Book Examines Norman’s Navy Years
Sue Schrems was concerned.
She was afraid a period in Cleveland County history that played a major role in the creation of Norman as it is now was being forgotten. Most of the physical evidence had already been torn down and built over; the people who had lived through the era were passing on; and many of the memories had been reduced to catch phrases almost lost in time: North Base, South Base, Mount Williams.
So the retired professor and history researcher/author decided she needed to write another book. The result is the pictorial Norman’s Navy Years: 1942-1959, published by Arcadia Publishing and co-authored by retired Marine Lt. Col. Vernon R. Maddux. The two are residents of Norman and board members of the Cleveland County Historical Society.
It’s always a little startling for newcomers to the county to learn that during World War II and into the Korean War era, the Navy had several installations in land-locked Norman, Oklahoma.
Schrems credits much of the spark that attracted the bases to an energetic civic and community leader named T. Jack Foster, once Norman’s youngest mayor and then a mover and shaker in the Chamber of Commerce.
By the late 1930s he began to believe conditions in Europe were bringing the possibility of a world conflict ever closer. He also was very aware of the hard conditions brought on by the Great Depression and the desperate need for an improved economy in the area.
Connecting the dots, he worked to get the Chamber and the University of Oklahoma interested in providing technical training facilities to help both the military as war loomed and the Norman area. Other farsighted men such as Neil Johnson with the Chamber and Savoie Lottinville and Joseph Brandt of OU joined Foster in numerous trips to Washington, D.C., to convince military planners that Norman would be an excellent spot for training sites. A university that had been providing aeronautical studies since 1927, an airport already in operation at Westheimer Field and plenty of room to expand added to their arguments.
When the Navy finally decided to build in Norman, the results were almost beyond belief. The population of Norman doubled. There were 11,000 town residents; the Navy bases brought in 20,000.
There were two major installations–the Naval Air Station, or North Base, was located in the Westheimer Field area, where pilots were trained to fly. The Naval Air Technical Training School, or South Base, was across from the current location of Lloyd Noble Center. It was there that mechanics, including a number of WAVES, the women in service, were trained to maintain and repair naval aircraft. There was also a Naval Air Gunnery School east of Lexington and an outdoor gunnery practice range called Mount Williams after the first base commander, J.W. Williams Jr. It was visible from Interstate 35 until this century.
But those facilities were only the beginning. Major construction was required to provide adequate water and sewer facilities, roads and infrastructure lacking in the town. Norman saw a boom in building that could not have been envisioned even by the most optimistic city leaders.
To make life as fulfilling as possible for the trainees, the base provided a hospital, also open to military dependents, chapel facilities, community center, clubhouse, theaters and entertainment venues, post office and transportation opportunities to get the trainees to Norman restaurants and movie theaters and to the attractions of Oklahoma City.
The entire population of Norman was enlisted to provide for the needs of the naval personnel. Barracks were built for single men and women but rental units were needed for those who were married with families. Stores and restaurants boomed and had to be updated and enlarged to cope with the demand.
Norman was never to be the same.
Scores of vintage photographs track the history of this period, detailing many of the changes made in the town and its surroundings. For anyone interested in the history of Cleveland County, it is a valuable addition to their library.
Proceeds from the sale of book go directly to Cleveland County Historical Society to support Norman’s Moore-Lindsay Historical House Museum.
Norman’s Navy Years: 1942-1959 may be purchased for $21.99 at Norman’s Moore-Lindsay Historical House, at Barnes & Noble Booksellers, at Walgreen Drug Stores, and through Amazon or from ArcadiaPublishing.com.