United States Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City celebrated its 82nd birthday on Monday, just weeks after the Coast Guard celebrated its 232nd birthday on August 4.
The Coast Guard’s largest aviation facility and largest employer in the region, the base covers some 800 acres, a far cry from the original 249 acres when it began operations Aug. 15, 1940.
When the station was commissioned, there were just four officers, 52 enlisted men and 10 aircraft including three Hall PH-2 seaplanes, four Fairchild J2K landplanes and three Grumman JF-2 amphibians, according to Coast Guard Aviation History. , a project of the Coast Guard Aviation Association.
Today, there is a combined workforce of about 2,000 Coast Guard personnel and civilian employees, making it the largest employer in northeastern North Carolina, according to records from the state.
The station’s primary mission is search and rescue, but it also has aerial patrols as diverse as tracking icebergs in the Atlantic to monitoring shipping from the Atlantic coast to the Azores.
Until recently, the base was responsible for training the service’s lifeguards. After 30 years here, the lineup has temporarily relocated to Petaluma, California. A renovated facility is expected to reopen at Base Elizabeth City in 2025, according to the Coast Guard’s website.
Although Elizabeth City is one of the largest and busiest Coast Guard bases in the country, there seems to be very little documentation of its early days.
From its earliest days, Elizabeth City was an air base. It is unclear why Elizabeth City was chosen for what would become one of the most important Coast Guard and Navy installations on the East Coast during World War II.
It is likely that the late Lindsay Warren played an important role. Warren was a Democrat who represented the 1st Congressional District encompassing northeastern North Carolina from 1925 to 1940. He served briefly as Speaker of the House before becoming Comptroller General for the country in 1940.
Aycock Brown, in his “Covering the Waterfront” column he wrote for the Beaufort News in the 1930s and 1940s, took note of the 1939 headlines to speculate on what might be happening in Elizabeth City, suggesting that Warren played an important role in setting up the base. to the region.
One of the titles was from Elizabeth City, the other from Washington, D.C.
“Elizabeth City’s story said work began Tuesday on the $128,000 WPA project which, when completed, will be a modern, up-to-date Coast Guard Air Force Base, achieved through the efforts of member of the Congressman Lindsay Warren,” Brown wrote.
Washington’s story under the caption: ‘Warren has hope for Ocean Air Force Base’ quoted the congressman as saying he was looking into the possibility of Elizabeth City, North Carolina becoming a airbase for transatlantic aircraft service.”
Brown’s $128,000 from the Works Progress Administration was dwarfed by the $2 million, or $42.3 million today, that the government actually spent on the facility. Also called the Work Projects Administration, the WPA was created in 1935 for the unemployed under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.
Neither the base nor the town ever became a center for transatlantic air service, but what it did become was an important facility for dealing with the submarines that brought World War II to the nation’s doorstep.
While Warren may have played a role in directing the Coast Guard to Elizabeth City, other factors were also at play.
Although the United States was ill-prepared for open warfare when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, government officials were aware that the world was becoming an increasingly dangerous place and took steps to protect vital interests. .
The Chesapeake Bay and Hampton Roads area of Virginia was one of the largest ports on the east coast and had the open water needed for the seaplanes the Coast Guard used.
Virginia’s ports, however, were open to the sea, and Elizabeth City’s inland location was important to planners.
A document provided by Dr. William H. Thiesen, Atlantic region historian for the Coast Guard, offers a clue as to what the planners were thinking.
The document appears to be a study of how Coast Guard air bases in general were used during World War II, although there is no date on it. The author of the study is unknown and the pages are marked “confidential”.
“While the station was primarily intended as a major overhaul base for the east coast, the location of the base was nevertheless chosen because of its strategic importance with respect to possible enemy action in wartime,” writes the author of the study. “The new site was ideal, the most advantageous location between New York and Miami. In a sheltered area, north of Albemarle Sound and some fifty or sixty miles from Cape Hatteras, the station was built on the sloping banks of the Pasquotank River.
Initially, most flights were mapping and law enforcement exercises, particularly the enforcement of neutrality laws. The Neutrality Acts were designed to keep America out of the war that was so much a part of the decade. Although amended and ultimately rendered irrelevant, the acts prohibited U.S.-flagged vessels from transporting weapons of war to belligerent countries.
It was enforcement of the Neutrality Act of 1939 that Roosevelt used to expand and modernize the Coast Guard, informing Congress in an executive order “that a national emergency exists in connection with… respect, proper safeguard and enforcement of United States neutrality”. ….”
He then authorized the Coast Guard to add an additional 2,000 men and to order that “…the installations of the Coast Guard be extended, repaired, modernized, enlarged and equipped to the extent determined by the Secretary of the Treasury…”.
With the outbreak of World War II, the Coast Guard was tasked to operate as part of the Navy, and one of the base’s main functions was the interdiction of German U-boats. This was a function that Coast Guard aircraft were not suited to perform.
“Initially, there were very few resources available to fight the German submarines. Coast Guard aircraft, not designed for combat, were equipped with locally manufactured and fielded depth charge racks,” notes the US Coast Guard Aviation History website.
This was extraordinarily frustrating for the pilots, according to the confidential study.
“Every day, merchant ships were sunk, while pilots stood helpless, unable to do more than deliver an indignant report,” the study continues. “It was not until December 1943 that adequate combat aircraft were purchased. By this time, the underwater danger was almost averted.
Still, the crews saved lives, although the rescues were dangerous. Aviation history combines all air station activity showing over 1,000 rescued and with 95 landings.
“Three OS2U kingfishers on routine patrol spotted men in the water 30 miles east of Cape Hatteras. Depth charges were dropped in an area where they would not harm the men. The three planes landed and picked up all the survivors who were resting on the wings until a boat arrived from Elizabeth City Air Station to pick them up,” is one of the stories on the website.
By the end of the war, the base had resumed much of its original rescue mission. Aggressive patrols by US military aircraft and communication with warships made the East Coast too dangerous for submarines.
After the war, the now greatly expanded Elizabeth City base became a training and repair center for the Coast Guard, as well as an air patrol base, functions that have continued to this day. today.