Here in Hampton Roads, fighter jets roar in the skies above, ships patrol the seas and waterways, and troops train and work at the area’s many military bases. For centuries, Hampton Roads has been thought of as the perfect operating center for the defense of the region since it is strategically located in the mid-Atlantic. Upon landing in the New World in 1607, Captain John Smith deemed the area near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay as an important defense position for the fledgling English colony. Today, that region is home to the world’s largest Navy base, Naval Station Norfolk, other prestigious military bases for different branches of the armed forces, and the only NATO command headquartered in the United States. This area is proud of the nearly 85,000 servicemen and women who live and serve their country in Hampton Roads.
With all the waterways that surround the cities and towns of Hampton Roads, it comes as no surprise that the U.S. Navy is a dominant force in this region. Naval Station Norfolk is home to the Navy’s Mid-Atlantic fleet. Up to 65 ships ranging from aircraft carriers to nuclear submarines can be found along the base’s 14 piers, and its 16 hangars can hold approximately 150 aircraft. The Secretary of the Navy originally purchased the land on which Naval Station Norfolk sits in 1917 when the U.S. entered WWI. Even though the base is only a century old, Naval Station Norfolk currently supports most naval operations around the globe and headquarters the U.S. Fleet Forces Command.
The birth of naval aviation occurred off the coast of nearby Newport News where naval vessels are constructed at Newport News Shipbuilding. In 1936, 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 during the Second World War, Naval Station Norfolk grew rapidly. 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. Presently, NAS Oceana is the most important air station in the U.S. Navy, serving as home to the Navy’s master jet base and Hornet and Super Hornet squadrons.
Also during WWII, amphibious sailors performed their training at Naval Amphibious Base Little Creek. They learned to efficiently arrive on enemy shorelines in the heat of battle. Gun crews also trained here to defend ships from attack. That training continues today and goes further to develop the finely tuned abilities of many Navy and Marine units including Seabees (Naval Construction Battalions), Explosive Ordinance Disposal Groups, and the Navy SEALS. The mission at Little Creek is to “provide required support services to over 15,000 personnel of the 27 home-ported ships and 78 resident and/or supported activities.” There is no larger amphibious base of its kind in the entire world.
Across the Elizabeth River is the city of Portsmouth and the oldest continuously operating naval medical center in the nation. This hospital has relentlessly provided care to American military personnel since 1830. Naval Medical Center Portsmouth is centrally located in Hampton Roads and within sight of Naval Station Norfolk.
During the Revolutionary War, the effort of General Washington’s Continental Army and militiamen against the British proved victorious in Yorktown. Since then, the U.S. Army has held a stronghold in the region. In fact, most the battles in the American Civil War were fought in Virginia—and many of them along the James River from Norfolk to Richmond. Fort Monroe in Hampton witnessed battles including the off-shore clash of the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia. It also 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 Barack Obama 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.”
The Army’s history and presence in Hampton Roads is further evidenced by Fort Eustis in Newport News. 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 Air Force Base 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.
Though many branches of the military have operated out of Fort Story since its location provides suitable training ground for the various branches’ amphibious forces, it is traditionally known for being an Army base. Fort Story is 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. In 2009 the Army base merged with Little Creek Amphibious base to later become Joint Expeditionary Base East and West (Fort Story and Little Creek). It was then that the old Army fort was placed under the Navy’s control.
In the early 1900s the U.S. Army had its own branch of aviation—The Army Air Corps. Today, that branch has become the United States Air Force. And Langley Air Force Base near Hampton and Newport News is 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. 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.
Though they are completely separate, the Marine Corps works closely with the Navy. In fact, the Marine Corps Forces Command deploys its forces around the world from Naval Station Norfolk and many marines serve aboard U.S. Navy aircraft carriers, battleships and amphibious vessels. They engage predominately in amphibious warfare and execute rapid deployment strategies efficiently. However, the Navy often supports the Marine Corps with transportation by air and sea. Though there are two major Marine Corps bases just a few hours away in nearby North Carolina—Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point and Marine Corp Base Camp LeJeune—many of the region’s Marines serve at Naval Station Norfolk or at nearby Little Creek.
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. Currently, the U.S. Coast Guard’s Fifth District is headquartered 30 miles away from the Virginia Beach oceanfront, in Portsmouth, Virginia. This base consists of approximately 13 ships and the largest contingent of U.S. Coast Guard personnel in the United States. 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 still rescue staggering numbers of stranded boaters each year.
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. We are exceptionally proud of the military community in our cities and counties and the history that they share with U.S. all.
10 Ways to Support and Engage With Our Military
- Watch an air show at Langley Air Force Base or at Naval Air Station Oceana—don’t miss the USAF Thunderbirds or the Navy’s Blue Angels!
- Catch a concert performed by one of the local military bands at public venues. Many of these concerts are free!
- Board the Victory Rover for a boat tour of Naval Station Norfolk or take to the water on a boat used by the Navy SEALs with Patriotic Excursions.
- Check out the monuments throughout Hampton Roads dedicated to our servicemen and women.
- Raise money to help disabled veterans and wounded warriors by participating in marathons, obstacle races, and other special events.
- Visit museums such as the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown or the Military Aviation Museum in Virginia Beach to learn the history of the military in Hampton Roads.
- Explore the former army base of Fort Monroe or tour the decks of the Battleship Wisconsin at Nauticus in Norfolk.
- Take part in events on holidays throughout the year honoring those who have served.
- Donate time, money or items to a military charity.
- Say “Thank You” to a veteran or service member!