craft, Tank, was among those who trained at Solomons before traveling cross-country and casting off from San Francisco toward Alaska's Aleutian Islands.
"The base was really a mudhole in the beginning," he recalled, having trained during the base's early days in 1942.
Holly and crew returned stateside after the Aleutian campaign and made their way back to Solomons via many other bases. They trained again for three or four weeks, then traveled to Chicago to pick up their new Landing Ship, Tank. "That was a big baby; it looked like a Liberty ship. It was 320 feet long and could carry 36 General Sherman tanks," Holly said.
From there the ship cast off for the Pacific, where Holly and his forces saw action at New Guinea, the Phillipines and D-Day at Okinawa. "We almost got hit by a kamikaze once," Holly said, about close calls.
The long and violent island-hopping came to a climax at the final amphibious operation at Okinawa, using 318 combat ships, 1,139 auxiliary vessels, 1,000 amphibious vehicles and over 500,000 men. Bloody war continued over three months, and kamikaze attacks took a heavy toll on U.S. ships. On July 16, 1945, the Manhattan Project successfully tested the atomic bomb. The Pacific war ended with the cataclysmic bombings of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.
Earlier, at the French beaches of Normandy, the amphibious invasion had mustered 150,000 soldiers, 11,000 planes, 5,000 ships and two artificial harbors in breaking German defenses and turning the European war's tide.
For these massive campaigns, the Amphibious Forces needed thousands upon thousands of trained men. Soldiers already were being trained at sites on the Atlantic beaches of Virginia and North Carolina, but German U-boats patrolled, threatening naval operations with mines and torpedoes.
In the search for safer training sites, the Navy found Solomons. Safely tucked in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay away from Atlantic U-boat activity, the little maritime village offered such advantages as a deep-water harbor and access to landing beaches along Calvert's Chesapeake shoreline.
With that, the nation's first amphibious training base found its home.
Solomons Joins the Homefront
I wonder if I'm living
at Solomons anymore!
Everytime I hear a rap
'Tis a stranger at my door.
Do you have a vacant room, -
Or know where one could stay, -
A little longer with their pal
Whom Uncle Sam soon takes away?
From "Is This Solomons Anymore?" a poem appearing June 10, 1944 in the Calvert Independent.
"There could scarcely have been a community anywhere in the country that was worse prepared for the changes brought about by war. War did not come to Solomons Island gradually but hit it [with] a sudden and terrific wallop," wrote The Sun's Hulbert Footner on January 17, 1943.
And that wartime wallop sent Solomons reeling.
Solomons had been a quiet but busy water town, making its living off the Bay's waters. Then a village of fewer than 300, Solomons enjoyed a quaint and pleasant lifestyle that was beginning to attract many tourists who saw it as the perfect retreat.
Before long, though, Solomons' solitude was drowned out by the cacophony of a busy base and an influx of new residents. The quiet main street that meandered through the town and island became an avenue active with the coming and going of servicemen and civilians. The village population shot up to over 2,600 within only a few months.
Charm, Wells Dry Up
For as we walk these streets of ours
Familiar faces are few,
Strangers we meet, and the Navy
In colors of khaki, white and blue.
And I wonder if it's Solomons
When I hear o'er my head
The aeroplanes a buzzin'
And the P.T. boats instead
Of the "put-put" of a motor,
And the crabbers along the shore,
The launches and the sail-boats!
Do we see them anymore?
The amphibious training base was one of three military installations lured to Maryland by Solomons' deep, protected waters. The year 1942 also saw the creation of the Naval Air Station, across the Patuxent and southeast of Solomons at Cedar Point, and the Mine Warfare Testing Center, west of the village at Point Patience. The Navy had surrounded Solomons, and there was no escaping change.
Watermen soon saw their numbers dwindle as laborers were lured away with the promise of better paying jobs at the bases. Naval landing operations in the Patuxent and Chesapeake made it harder for the remaining watermen, as the large vessels destroyed oyster bars and scared away crabs.
Solomons' tourist charms were being eroded by the bustle of the bases. Vacation pleasures of scenic surroundings and charter fishing took a nasty hit as bases occupied prime property and as restricted waters around Solomons kept pleasure boats confined to the docks.
On top of everything else, the burgeoning amphibious base sucked up so much water that the village's wells nearly went dry. Public outcry by the locals was loud and the Navy listened, finally digging to a deeper water source and replenishing the locals' water supplies.
And when I look out on this river
At the works of Uncle Sam,
Yes -- I wonder if it's Solomons,
Or some strange and far-off land.
But would I dare blame Uncle Sam,
No, -- he too longs to find,
The kind of peace we used to have,
Where one could go and sit and dine.
Dancing in Solomons' Streets
Though shaken by the militarization of Solomons, locals kept out the welcome mats even as winds of change rattled their world.
"They welcomed us, but they were overwhelmed," David Holly says. "The base really mushroomed within a short time."
Many others, though, took change in stride. "It was no big deal," recalls Nina Davis, who joined the war effort as a telephone operator at the Mine Warfare Testing Center. "We all just opened our houses to them."
One homestead that kept its doors open was Lloyd and Elizabeth Bowen's Wagon Wheel Farm near Saint Leonard. Many a soldier and sailor would go there to enjoy a fine, home-cooked meal. The whole family did its part. Lloyd would invite the military men over, sometimes to the surprise of his wife, Elizabeth. She had filled the bellies of city friends during the Depression and could pull together classic country meals from scratch. Two daughters, Nina Bowen Davis and Celeste, volunteered as hostesses at the USO.
Initially, without a USO to call their own, the servicemen counted on hostess groups for dances and socials at area church halls. When the club finally came in early 1944, it took the form of a small pavilion on the pier of the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory on Solomons Island - built, incidentally, by Lloyd Bowen.
courtesy of Nina DavisDownstairs from the Solomons Island Yacht Club, civilians entertained their troops in training. Here, Nina Davis puzzles over her next move, apparently a victim of her sailor-opponent's tactical training.
"We even danced in the street in front of the pier if it got too crowded," recalls Davis. The Navy band would join them, serenading with swing from the lab's terrace as locals watched the action from their porches. The USO was the place to be in Solomons. "It was the only entertainment we had," adds Davis - though, in fact, there were also the spirits at Bowen's Inn and the movie reels of Evans' Pavilion.
By December of '44, the USO found a more spacious home at the Solomons Island Yacht Club. Checkers in the basement and dancing upstairs made a good escape for countless servicemen.
Hospitality and diversions were welcome to the base's troops. Many soldiers were not in the highest of spirits; the Amphibious Force often was looked upon as a place of exile and their missions considered suicidal. Initial conditions at the hastily assembled amphibious base didn't help; the base was almost always crowded beyond capacity, and a Spartan atmosphere reigned because of the base's frugal funding.
Conditions gradually improved, as did morale, and the base pulled itself together. By 1944, it cycled upward of 18,000 men through the gates each week and housed as many as 10,150 men at once. Problems of water and housing shortages were solved, increasing the early capacity of 2,000 to a peak of 9,500.
courtesy of Nina DavisThe military transformed Solomons from a town of 300 people to one of 2,600.
In the steady stream of servicemen, many a guy met many a girl. The stereotypical scene of fathers jealously protecting their delicate daughters from wayward sailors was far from the truth for many here in Calvert's Rockwellian tapestry of homesteads, farms and communities.
"We had restrictions, you know, like we had to be in at a certain time," said Davis, "but there was none of that. They were good boys. They felt at home there; they were at home. A lot came back to live there."
And so they did, some never leaving and some coming back from service to settle down with the girls they'd met and do their part for the baby boom.
What can we do? We all have asked For everyone there's a part, Let's take the folk of the service, Into our home, our church, our heart. -Alberta Woodburn
The War Winds Down
Almost as quickly the base left.
With the Amphibious Forces well stocked with trained men and steamrolling to victory, the mission was complete. Navy brass decided the Naval Amphibious Training Base at Solomons had no further value, and it was deactivated on February 6, 1945. Reasons were many: lack of surf to train with; erosion of beaches; isolation; the inadequate facilities of a temporary base.
Even after the amphibious base closed down, Solomons had the Mine Warfare Testing Center and the Naval Air Station. Mine testing in the Chesapeake and Patuxent continued for several years afterward and flight tests at the Naval Air Station were stepped up.
"The waters hereabout have, during the past two years of war, become Navy experiment areas of top importance," reported Frank Henry in his June 3, 1945 article in The Sun. Between the two bases, some of the best fishing waters of the Patuxent and Chesapeake were restricted from pleasure boaters.
Today, of course, Solomons has recovered and thrives as a tourist town. Dowell Peninsula reveals little evidence of the base that was, though remnants can be seen at Calvert Marina: Odd foundation lines, steps leading nowhere and an old retaining wall serve as 20th century ruins.
courtesy of Thomas Williams of the USMCHCOn board the USS North Carolina, Marines practice maneuvers.
War Returns to Solomons
This weekend, you can step back to the '40s and reminisce or, if you were born too late, come see what you missed.
The U.S. Marine Corps' Historical Company joins forces with the Calvert Marine Museum and the John W. Brown Liberty ship to bring World War II back to Solomons. You can get your first taste of wartime life on Friday Aug. 7 and several commemorative events continue through Aug. 9. Here's a run-down of what, when and where:
Everyone is, of course, invited to partake in this healthy slice of Solomons history. Slip into your best '40s duds and become part of the scenery or come as you are, either way is fine. Plenty of interpreters and veterans alike are there to keep you oriented. So come out and get a dose of Solomons' colorful history.
courtesy of Thomas Williams of the USMCHC Modern day Marines of the historical company recreate their World War II predecessors' descent to a landing craft, above.
Parking is in the field across from the Calvert Marine Museum; shuttle buses run routes between the ship, the landing beach, Calvert Marina and the encampment. Buses free: 410/326-2042.
NBT intern Mark Burns lives at Wagon Wheel Farm, where his great-grandparents fed the base's servicemen.
Just Don't Call Them Reenactors
courtesy of Thomas Williams of the USMCHCThe U.S. Marine Corps' historical interpretive specialists recreate the drills and training required of World War II Marines, soldiers and sailors.
"We're not hobbyists," elaborates Thomas Williams of the U.S. Marine Corps' Historical Company on why he bristles at the term "reenactor."
Williams is the active platoon sergeant and programming coordinator for the Historical Company based in Frederick. He's quick to note that he means no disrespect to reenacting hobbyists and credits them with serving a valuable purpose in preserving history and presenting it to the public.
The former active duty Marine with 35 years of experience says he simply means to draw a distinction between reenactors and the historical interpretive specialists who make up his company.
"These guys are hand selected, most retired and prior service sailors, soldiers and Marines," says Williams. Every single man and woman has undergone intensive period training for the role they fill, whether a Navy nurse or beach-bound Marine, and most have gone through basic training from their active duty days. With the background these historical interpretive specialists have, calling them reenactors is like calling a percussionist a drummer.
In learning their roles, "these guys are vigorously trained from the ground up to think like, act like and be a Marine, sailor or soldier from the '40s," Williams says. Members of the Historical Company must live up to very high standards and stay fresh with annual week-long training sessions. By the time they go public, they're living historians.
The Historical Company gives a direct and honest portrayal of the training exercises that prepared men for battles overseas. No false battles will be fought, but mock explosives will be set and a working flame thrower used as a full, Marine-reinforced platoon of 30 men lands near Point Patience for training exercises.
Another 20 or more interpreters will fill a World War II camp in the field across from the Calvert Marine Museum. The fully appointed camp includes a Naval hospital, a communications tent, sleep tents and a mess tent.
The mission for the retrofitted servicemen is to educate the public on the sacrifices of our parents and grandparents, uncles and aunts. "One thing the American public takes for granted is that we have rights," says Williams. "If not for the service and sacrifice of the millions of Americans who fought World War II we wouldn't have the freedoms and privileges we enjoy today."
The Marine Heritage Foundation has educated the public with these lively living history demonstrations for about 10 years. A specific living history group was created only two years ago but has been very busy since its inception, with a living history demonstration staged recently in D.C. and another coming soon on the USS North Carolina battleship. The one they stage locally is unique; this will be the first time in 20 years that U.S. servicemen have shimmied down cargo nets and into small craft for a beach landing.
Will the history demonstration at Solomons repeat? Perhaps. While nothing is confirmed yet, organizers hope to run the event for at least another two or three years, but probably not beyond that. "These programs have a tendency to burn out after three to four years," Williams explained.
And remember, if you should strike up a conversation with one of these skilled historical interpretive specialists, they're not reenactors.
| Back to Archives |
VolumeVI Number 31
August 6-12, 1998
New Bay Times
| Homepage |