Volume 13, Issue 45 ~ November 10 - November 16, 2005

Going On Watch

One Sailor to Stand for 68,000 in Solomons’ Secret Navy

by Vicki Marsh with Mark Burns

German U-boats invade Solomons Island? Secret government training? Could it be true?

Yes, there was a secret amphibious training base. German U-boats? Yes — but they didn’t find the secret training base located on Dowell Peninsula in Solomons Island.

Sixty years later, a memorial will stand on the site where sailors and Marines trained from 1942 to 1945 for their first amphibious landing attacks.

Most of the original training base has eroded into the past. At the old site facing Back Creek at the end of Dowell Road, steps lead to the water’s edge. Then they disappear like our past. Remnants of a retaining wall survive.

But the sailor who will stand on watch already has face and form. Now, he’s an artist’s eight-inch maquette designed from an historic photo in the collection at Calvert Marine Museum. In sailor workday blues and cap, he stands alert, binoculars in hand, looking Bayward lest enemy U-boats find him first.

If he looks familiar, it’s because you’ve seen other works by the same hand. His creator is Maryland sculptor Antonio Tobias Mendez of Frederick, who modeled both the Thurgood Marshall statue on Lawyers’ Mall near the Annapolis State House and the oyster tonger at Annmarie Garden in Solomons. Toby was chosen to sculpt On Watch, says Calvert County commissioner Linda Kelley, because his oyster tonger had so impressed the project’s founders.

The watching sailor may be familiar for another reason; his model is the son of the model for the tonger.

By August, 2006, On Watch will rise eight feet tall in bronze on a three-by-four-foot brick base surrounded by a brick plaza made of 1,000 bricks inscribed with the names and ranks of World War II veterans.

World War II’s Landing Craft Infantry

Only 60 years ago, 68,000 servicemen spent months training at Solomons Island. Solomons was one of many training centers located on the Atlantic Coast where small-unit ground forces learned how to embark and debark in small boats from large, flat-bottomed carriers. The Landing Craft Infantry moved fighting to a new front, as troops were deployed from the landing craft right onto the sandy beaches of the enemy. Each flat-bottomed landing craft — 158 feet long and 23 feet wide — had a crew of 200. These flat-bottomed carriers delivered men, supplies and tanks quickly into enemy territory.

The Landing Craft Infantry earned the nickname the Waterbug Navy after an admiral looking down from the bridge of his carrier said, “they look like a bunch of water bugs scurrying around.”

But the work they did was deadly serious.

“Veterans saw a tremendous amount of violence,” Thomas Williams, platoon sergeant and programming coordinator of the U.S. Marine Corps’ Historical Company, told Bay Weekly reporter Mark Burns in 1998.

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.

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 west 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 before the war ended, after the cataclysmic bombings of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 and and Nagasaki days later.

Solomons’ Secret War

Amphibious training bases were built on temperate seacoasts near land and air training centers on terrain big enough for a division of 10,000 to 15,000 soldiers to maneuver. Solomons fit the bill in climate and topography. The Chesapeake Bay made a better location than the Atlantic Coast because it was away from the prying periscopes of U-boats. Solomons’ sandy beaches and rocky cliffs were similar to the beaches our troops would invade.

But the wartime wallop sent Solomons reeling.

“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.

Solomons had been a quiet but busy water town, making its living off the Bay’s bounty. 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 military 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.

A total of 67,698 marines, sailors and 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.

The sailors’ graduation was a complete rehearsal of the landings they’d eventually make under fire. Since 1998, those rehearsals have returned to Solomons each August in the Cradle of Invasion reenactments (see Solomons Joins the Homefront: Vol. vi, No. 31: August 6, 1998: http://bayweekly.com/year98/lead6_31.html).

The amphibious base in Solomons Island was deactivated on February 6, 1945. When you visit On Watch, the steps down to the water — along with images on view at Calvert Marine Museum — will help you remember.

Keeping Watch

Before you can do that, $135,000 must be raised. Kelley, an energetic woman, took over the project in August, 2005. In addition to the $40,000 raised by Karen Stone — who conceived the project at Calvert Marine Museum — Kelley has since persuaded the Calvert County Commissioners and the state legislature to authorize a bond bill for $50,000 to build the plaza and statue.

The County Board of Commissioners will own the statue. The land is owned by Matt Gambrill of Calvert Marina, who has donated a portion of easement to the memorial.

Kelley is still seeking donations from corporate and civic groups.

Brick sales began in August, with 125 sold so far at $100 apiece.

As the greatest generation gets older, the inscribed bricks give them opportunity to leave their mark in history, according to Kelley. “An old guy sat me down,” she said. “He said, ‘I have three here for me and my two brothers. My brothers-in-law want to stay together, too, Can we?’”

“Of course you can,” was the reply.

The only requirement is that each person for whom a brick is named be a World War II veteran. The inscription lists name, rank and service.

“We’re within $22,000 of our goal,” said Sherrod Sturrock, deputy director at Calvert Marine Museum, which has oversight of the project.

“We’ll have the funds collected soon,” Kelley said. “Then Toby will begin his work.”

Be part of history and help fund the memorial by purchasing a brick for $100 inscribed with the World War II veteran’s name of your choice: Melissa Carnes 410-326-2024 x 17. Or download the application at www.calvertmarinemuseum.com. Click the “On Watch” link.

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