The Norman Transcript

October 6, 2013

Memories of Naval bases fading with time


The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — As the years quickly pass, memories of Norman’s Mount Williams are already beginning to fade.

At a Chamber of Commerce breakfast this week, a speaker talked of spending much of his childhood digging slugs out of the dirt backstops that served sailors at the two Navy bases here.

Looking around, it was obvious many in the room had no clue about what Dan Stroud was talking about. The mounds — one on the north base north of Robinson Street and the other on the south base near where the National Weather Center now stands — are gone now.

When the University North Park commercial development was envisioned, the university promised to put up a monument noting Mount Williams and its role in Norman’s history. (J.W. Williams was the base’s first commander, and the north base backstop was built with dirt scraped when the base was constructed here in 1942.)

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The Navy opened the two bases after the U.S. entered World War II. The Naval Flight Training Center was a flying school for combat pilots heading to World War II. The 19 cadets in the first class took their first flights in September 1942.

The Naval Air Technical Training Center trained mechanics and machinists on the South Base. A 400-bed hospital also operated there, and a Naval Air Gunners school opened east of Lexington.

About 2,000 workers were hired to put up the temporary buildings, streets and other amenities for the small cities that sprung up. Construction began in April 1942.

The bases were closed after the war but reopened between 1952 and 1959 to support the Korean War effort.

Seventeen auxiliary airstrips around central Oklahoma were often utilized for touch and go for the pilots.

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Like the dirt backstops, most of the base’s “temporary” buildings have been taken down. The latest casualty was a large office building just south of the OU Golf Course clubhouse. It most recently housed OU social science departments while work was being done on Dale Hall Tower.

Many a Norman resident learned to swim at the north base pool, the south base pool and some indoor pools on the south campus. The old Building 92 on Constitution Street was home to many city parks and recreation programs. My brothers and I learned to wrestle on Navy surplus mattresses stored beneath a stage there.

A field trip in the woods on the OU Golf Course grounds will reveal a number of Navy building remnants, including the Officer’s Club.

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There has been talk of a fundraiser to rehabilitate the Building 1005, known as the Optimist Gym building, just east of the Cleveland County Family YMCA. That facility has been used by thousands of local kids, OU students and others.

In a storm, the building creaks and rain usually finds its way to the floor. It was built as a hangar but used more as a drill hall.

One base commander put down a wooden floor for basketball, but burst pipes put an end to that.

A historic photo shows dozens of the Navy’s trainer aircraft packed into the building to ride out an Oklahoma storm. Ironically, about half a century later, crews took over the building to film part of the movie “Twister.”

All told, 74,332 airmen graduated from the training center, the Naval Air Station graduated 6,284 pilots and the Gunnery School in Lexington trained 13,484 ordinance men.

Andy Rieger

editor@normantranscript.com

366-3543