While reading the Newport News Daily Press, I stumbled upon a little item in the 1923 paper that connected a lot of dots. In the article (from the Associated Press), Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels explained that during The Great War, the Navy had stationed “more than a dozen battleships” at the mouth of the York River, near the Chesapeake Bay. He described the location as “an ancient naval base” adding that under “voluntary censorship” this information was never published.
“We were anchored right where Admiral Rochambeau’s French fleet took its stand and cut off relief by sea for General Cornwallis,” Daniels told the Associated Press (February 11, 1923).
For the geographically challenged among us, that’s mighty close to Penniman. If you were standing on the beach at Penniman near King’s Creek (the southern boundary of Penniman), that very spot - where Rochambeau parked his fleet - would be about four miles southeast.
Secretary Daniels described the unnumbered group of ships as “the world’s greatest deposit of battleships,” and “the home port of that part of the Atlantic Fleet” (during the war). The article also explained that metal submarine nets had been stretched across the mouth of the York River. (A few days later, another article appeared, explaining that local fishermen were begging the Navy to start removing the “huge steel nets.”)
“Penniman is on the south side of the York River, and near its mouth,” wrote George Harris, an Army private stationed at Penniman. Written October 28, 1918, the letter was published in Harris’ hometown paper (Spirit Lake Beacon, Iowa) a few days after the war ended.
“We can stand out on the beach and see the Chesapeake Bay,” Harris noted. “Several battleships are stationed in the mouth of the river and the bay. One day, I counted 14 of those ships and four more in the distance” (November 17, 1918).
Those battleships anchored at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay must have been a remarkable thing to see, because several letters written about life at Penniman mention that view.
Not surprisingly, the sailors on board those ships took their liberties at Penniman.
In June 1918, a YWCA* worker filed a report on conditions of the munitions plant at Penniman. She wrote, “There’s a [soda] fountain that dispenses drinks at all hours to a motley crowd, resembling nothing so much as a Douglas Fairbanks wild west movie. This affair is even more thrilling to the girls by the arrival every evening of the crew of a minesweeper or battleship from the fleet at Yorktown, four miles below.”
Two months later, a “confidential report” was given by M. S. Shephard on “the moral situation” at Penniman. The head man at the plant, Mr. Benesh, appealed to the YWCA for help, and it was suggested that a police woman work undercover, and that a “especially good morality worker” provide regular lectures at the plant.
“The situation at Penniman is not a simple one,” the letter continued, “for the girls and women are of all types” (August 7, 1918).
The war ended three months later, and hopefully most of those “girls and women of all types” went home with their virtue unblemished.
Why did the Navy decide to park their battleships at the mouth of the York River? Mark Hardin, a phenomenal researcher and hard-core history lover, recently discovered an old map showing the placement of four three-inch anti-aircraft guns positioned in and around Hopewell (site of a WW1-era DuPont guncotton plant). Did Penniman have anti-aircraft guns as well? It was one of two of America’s largest shell-loading plants, and was vital to the war effort.
I suspect that the Great Atlantic Fleet provided all the protection that Penniman needed.
Thanks to Mike Neal for sharing images from this wonderful book (shown below).
*Penniman-YWCA letters are courtesy of the Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.
When Private George Harris stood on Penniman's beach and looked out toward the Chesapeake Bay, did he see this? This is Superdreadnought (Battleship) Arizona, commissioned October 1916. According to Harris, he saw at least 14 battleships in the York River in Fall of 1918.
Here's a picture of the Great Atlantic Fleet underway (1917).
Sailors on board an unnamed battleship, with 14-inch shells which were just delivered by a "lighter."
I hope that the "especially good morality speaker" went to Penniman with due haste.
That guy on the right looks a lot like Vladmir Putin.
The caption of this photo states that fencing helped develop confidence, courage and control. That boat shown in the upper right was probably also used to get the young sailors over to Penniman.
These pictures shown above are from this rare book, published in late 1917. Thanks to Mike Neal for allowing me to use images from this delightful old tome.
To learn more about Penniman, click here.
Want to learn how to identify kit homes? Here’s the place.