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Sand Point Naval Air Station: 1920-1970

HistoryLink.org Essay 2249 : Printer-Friendly Format

Under a variety of official designations, Sand Point, a peninsula in north Seattle that juts into Lake Washington, served for almost 50 years as an air base, aviation training center, and aircraft repair depot for the U.S. Navy. Growing eventually to more than 400 acres, the Sand Point Naval Air Station hosted at its peak during World War II more than 5,600 Naval personnel, more than 2,400 civilian workers, and hundreds of aircraft. Units trained at Sand Point participated in some of the critical battles in the Pacific war.

King County's Gift to the Navy

At the time of the U.S. entry into World War I, the U.S. Navy wanted a base for aircraft to serve as the "eyes of the fleet" and to create an air umbrella over the naval bases and yards in Puget Sound. Captain Luther E. Gregory received the assignment to find a suitable site and he ultimately fixed upon Sand Point. Elected officials of King County and members of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce learned of this and remembered when a group of Army airplanes had visited the area on a Liberty Bond tour and landed on the Jefferson Park Golf Course, the only available landing field.

World War I ended before the Navy made a decision, but a group of veterans with flying experience headed by Capt. Frank Fretwell (1882-1937) began to lobby King County for an airport at Sand Point (the location was at that time outside the city limits). They cited the following advantages:

  • Its location on Lake Washington made it easily discernible from the air.
  • The fresh water site was both free from tidal action and not subject to flooding.
  • The peninsula allowed takeoffs and landings free of obstructions such as buildings and power poles.
  • Access by rail and by sea.
  • Favorable prevailing winds.

In the spirit of boosterism expressed in the building of Fort Lawton (1898) and in the construction of the U.S.S. Nebraska (1900), King County commissioners began acquiring the small farms on the site. On June 19, 1920, local officials and Navy officers held a ground breaking ceremony which included a symbolic tree cutting. As part of the festivities, air mail pioneer Edward Hubbard (1889-1928) landed a plane at Sand Point with King County Commission chairman Claude C. Ramsay (1865-1930) as passenger.

The plan to develop Sand Point encountered opposition from supporters of an Army air field just north of Camp Lewis, echoing other competitions between Seattle and Tacoma for preeminence on Puget Sound. Committed to an airport at Sand Point, King County commissioners authorized construction of an air strip. Army Major Henry Kress Muhlenberg (1886-1967), an assistant professor of military tactics at the University of Washington and a pilot, offered his assistance. On October 8, 1921, he flew a Curtis JN-4H "Jenny" biplane from Camp Lewis to Sand Point and made the first military landing there on a 500 foot dirt strip.

Despite the lack of official funding, local Army and Navy officers worked to develop an air base. King County paid to ship a prefabricated Army hangar to the property from California. Pilots seeded the runway to give it a more reliable turf surface, which nevertheless turned to mud in the winter and dust in the summer. Clarence Blethen (1879-1941) of The Seattle Times paid for ditches to be dug to catch runoff.

The Navy could not accept the site without an act of Congress. A joint Congressional committee visited the property and reported back on January 31, 1921, that it agreed with the Navy that Sand Point was the best choice for a base for heavier-than-air equipment. The wording of the report supported the development of conventional, as opposed to rigid and non-rigid lighter-than-air craft. (In 1971 during Seafair, the Goodyear Blimp visited Sand Point in one of the last occasions when it functioned as an airport.)

It took until July 13, 1922, for the Navy to accept 268 acres from the county on a 10-year lease at $1 a year. Congress authorized $800,000 for initial development as a joint Army and Navy airfield. The Navy completed the first permanent hangar on April 6, 1923, when the base complement was the UW Army ROTC Jenny and six Naval Reserve airplanes.

Around the World in 174 Days

Sand Point's first serious mission came a year later when it was chosen as the beginning and ending points for the first circumnavigation of the globe by air. On April 7, 1924, after two weeks of preparation, four Douglas biplanes headed to Alaska and around the world. Three of the planes completed the 26,345-mile journey on September 28, 1924. Fifty thousand people came out to Sand Point to greet them.

On May 11, 1925, the Chief of Naval Operations formally established a Naval Air Reserve squadron at Sand Point. On March 4, 1926, Congress authorized the Navy to accept "without cost," fee simple, 413 acres as a naval air station, one of only five naval air stations in the nation. By this time, King County had spent $500,000 acquiring and developing the property. 

Chicken House and Kitchen

In 1926, Sand Point was still no more than a series of farms. A field served as a runway. The station commander, an active duty Naval officer, worked out of a farm house. Three reserve officers assisted him. Reservists met one evening a week for drills, and on Sundays, they flew, whatever the weather. Naval aviation cadets were billeted in a chicken house and the supply officer ran his department out of a kitchen.

Through the 1920s, Sand Point grew slowly with the addition of enlisted men's barracks and other buildings. The facility's principal mission was to train reservists, who performed valuable services such as aerial mapping of Alaska and Washington. Although the base had a turf runway, the damp climate rendered it unreliable most of the year. Most aircraft operations were by amphibious and float planes. In 1931, the full-time complement was 31 Marines and eight Naval personnel who operated 14 airplanes.

During the Great Depression, funding for the station was short. Executive Officer Lt. H.B. Hutchinson recalled buying cinders in $50 lots. When he had enough to pave a runway, he borrowed a steam shovel from Bremerton to complete the job. Improvement of the facility slowed during these years, but by the end of 1935 the Navy, with the assistance of civilian agencies such as the Civilian Conservation Corps, had increased the number of buildings to 17.

In addition to the Navy and Marine Reservists who used Sand Point, fleet air units landed at the field when making cross country flights or when the fleet visited Puget Sound. Commercial aviation also took advantage of Sand Point's unique location. In 1939, Pan American Airways began Clipper service to Alaska from county park land at Matthews Beach, just north of Sand Point Naval Station, with four-engined Sikorski S-42 flying boats. Pan Am also used Sand Point hangars and runways. Sand Point witnessed the development of the big Boeing Model 314 flying boats as they were tested from Matthews Beach and Boeing engineers used the Navy seaplane ramp at least once for repairs.

That same year, five active Navy patrol squadrons, each with six multi-engined flying boats capable of long-range reconnaissance and attack, were assigned to the base. The station's mission expanded to include the overhaul of aircraft. More than 600 sailors were stationed at Sand Point. The commander expressed a concern about the need for wholesome recreation for his men because, "I find that moving pictures alone cannot compete with the attractions of Seattle night life."

World War II

On December 8, 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1881-1945) declared a national emergency in response to the outbreak of World War II. The following July, $4 million was authorized by Congress to improve Naval Air Station (NAS) Seattle, more than all the improvements to that date. By June 1941, four month aviation service schools were turning out radiomen, aviation metalsmiths, and aviation machinists. By this time, Seattle had encroached upon the facility enough to require that aircraft no longer carry live bombs and Naval Air Station Whidbey Island was established to handle the arming of aircraft for combat. The cinder runways were paved with asphalt: Eventually, five runways offered eight landing directions. Sand Point serviced aircraft from H.M.S. Warspite for the British Royal Navy.

With the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, NAS Seattle relinquished its patrol squadrons for combat duty in the North Pacific. Twelve planes arrived in Kodiak just in time to help beat back Japanese attacks on Dutch Harbor and then to continue missions against the Kurile Islands, part of the Japanese homeland.

Sand Point operations and staff ballooned during the war years: The daily population rose to 8,000 civilian and military personnel. NAS Seattle also hosted several headquarters functions, a weather center, a communications center, and an overseas terminal for the Naval Air Transport Service. One hundred and fifty shops at the station provided necessary repairs and modifications for fleet aircraft. As shipyards in Tacoma and Vancouver produced escort aircraft carriers (CVEs) at a rate of one every two weeks - 50 in three years - Sand Point provided aviation supplies from propellers to parachutes. Men and planes from aircraft carriers, battleships, and cruisers visiting Puget Sound stayed at the station.

Final Decades

Peace came in August 1945. NAS Seattle found itself in a substantially reduced mission and by June 1946, the combined military and civilian staff dropped to about 3,000. Vast quantities of surplus supplies flooding onto the station and Sand Point became responsible for the preservation of 89 flying boats at Renton. Repair and overhaul of aircraft continued through the 1940s, but the Navy announced that the base would close permanently on September 1, 1950.

World events once again overtook the station when the Korean War erupted in June 1950. Closure plans were first held "in abeyance" then canceled as the base went to a six-day work week overhauling and modifying aircraft, training reservists, supporting operations at Whidbey Island, and supplying the fleet. That conflict ended in 1953 and so did the station's responsibility for overhauling aircraft. The number of civilian employees dropped from 1800 to 200.

The facility returned to its original role as a Naval Reserve training base. Sand Point reservists were recalled to active duty for the Berlin and Cuban Missile Crises in 1961. In the 1960s, the station and its tenant units won many awards for efficiency, safety, and readiness.

The development of the combat-ready naval air station on Whidbey Island made Sand Point superfluous as an air base, however. The end as a naval air station came in 1970, when flight operations ceased. By that time, the base hosted elements of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Civil Air Patrol, the U.S. Postal Service, the U.S. Public Health Service and, once again, the U.S. Army. Sand Point changed to the Naval Station Seattle.

The boosters who worked so hard to build a naval air station may have sowed the seeds for the facility's demise by placing it so close to Seattle. The city continued to extend its boundaries beyond what were once farms accessible only by rail and muddy ruts. As early as 1936, citizens demanded that the Navy deploy a fleet of patrol boats on Lake Washington to prevent collisions between boaters and amphibious aircraft. Just before World War II, citizens obtained a prohibition against aircraft carrying bombs off Sand Point runways, and this meant that Sand Point could not directly support combat operations.

Sources:
Naval Station Puget Sound at Sand Point, (Seattle: U.S. Navy, 1993).


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Sand Point, 1928
Courtesy Naval Station Puget Sound at Sand Point


King County Commissioner Claude Ramsey championed development of the Sand Point Naval Air Station



First hangars and control tower at Sand Point, ca. 1928
Courtesy Naval Station Puget Sound at Sand Point


Laying granite blocks as part of runway, shop and storehouse construction, Sand Point, 1930
Courtesy United States Navy


First Naval buildings at Sand Point, ca. 1930



Early class of Naval Reserve pilots at Sand Point, 1930



U.S. Navy Lt. Commander J.H. Chapman, first commanding officer of the Sand Point Naval Air Station, 1926



U.S. Navy Lt. H. A. Beswick, first pilot instructor at Sand Point



Officer's quarters at Sand Point, 1930s
Postcard


Sand Point, 1955
Courtesy United States Navy


African American sailors report for duty at Naval Air Station Sand Point, 1944
Photo by U.S. Navy, Courtesy National Archives


The Jive Bombers band, Sand Point Naval Air Station, May 2, 1944
Photo by U.S. Navy, Courtesy National Archives (Image No. 80-G-233282)


Barracks, Sand Point Naval Air Station, Seattle, 1950s
Postcard


 
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