Although most people have probably not heard of, or know anything about, the Naval Air Station in Grosse Ile, Michigan, it was at one time a very important military base for the United States. Built in 1927, and lasting until 1969, this small military base served as one of the most influential flight training bases during World War II.
Originally called the Naval Reserve Air Base Grosse Ile, this naval base started out as a small landing strip on the southern tip of Grosse Ile in the early 1920’s. As time went on, the awareness began to grow that a strong Air Force was becoming increasingly necessary to have a strong military. As this feeling grew stronger and stronger, the Naval Air Station Grosse Ile (NASGI) began to grow with it. Around the 1940s, hostility between Europe and Asia was growing, and it was likely that the U.S. would be involved if any sort of war broke out. Knowing this, along with the fact that aircraft were going to be a big part of the battle, resources began to flow to the Naval Air Station Gross Ile. With all the hostility, the British pilots needed a safe place to get their flight training, so in 1941 the base in Grosse Ile was tasked with providing elementary flight training for pilots (Outlaw, 2013). The Atlantic Charter, constructed between Franklin Roosevelt of the U.S. and Winston Churchill of Britain, was a big reason as to why the British pilots were being trained on U.S. grounds. This charter was an agreement between the two countries about their post-war goals for the world. To obtain resources for flight training, NASGI would take planes that were to be scraped, salvage the car and engine, and use those parts to train the cadets.
Receiving flight training was not something that the cadets did every day, a lot of their time was spent doing various other tasks. One officer stated that “There wasn’t a great deal through the week. Most of it was maintaining the planes.” (Thurtell, 2007). He went on to say that every weekend there would be a new set of cadets that would train. Initially, the Chief of Naval Operations ordered 150 cadets be assigned to Grosse Ile each month, but as war got closer, that number grew to 300 per month. The first month of training at Grosse Ile was the most difficult, causing that to be the point where more cadets washed out then at any other point. It was because of this drop out rate that Grosse Ile became known as an elimination base, and those who didn’t fail would then graduate and go to Pensacola, Florida for more advanced training (Outlaw, 2013). After completing their training, Grosse Ile reservists would be put short notice for active duty, in case war were to break out. By late 1940, one third of the cadets were ordered to active duty, and by January of 1941, all of the cadets were ordered to active duty. Active duty cadets that were stationed at NAS Grosse Ile often started out with lower level jobs, such as night crew members or be put on cleaning duty, and as they gain experience, move up to higher regarded positions. One cadet, Sal Difatta, explained how he started out as a night check crew member for a specified hanger, and another talks about being responsible for cleaning down the air crafts after training. A night check crew member is basically a cadet that walks around at night to make sure nothing goes wrong. Several years later, Sal, who started out on the night crew made his way up to the regular Navy, and was making trips on seagoing ships. The other cadet worked his way to the flight line where he pre-flighted planes such as the N2S and the N3N. Pre-flighting is the process of checking over the planes prior to takeoff to ensure that everything is up to par, and that no malfunctions will occur. This process can change from plane to plane. Although there are a few men who stayed at NAS Grosse Ile for a long time, it seems that most would arrive for a short period of time under some order, serve for a year or two, then be sent to another place. Sal Difatta was one of the few men who stayed at NAS Grosse Ile for a long time, explaining in a paragraph on the NASGI Virtual Museum website that he served there from 1945 to 1955 (Outlaw, 2005).
The day Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, was the day that the Naval Air Station Grosse Ile really start its expansion. Nine days after the bombing, the Secretary of the Navy ordered the expansion of the number cadets training to 2500 per month. The functions that Grosse Ile served as during World War II include: Navy Training School, Naval Air Station, Air Force Atlantic Fleet Branch Office, Combat Aircrew Refresher Training Unit, and Airborne Radar Training Unit.
During WWII, there was a patriotic feeling of support for the military, but at the same time, anxiety and stress was high, especially for those who were serving. Always having to be on alert, the thought that your brothers in arms are out somewhere fighting, not knowing who is going to come home, all these things and more can really take their metal toll on the troops that aren’t even directly in the battle. NAS Grosse Ile was a place where the troops could escape that feeling a little bit and get rid of some of that anxiety. Charles Ferry, a man who served at Grosse Ile, wrote a newspaper article in which he talks about this unbelievable feeling of hospitality that he felt during his time serving there. There weren’t a lot of large bases around the Detroit area, which meant that there weren’t a lot of military men there either (Ferry, 2010). Citizens in the area however, were still eager to show their appreciation for the men out risking their lives for the country the loved. Ferry talks about how people would offer to buy him drinks all the time at the bar, invite him to their house for expensive dinners, and how the big bands of the time would make their way out to Grosse Ile. They way he talks about how people treated a man in a military uniform is almost as if they were a famous celebrity. As previously stated, this was during WWII, when there was already a great feeling of support for our country, but they way troops were treated in the Grosse Ile area made the Naval Air Station that much more impressive (Ferry, 2010).
Women also played a very important role at the Naval Air Station Grosse Ile. The women involved in military affairs were referred to as the “Waves”, which stood for Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Services. World War I was the first time that women held a major role in the Navy, helping out with mostly clerical and secretarial job. After WWI however, only a small number of the women were left on active duty, the rest were sent home. One reason for not allowing the women to stay in the Navy was that, at that time, women did not have equal rights to men. Another reason is that during peacetime there didn’t seem to be as big a need for them, so as a result to WWI ending, many were told to go home. These military women obviously didn’t appreciate this, and a lot of meetings were held trying to convince people that women deserved permanent status in the Navy. Naval Reserve Lieutenant Commander Mildred Helen McAfee, selected as the first female commissioned officer and first wartime director of the Waves, was a big part of this push to achieve permanent Naval status (Myers, 2013). World War II was another opportunity for the women to help out and really make a push to showing that they deserved this permanent status. It is well known that an important part of a Navy is a strong fleet. While the men are off getting their training, the ships still need to be built, inspected, and filled with the necessary equipment to ship out to sea. Once these ships are ready to sail, they need men who are well trained, and people to help in their training. Once there first two tasks are completed, the ships are ready to set sail, but the Waves work doesn’t stop there. Once at sea, communication is vital to having an effective fleet. Actions need to be recorded, and the moral of the crew needs to be help high (Outlaw, 2012). For all of these things stated, “the Waves are there”. “The Waves are there”, was a common saying the Waves said when referring to helping out with the tasks asked of them. They were there to help in any way shape or form that they could. Just about the only thing the waves weren’t able to assist with was the strategic military plans themselves, due to the fact that the women didn’t have the necessary training or education about the subject. These might not have been the most glorious jobs for women, but just like with the men, NASGI was looking for people who were proud and willing to help out their country any way they could. After WWII ended, the Waves continued there push, and obtained a permanent spot in the Navy, using their superior work ethics during WWII as the platform for their argument.
Even for a few years after the war had ended, NAS Grosse Ile acted as a very influential training base for new cadets. In the summer of 1958, it held an 85 day recruit training school. For someone who wasn’t truly passionate about joining the navy, this would be a very difficult training camp for them to go through. There were strict rules that had to be followed while in attending the school. Some of these rules include having your bunk made and in regulation manner every day before 7:25 A.M., no alcoholic beverages on the station, and being in bed with lights out by 10:00 P.M. every night (Outlaw, 2005). These are pretty normal military disciplines to have, but taking into account all the training that had to be completed in just 85 days on top of these rules, the camp was undoubtedly challenging to complete. By making the training harder, the commanding officers and captains know that the students attending the school have a strong passion for what they are doing. One captain, who was in charge of training the cadets during this camp, wrote a letter in which he states that the school didn’t want members who were just looking to get payed, or men who just wear the uniform once a month to fill their reserve obligations. They wanted men who were ready, willing, and proud to go and serve their country whenever they were needed without any hesitation.
This 85 day training school was definitely tough, and so was NAS Grosse Ile as a whole, but just like any hard working men, they enjoyed themselves from time to time. The CPO (Chief Petty Officers) Club was always a busy place in Grosse Ile. When there wasn’t a training camp going on, members would often meet up here for a drink after a long day or for celebration. Along with the occasional drink, military members would also enjoy a little bit of friendly heckling. Becoming a Petty Officer was a big deal for most cadets. As a result of this, many that made it to this achievement would experience friendly, yet humiliating, initiation tasks. One example of this comes up in a picture of a young man swabbing the decks in pretty much no clothing other than his under garments (Outlaw, 2005). Sports were another way for the men to forget about the work a little and enjoy themselves. NAS Grosse Ile had its own baseball team which competed against near by college teams. One newspaper article talks about a game where the Sailors, which was NAS Grosse Ile’s mascot, bested the Tartars of Wayne State University by one run in 12 innings (Outlaw, 2005).
Naval Air Station Grosse Ile was active for a few years after WWII as a Naval Air Reserve. It was still quite active until about 1961 when planes began to get larger and faster. Grosse Ile’s small landing strips limited its usefulness with the more advanced planes, and in 1967 it was announced that the NASGI would be closed. Upon its closure, NASGI was turning into Grosse Ile Municipal Airport, which is still active to this day. One part of the air station was also turned into a museum. Naval Air Station Grosse Ile isn’t completely gone however, there are still some signs and other miscellaneous items still in place to keep its memory alive.
- Ferry, Charles. “Grosse Ile a hospitable place in wartime.” Home of Naval Air Station Grosse Ile Virtual Museum, Revised 30 June 2010.
- Outlaw, Stanley. “Wave Inspection 4-1944.” Home of Naval Air Station Grosse Ile Virtual Museum, Revised 16 July 2012.
- Outlaw, Stanley. “Photo Links of NASGI.” Home of Naval Air Station Grosse Ile Virtual Museum, 18 April 2005.
- Mullen, Judy, et al. “Naval Air Station, Grosse Ile” Detroit the History and Future of the Motor City, August 2009.
- Outlaw, Stanley. ” WWII & The 40’s at NASGI.” Home of Naval Air Station Grosse Ile Virtual Museum, 28 April 2013.
- Thurtell, Joel. Museums tell Story of the Naval Air Station: Training Intense in 1950s and ’60s, 2007.
- Keisel, Kenneth.” U.S. Naval Air Station Grosse Ile” Grosse Ile Historical Society, 21 November 2011.
- Myers, Jessica. “The Navy’s History of Making WAVES” America’s Navy, 30 July 2013
- Bateman, Tom. “Site D-51-Grosse Ile.” ARADCOM, 10 March 2014.