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Virginia Beach Area Features

Military Bases - The Fabric of Hampton Roads

  By: Jacquelyn Eurice

From some of the earliest days in American history, when an English Colonists’ revolt in 1677 led to the expedition of English troops to the New World, there has always been a formal military presence in southeast Virginia. Nearly three and a half centuries later, Hampton Roads has become an operations center for some of the largest military installations in the world. We are exceptionally proud of the military community in our cities and counties and the history that they share with us all.

Langley Air Force Base

Traveling to the oceanfront, many guests to Virginia Beach will pass through the city of Hampton, home to Langley Air Force Base, the oldest U.S. military installation devoted to air power. Incredibly, Langley AFB was established in 1916, just 13 years after the Wright Brothers made their first historic flight in nearby Kitty Hawk, NC and just prior to the United States involvement in WWI. At that time, Langley served the Army Air Corps, which was just a fledgling branch of the U.S. Army. In 1947, the Army Air Corps began evolving into a separate branch to become the present-day United States Air Force. Langley AFB is one of the nation’s oldest Air Force bases—in essence, a grandfather to most U.S. Air Force bases. It houses, among others, the 1st Fighter Wing, the 633rd Air Base Wing, and the 480th Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing.

Fort Eustis and Fort Monroe

The Army’s history and presence in Hampton Roads is evidenced by Fort Eustis and Fort Monroe. Established in 1918, Fort Eustis has been used for a myriad of purposes including aeronautical and engineering training, transportation training prior to WWII, and even as a jail for bootleggers during Prohibition. However, it technically dates back to the Colonial era when it was known as Mulberry Island. During the American Civil War, it was called Fort Crafford and served as a defensive line for the Confederate army. Today, it has been combined with Langley AFB to become Joint Base Langley-Eustis. The Training and Doctrine Command carries out the Army’s directives at Ft. Eustis, and troops stationed there are engaged in the study of aeronautics, logistics, medicine, and engineering.

Fort Monroe formally pre-dates Ft. Eustis by approximately 100 years, but the land it was built upon was recognized by Captain John Smith as a strategic defensive point as early as 1608. It is steeped in history, having: witnessed the American Civil War including the off-shore clash of the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia; played a part in the path to freedom for many 19th century African Americans; stood vigil and provided a first defense against enemy submarines during both World Wars; and housed dignitaries and prisoners alike. Most notably, U.S. presidents, Jefferson Davis, Edgar Allan Poe, and Robert E. Lee have walked its grounds. Fort Monroe was recently deactivated by President BarackObama to become part of the National Park Service and is currently open to the public. It consists of 169 historic sites including the must-see Casemate Museum and the Chamberlin, a former hotel and a beautiful relic from the “roaring ‘20s.”

Coast Guard

Consisting of approximately 13 ships and the largest population of U.S. Coast Guard personnel in the United States, the Fifth District is headquartered 30 miles away from the Virginia Beach oceanfront, in Portsmouth, Virginia. From here, the USCG vessels patrol American coasts from New Jersey to South Carolina. As a division of Homeland Security, the Fifth District minimizes risk to interior cities such as Washington, DC and Philadelphia, key ports, and the nation’s largest Navy base in Norfolk. They also rescue staggering numbers of stranded boaters each year. Actually, the Coast Guard has a long history of saving many in nearby waters who narrowly escaped Davy Jones’ locker. The Old Coast Guard Station is on the National Register of Historic Places and is located at the Virginia Beach Surf & Rescue Museum on the Virginia Beach oceanfront at 24th Street. The Old Coast Guard Station, originally built in 1878, first served as a United States Life-Saving Station to help shipwreck victims. Among other things, the current museum now houses photographs and artifacts that tell the local story of an agency that preceded the modern-day Coast Guard.

Naval Station Norfolk: Celebrating 100 Years

There is no larger naval base in the world than Naval Station Norfolk. Home to the Navy’s Mid-Atlantic fleet, up to 75 ships ranging from aircraft carriers to nuclear submarines can be found along the base’s 14 piers. In addition, its 11 hangars can hold over 130 aircraft, and countless Marine Corps troops are also stationed here. Most impressively, the base supports most naval operations around the globe. Pretty impressive for a base that just turned 100 years old.

When the United States entered WWI in 1917, the Secretary of the Navy purchased the land on which Naval Station Norfolk sits following the recommendation of top brass from the 1908 Jamestown Expedition. Soon after in neighboring Newport News where many ships are built, the birth of naval aviation occurred when Eugene Ely flew his 50-horsepower Curtiss plane off a ramp constructed on the USS Birmingham. After an initial and harrowing plummet that grazed the surface of the James River, Ely was able to recover his aircraft from the nose-dive and continue on safely to Norfolk. With this milestone and the increased need for naval reinforcements in the war effort, Naval Station Norfolk grew rapidly. Its presence in both World Wars was instrumental in the Allies’ eventual victories. Nearly all of the American naval aviators in WWII were trained in Norfolk. In 1943, the Navy’s influence in the region increased with the addition of Oceana Naval Auxiliary Air Station in Virginia Beach, home to the Navy’s master jet base, and Naval Amphibious Base Little Creek.

Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story

Since WWII, amphibious Navy sailors and eventually, Marines and special warfare teams have trained at Little Creek to arrive on enemy shorelines in the heat of battle. In 2005, Little Creek merged with the Army base, Fort Story, to later become Joint Expeditionary Base East in 2009. It was then that the old Army fort was placed under the Navy’s control. However, many branches of the military have operated out of Fort Story. Its location provides suitable training ground for the various branches’ amphibious forces. Fort Story is also notable since it was the original landing site of America’s first English settlers. The Cape Henry Memorial Cross commemorates that historic location and it is in close proximity to the old Cape Henry Lighthouse. Both of these remarkable sites can be toured by the public.

So, whether it’s the planes roaring above, the transports of troops and equipment rolling along the roads, the presence of ships hoisting their anchors to embark on a cruise or submarines diving in our waterways, it’s clear that Hampton Roads has a strong military presence throughout the region. What’s just as inspiring is the long and intertwined history that keeps this region and the military together.

Sounds of Freedom

Jet noise is the sound of freedom and an integral part of life in Hampton Roads. Each year, residents and visitors alike look forward to air shows presented by Naval Air Station Oceana and Langley Air Force Base. These shows provide a magnificent opportunity to see planes of the past fly on heritage flights with their modern descendants. Plus, watching elite groups like the Navy’s Blue Angels or the Air Force’s Thunderbirds perform harrowing stunts in tight formation is quite spectacular. These thrilling events with high speeds, sonic booms, and abundant festivities and exhibits attract thousands of people to the bases every year. If your vacation to Virginia Beach doesn’t align with one of these shows, you can still check out bi-planes, WWII bombers and other relics from past eras at the Military Aviation Museum. The museum also presents air shows and other special events like The Flying Proms.

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