Nearly 75 years after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, most Americans look back on the wrenching spectacle of burning and battered ships as a brutal surprise.
But when the news came to Hampton Roads on the afternoon of Dec. 7, 1941, the shock was tempered by the realization that the war the region had been preparing for so long had finally happened.
Beginning after the invasion of Poland in September 1939 — then accelerating rapidly after the fall of France in June 1940 — tens of thousands of sailors, soldiers, airmen and shipbuilders had streamed into Hampton Roads, driven by hundreds of millions of dollars in defense spending.
Vast expansions and improvements had reshaped every military base and shipyard, adding piers, runways, hangars, dry docks and shipways — then bringing in so many recruits that the landscape swelled with newly constructed housing and — because there was still not enough room — plot after plot of tent cities.
Long before Japanese bombs and torpedoes rained down on our ships at Pearl Harbor, there were new aircraft carriers, battleships and cruisers rising from the shipways in Hampton Roads.
Swarms of new planes thundered above Langley and Norfolk, while at Fort Monroe and Fort Story the coastal defense guns were on alert, the mines primed and tested and the submarine net across Hampton Roads ready.
So far ahead were the war preparations here that — when it finally came on Dec. 7 — a Langley officer told the Daily Press that we "seem to be two jumps ahead of all the orders we have received thus far."
"This really gets to the core of what it means to live in Hampton Roads — where there's a different rhythm to life because of the military — and where we're affected by world events in a way that the rest of the country is not," Hampton Roads Naval Museum Historian Clay Farrington says.
"We knew war was coming. We were already at war. All we needed was a declaration."
Much of the increasingly urgent focus on Hampton Roads stemmed from its standout role 25 years earlier as a port, shipbuilder and military bastion during World War I.
Starting when Newport News became the primary North American depot for shipping horses to British forces in Europe in 1915, the region was transformed, says former Virginia War Museum head John V. Quarstein, describing not only the epic output of the Norfolk and Newport News yards but also the opening of the nation's second-largest military Port of Embarkation at Newport News and the founding of Langley Field, Fort Eustis, Yorktown Mine Depot and Norfolk Naval and Naval Air Stations.
Still, the War and Navy Departments' investments here in late 1939, '40 and '41 approached that of WWI quickly, then began to surpass it long before Dec. 7 and a formal declaration of war.
Just 12 weeks after Germany attacked Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, Newport News shipbuilders laid down the keel for the USS Indiana, the first new American battleship since 1923.
Three months later, the builders at Norfolk Navy Yard laid down the USS Alabama, the first battleship to rise from the newly expanded and improved Portsmouth yard since the 1890s.
Both yards grew quickly as the prewar naval building program revved up, with the number of workers in Portsmouth rising from about 7,000 to more than 12,000 in the less than a year, during which their workload swelled to include major repairs of the battle-damaged British carrier HMS Illustrious and other Royal Navy ships as well as constructing and repairing American vessels, Farrington says.
At Newport News, the carrier Hornet was rising from the shipways, too, part of an explosion in Navy work that pushed employment from 6,500 in 1935 to more than 10,000 by mid-1940 — with thousands of more hires planned after the Navy awarded contracts from three more carriers and two cruisers in early July.
"The yard was getting a lot of orders and hiring a lot of workers," says William A. Fox, author of "Always Good Ships: Histories of Newport News Ships."
"We were definitely getting ready for war."
As early as 1939, tens of millions of defense dollars began streaming into the region's military bases, too, paying for massive enlargements and improvements at Norfolk Naval and Naval Air Stations.
Among the most telling projects in South Hampton Roads was a $4 million expansion of the Naval Training Center, the beginning of construction on a six-story, 8 million-square-foot supply warehouse and the addition of more piers, all of which were soon followed by a $1 million, 1,141-acre extension of NAS and its runways in early 1940, Farrington says.
At Langley Field, the number of airmen grew enormously, surging from 3,300 in 1939 to 5,849 by February 1940 because of a flood of new recruits.
"The increased population outstripped available quarters and the number of aircraft surpassed hangar space to accommodate them," the Inspector General reported.
"It was not uncommon to see a detachment of recruits at drill wearing a mixture of coveralls, blue denim, khaki, woolen olive drab and civilian clothing, some with and some without overcoats."
At Fort Monroe, builders began work on a new submarine mine depot in March 1940 — about the same time coastal artillery gunners started live firing drills both there and at Fort Story overlooking the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.
Anti-aircraft batteries went into action north of the old fort, training the new recruits arriving in such overwhelming numbers that tent cities filled the historic parade ground and other open spaces long after scores of new barracks had been completed.
"Every single square inch of earth here was being utilized," Casemate Museum historian Robert Kelly says.
"And when they started training with those anti-aircraft guns, it was something that everybody in Phoebus and that part of Hampton would have noticed.
"They were firing at night. They were using those big searchlights. It must have been a pretty noisy sight."
So spectacular were Fort Monroe's rapid-fire 37-mm guns that — when President Franklin D. Roosevelt came to inspect the military build-up in Hampton Roads on July 29, 1940 — he made a special stop to watch them blast away at their targets.
He also visited the Norfolk yard, where he took in not only the looming hull of the Alabama but also three huge new dry docks and what was then the world's largest machine shop — all built in the previous six months at a cost of $50 million.
At the Naval Station — which had surged in population to 40,000 officers and men — column after column of white-jacketed sailors passed in review as Roosevelt looked on from his open car, followed by a display of hundreds of aircraft at the Air Station.
Hundreds of additional warplanes greeted his admiring gaze at Langley Field, where airmen planned a spectacular series of bombing and gunnery demonstrations at Plumtree Island.
But with the temperature in the low 90s and time running short, Roosevelt left soon after his tour of Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory's landmark wind tunnels ended — and his motorcade reached speeds of up to 55 mph as it flew down Kecoughtan Road through Hampton to the Newport News shipyard, the Daily Press reported.
There, the president inspected the Indiana and Hornet from his open car before stopping for an impromptu chat with a crowd of shipbuilders and reporters.
That's when he impulsively announced contracts for four more carriers and two more cruisers.
"No housie, no shippie," quipped Executive Vice-President Capt. Roger Williams, prompting a laugh from the president as he reminded him about promises to address the region's growing housing shortage.
"This is just the beginning," Roosevelt replied.
"We're going to see a lot more before we get through."
Before Dec. 7
Just how much Roosevelt knew about the build-up still to come is uncertain.
But within a month Fort Eustis was reactivated nearly a decade after its garrison had departed.
A month after that Langley began an immense construction project designed to replace its turf and asphalt runways with concrete — and Fort Monroe embarked upon a huge modernization program.
Not long after the start of 1941, Langley expanded dramatically, too, adding 770 acres and launching a $1.4 million construction campaign that erected 96 structures on the already sprawling airfield.
Soon, more than 2,000 new recruits filled those buildings, pushing the population past 8,000 in the months before Dec. 7.
"One of the things that was unique here was the arrival of the 21st Engineer (Aviation) Regiment. The expansion at Shellbanks was for them," Air Combat Command Historian William M. Butler says.
"They were a key element in building the new airfields we needed when the campaign went overseas, starting in 1942 with the invasion of North Africa. We needed those airfields — and these were the guys we needed to do it."
As 1941 wore on, Army and Air Corps planners began laying out the path for a new military highway — now Mercury Boulevard — designed to cut travel time between Langley, Fort Monroe and the James River Bridge.
Navy surveyors went to work carving out a new training installation named Camp Peary near Williamsburg — and by fall they had staked out two more new bases at Little Creek and Dam Neck in Virginia Beach.
At Newport News, shipbuilders completed the Hornet's sea trials in September, and it was commissioned at Norfolk a month later.
The Indiana slid down the ways on Nov. 21 — giving the yard little chance to catch its breath before Dec. 7 — and the still more urgent demand for the seven carriers and four cruisers Roosevelt and the Navy had ordered.
"We think of ourselves today as living in a period when change happens with astonishing speed. But we can't hold candle to what was taking place in Hampton Roads in the days before Dec. 7," Farrington says.
"And that was just the beginning."
Erickson can be reached by phone at 757-247-4783.
Go to dailypress.com/history to see archival images of the pre-Pearl Harbor defense build-up in Hampton Roads.