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Argentia Naval Air Station and Fort McAndrew

Argentia, Placentia Bay

Date Last Modified: April 16, 2016

Between 1941 and 1994 the United States operated a strategic military base on a large flat piece of land that extended out into Placentia Bay near the community of Placentia. The large Naval Air Base contained a three runway airfield and a large dockyard and seaplane base. Neighboring the Naval Air Base was Fort McAndrew; a US Army base whose purpose was to house troops at the base and to provide protection. The base would be used as a hub for ships and aircraft protecting convoys crossing the Atlantic and as well as a base for coastal patrol aircraft and submarine detection. At its peak, 20,000 American servicemen were stationed at the Air Station and the services it provided would help win the Battle of the Atlantic and in stopping the Axis power.  

Today the remnants of the Argentia Naval Air Station are slowly being torn down or being reused. The area has gone though some major changes since the decommissioning of the base. Today the majority of the area is used as an industrial park. However there are still many old bunkers, magazines and even some buildings left standing. The area still offers a lot to see and find though and is a favorite for urban explorers, history enthusiast and adventure seekers. 

This map show points of interest which were current the last time I visited the area in 2015

Batteries 281 and 282 were reinforced concrete, earth covered coastal batteries that were built in Fort McAndrew. Their purpose was to provide protection of the Argentia Naval Air Station from enemy ship and U-boat attacks. Although they were never used against an enemy vessel, they serve as a reminder of the fear that the Americans had that an attack on the Air Base was plausible.

Located near the intersection of Marquis Ave. and Charter Ave. in the area formerly known as Fort McAndrew is one of the largest underground structures built at Argentia. There seems to be a general acceptance among many that this enormous 2 storey (some say 3 storey) bunker was used as a fully functioning hospital. But after receiving an email from a local in the area, I became informed that this large, fortified bunker was actually used as a Command and Control (CNC) center for the two coastal defense batteries nearby.

During the construction of the multi-million dollar airfield, over 8.5 million cubic feet of peat, gravel, and earth had to be moved in order to build the airfield facilities needed. These facilities included three runways, aircraft hangers, ammunition magazines, a seaplane base and 2000 feet of docks. Today the airfield is accessible however is in dismal shape. On top of this the construction of a Husky Energy's Oil Platform on the North tip of the Peninsula is threatening to further destroy remaining features of the airfield.  

The History of Argentia

Before the War

Before 1940 the community of Argentia located on the shores of Placentia Bay was small fishing community whose population was around 500 people. The majority of the local residents made a living off the sea as most Newfoundlander's did. The small ice free harbour also attracted the attention of the Newfoundland Railway Company who established a supply dock in the early parts of the 20th century. Coastal steamers would ship in supplies needed in Newfoundland and be loaded onto train cars where it was transported across the island. The docks helped maintain a healthy economy to the small community. However it would not be long that this small, quiet fishing village would soon change forever.

Destroyers for Bases Agreement

As World War II was raging in Europe the United States began worrying over the possibility of German invasion in North America. Many believed that if Nazi Germany successfully defeated or bypassed England in the war, that the next move Hitler would make was to invade the small British ruled island of Newfoundland. Newfoundlands strategic position in the North Atlantic (its proximity to Europe) also made it a necessary stop over and rally point for Aircraft and Warships heading to the European Theatre overseas. 

 

Meanwhile the Battle of the Atlantic raged on as Germany attempted to severe North America from Europe and conquer the Atlantic Ocean. Britain was loosing the battle as German U-boats were sinking any supply and war ships crossing the ocean. British Prime Minister needed American warships in order to defeat the German presence in the Atlantic. American President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, needed Newfoundlands strategic position in the Atlantic in order to defend and fight Germany. 

 

On September 2, 1940 the two countries made a deal known as the "Destroyers for Bases Agreement". In exchange for 50 old "Caldwell, Wickes, and Clemson class" destroyers the United States was granted 99 year British land leases on the island of Newfoundland. 

 

As part of the agreement, 3,392 acres of land, most of which was on a large peninsula extending into Placentia Bay, was chosen as a site to become a Naval Air Station. The area was chosen because of its large, flat and easily defendable position and as well because nearby there was a rare, ice-free harbour that was deep and large enough to sail ships into.

The "Friendly Invasion" Begins

Immediately following the approval of the Destroyers for Bases Agreement in September of 1940, the Untied States Department of Defense began surveying areas to build air force and naval bases. On Oct. 13, 1940 the first US Corps of Engineers and civilian hydrographic and surveyors arrived at Argentia aboard the USS Bowditch. The next ship to arrive was the USS Richard Peck which entered the harbour on January 18. The ship was carrying 1500 construction workers and engineers and. The USS Richard Peck then remained tied up at the docks in Argentia acting as temporary barracks for workers until proper ones were built nearly 2 years later.

 

As the base was being built the nearly 750 people living in the communities of Argentia, Marquise, and surrounding areas were given notice to relocate. Although sadden by this reports seem to show that the residents cooperated greatly and were in high spirits. This is believable as the constructing and operation of the base would provide thousands of highly needed jobs to local Newfoundlander's and was expected to improve the poor economy that existed on the island at that time. Its believed that nearly 20,000 Newfoundlander's found work with the construction of the base. 

 

Construction crews acted quickly in building the ~53 million dollar (Cardoulis 1990) base and airfield. The base would quickly becoming the most expensive American overseas military installation built during WWII. The result was three runways measuring roughly 5500 ft, 5300 ft, and 7000 ft. More than 2000 feet of wharf, a floating drydock, hangars, living quarters and storage space for 15 million gallons of gasoline, oil and jet fuel. Along with this a railway branch line was built to connect the base to the national railway network in order to service the facilities at the base. The largest challenge in building the base was moving and compacting 8.5 million cubic feet of peat, gravel and rock for construction of the airfield and runways. 

 

On January 25 the first all-millitary troops arrived at Argentia and three days later it is believed that the first construction began on the base. On February 13 the US Marines officially raise the US Flag for the first time at Argentia.

On July 15, 1941 Naval Operating Base Argentia is officially commissioned and 

on August 28, Naval Air Station Argentia is officially commissioned. 

On August 10 British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill and American President Franklin Roosevelt drafted the Atlantic Charter near Argentia at Ship Harbour. The declaration described how peace should be maintained after the war was over and is believed to be the basis for the United Nations Charter. Although it was not formally signed here the area is recognized for the important talk that took place here. 

 

Naval and air operations began immediately at Argentia. Navy ships would be supplied and rallied here before sailing across the Atlantic protecting supply and passenger ships from enemy U-boats. Coastal patrol and anti-submarine aircraft also began patrolling the coast for enemy activity. 

Fort McAndrew is Established

In March of 1942 the United states Army established a base on the mainland near the Argentia Naval Air Station. The base was named Fort McAndrew and its purpose was to provide security to the Navy Base through anti-aircraft batteries. Along with this Fort McAndrew also served as a base for an infantry company, a coastal artillery group, and an anti-motor torpedo battalion.

Although Argentia was primarily used as an American Base, Britain's Royal Navy is also said to have established a small maintenance base at Argentia in order to service ships involved in convoy escort groups. 

 

In the spring of 1943 a 7.000 ton floating dry dock was installed at Argentia to help with repairing navy ships. By this time over thousands of US Navy, Marine, and Army troops have passed through Argentia on their way to Europe. And by the end of the war in 1945 over 10,000 troops had passed through the base. 

 

Once the war had ended the number of personal working at Argentia quickly decreased. It appeared as though Argentia's days were numbered and that the US would no longer need the base. However a new and potentially more devastating war was just beginning and Argentia laid right in the middle of it. 

The Cold War 

After World War II the Argentia Naval Air Station began a new age of warfare. Although initially the base began to slow down in activity, as tensions increased between the USSR and the US, many new changes and expansions began occurring at the base.  In 1946 Fort McAndrew was transferred to the US Army Air Force and in 1948 was renamed McAndrew Air Force Base. By this time almost 7,000 Naval and Marine Troops were stationed at Argentia (Cardoulis 1990).

 

Once again Argentias strategic location in the North Atlantic made it the center of attention when it came to patrolling and surveilling the north Atlantic. Soviet nuclear submarines were the largest threat to the United States and because of this many advance radar and surveillance systems were built at Argentia. One such sysytem was an advance, top secret network known as SOSUS. SOSUS stands for Sound Surveillance System and was a system that could detect and warn of Soviet submarines and naval vessels that attempted to cross the Atlantic. 

 

American forces at Argentia once again increased in 1950 as the Korean War began. Several years later when the war finally ended personal at Argentia began to decrease and would continue to do so until the base decommissioned altogether. In 1955 McAndrew Air Force Base was decommissioned and the facilities were turned over to the US Navy. Most of the Air Force personal were transferred to other bases such as Harmon AFB in Stephenville. 

 

In 1958 Argentia was assigned the task of supporting the 64th Air Division and NORAD which were both operating early warning radar systems and fighter jet squadrons to intercept any unidentified or enemy aircraft. 

Nearing the End

Argentia continued to play an important role in monitoring Soviet activity in the Atlantic and acting as a refueling point for naval ships and aricraft over the following years. But as newer radar systems came online and aircraft flight range capabilities increased, Argentia was slowly becoming obsolete. Because of this in 1973 Naval Air Station Argentia was decommissioned and in 1975 the land was transferred over to the Candian Government and later to the Newfoundland Government. 

The US Navy continued to operate several buildings in the area until 1994 when they left completely, officially decommissioning Naval Station Argentia. During the years it was decommissioned all buildings were given to the federal government. It was reported that many buildings containing sensitive and "secret" equipment were demolished by the United States before giving up the land. 

 

Today the area has become an industrial area where many old buildings and hangers have either been torn down or refurbished to act as storage. Marine Atlantic operate a port out of Argentia during the summer and the US Coast Guard uses the port to resupply ships operating in Placentia Bay. 

Sources

"A Friendly Invasion" - Book by: John Cardoulis (1990)

Building the Navy's Bases in WWII: Argentia - Dept. of the Navy

HistoricPlaces.ca - Battery 282 Registered Heritage Site

Heritage Newfoundland and Labrador - Argentia

Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and Labrador - Volume 1. "Argentia" 

 

U.S. Nuclear Weapons in Canada - Book by John Clearwater

Battlefront Newfoundland - Book by Jack Fitzgerald (2010)