A Place to Train the “Boots”

One of the thousands of companies that graduated from the naval training station.

The Japanese sought to destroy a Navy and a nation on December 7, 1941, with a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, but what happened in the sleepy countryside along Seneca Lake soon afterwards became a testament to American resolve, ingenuity and determination.

The American Navy was in need of thousands of able-bodied young men to man the fleet of ships that would fight on the waters during World War II, and most pressing was a place to train all those new “Boots,” as the young recruits were called. On May 14, 1942, with less than two weeks consideration of possible locations, President Roosevelt selected a 2,500-acre stretch along Seneca Lake – nearly 300 miles from the nearest saltwater – as the site for the Sampson Naval Training Center.

Within days of the announcement, residents, farmers and cottage owners in the area were served notice that their properties were being taken over by the U.S. government, according to an article in the Syracuse Post Standard from May 31, 1942. Many seemed resigned to their lot, vacating properties that had been in some families for 100 years or more. The article quoted farmer John Harris, who gave up his 100-acre farm, as saying, “It’s clay, but it produces well when you use it right. I’ve made a living and can’t complain. Of course, we hate to leave here, but it has to be.”

Stephen Bull, who is now president of the Sampson Memorial Museum, which fills three-quarters of the building that formerly served as the training station’s brig (jail facility), first set foot on Sampson Naval Training Station in 1942 as a freshfaced, 17-year-old Boot.

“The number-one consideration in selecting this location was that it would not interfere with the war effort,” said Bull, “and six days after the choice was announced, construction began.”

Thousands of workers converged on the site, stressing the housing situation in nearby Geneva and the surrounding area. During the height of construction, about 30 railroad cars and as many as 1,000 trucks made daily deliveries. Over 41 million board feet of wood was used to construct the 400 buildings. Fifty miles of power lines were installed. The center’s water station could screen, chlorinate and pump 5 million gallons of water each day.

Massive “drill halls” were built that were 120 feet wide, 600 feet long, and 45 feet high, thanks to wooden laminated arches. Steel was practically unavailable due to its critical use in the war effort, so the halls were made of wood and concrete. The completed drill halls could have five basketball games playing simultaneously, and each hall included an Olympic-sized pool.

“We had everything we needed here,” recalls William Grower, a volunteer at the museum and resident of Boonville, New York. Grower celebrated his 18th birthday at the training station, after arriving in 1944. Comparing the training station to a self-sufficient city, Grower listed some of the amenities afforded the young sailors and WAVES (Women Ap­pointed for Voluntary Emergency Service), including “banks, post office, bus service, roads, hospital, theaters, and fire department.” In fact, Grower said, Sampson’s hospital was the largest of any on the East Coast, with 1,500 beds.

The Navy officially opened the training center on October 17, 1942, and as if building the mammoth facility in less than a year were not enough, the Navy went on to train a total of 411,429 sailors at the site during the war years. From their arrivals as civilians, the young Boots were transformed into sailors, and Sampson-trained sailors served on every ship in the Navy, and participated in every major naval engagement of the war.

Most recruits hailed from the New England and East Coast states, but plenty came from as far away as Tennessee, Minnesota, and Illinois.

Bull recalls his first day at Sampson Naval Training Station, when he arrived on the Lehigh Valley Railroad “as a 17-year-old farmboy.” After his first Navy breakfast, which included beans, he and his comrades were stripped completely of their civilian clothes and belongings, and then shuffled through long lines to gather their Navy gear and uniforms.

Arthur Gardner fondly remembers his company winning the “best unit” award, and being awarded the “Rooster” banner to carry to their classes. To top off the award, Gardner said the entire company was granted a 10-hour shore leave in Geneva.

Paul McKee showed up at Sampson as a scrawny 17-year-old, hearing the more seasoned boots calling out “you’ll be sorry” as the line of new arrivals waited for haircuts. “They called us ‘skinheads,’ ” he remarked of the buzzcuts they received.

“Sea language” was immediately stressed to all new recruits. The floor no longer existed – it would forever be referred to as the “deck.” Stairs became ladders, and walls were called bulkheads. Days began at 6 a.m. with inspections and exercise, and then after chow in the huge mess halls, which could seat 1,700 men at once, sailors spent a good amount of time in the drill halls. There they learned basic skills such as how to climb ropes or work in rigging, marksmanship, and drill.

Sampson Naval Training Station closed in May 1946, and then converted to Sampson College, and served to educate returning military personnel through the G.I. Bill.

During the Korean War, the Air Force took over the base for use as a basic-training facility for airmen. Over 300,000 airmen passed through the former Navy facility from 1950 until its closing – again – in November 1956.

In 1960 the land was transferred to New York for use as a state park, and later, former Sampson Navy vets conceived of the idea to open a World War II Navy museum. Today the Navy museum offers a peek into what the daily life of a Sampson sailor was like, tells the history of the construction of the facility, and also offers visitors the chance to look out on Seneca Lake through a nuclear submarine periscope.

The Sampson WWII Navy Museum opened its doors in 1995 and receives as many as 18,000 visitors per year. The museum is free to the public and open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Wed­nesdays through Sundays from May 30 through Labor Day. It is open on weekends-only from Labor Day until Col­umbus Day. For more information about Sampson Naval Training Sta­tion, visit www.rpadden.com/sampson.htm or www.homestead.com/usntssampson or phone 315-585-6203.

by Debbie Kurvach
Debbie Kurvach is a former U.S. Army Officer and freelance writer who lives with her family in Victor, New York.  She enjoys writing about current events and American military history.

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