Sailors had rough conditions, but pleasant reception, during World War 1

By William H.J. Manthorpe Jr.

LB-servingWWI Serving at Cape Henlopen - Delaware Beach LifeEditor’s note: Most locals know that the U.S. military was active on Cape Henlopen during World War II, but few may know that its presence there started to grow during World War I. This edited excerpt from “A Century of Service, The U.S. Navy on Cape Henlopen,” by William H.J. Manthorpe Jr., tells about conditions at the military facility called “Naval Section Base, Lewes” in 1918.

Since 1873, the military had land on Cape Henlopen for the purpose of constructing defenses. In 1889, some of that land was used to construct the Delaware Breakwater Quarantine Station and Hospital.

[In 1917, Naval Section Base, Lewes] took over the barracks and other facilities of the former Quarantine Hospital. Those facilities were old and had been unused for several years, and they had not been luxurious to begin with.

While the base had passed inspection by several admirals and was assessed as being thoroughly organized and equipped to support the operating forces of the district, it was barely sufficient in providing a satisfactory life for the 800 personnel stationed there. Over the summer [of 1918], as they responded to the requirements to initiate convoying, conduct rescue and salvage operations for the Pratt [an oil tanker that had sunk in June 1918 after an explosion about three miles off Cape Henlopen] and support sub chasers in their hunt for submarines, little was done to improve the base. As late as October 1918, even as the war was about to end, Delaware’s U.S. Sen. Josiah Wolcott was, according to The Delaware Pilot:

… [still] giving an earnest effort to bring about improvements in conditions at the naval base at Lewes … Representations about the situations … were made to him two weeks ago by Miss Emily P. Bissell, secretary of the Delaware Chapter of the Red Cross, in which she set forth that the buildings were in an unsanitary condition, the water bad, and the station almost inaccessible by reason of poor roads. …The Surgeon General of the Navy has informed the Senator that the work of improving the water supply at the naval bases already has been undertaken and that the heating plant is to be extended.

Among the 800 personnel living in such conditions were a number of women known as “yeomanettes” and several Lewes men. Samuel Tammy, from a Lewes family and who had been the principal of Selbyville High School, was serving as the paymaster at the base. Arthur H. Morris, whose drugstore was in Lewes, was a chief pharmacist mate at the base.

A Millsboro boy, Sidney L. Downs, a machinist mate second class, reported to the base on July 19, 1918, and, upon getting his uniforms the next day [wrote in a letter] “I am something pretty now.” At other times, in terms of uniforms, he wrote, “We went just about any way.” He must not have found the barracks especially pretty. When he later got to the Naval Receiving Center at Wissahickon Barracks in Cape May, Downs observed: “It is clean and pretty over here. The barracks are all steam heat and electric lights,” suggesting that such was not the case at Lewes.

Life was not all work and rough living for the sailors. For relief, they had a YMCA facility on base, a USO center in Lewes on the second floor of the fire hall, and a movie theater. Despite the Red Cross assessment of the station being almost inaccessible, sailors seemed to make it into town and found a friendly reception. According to a chaplain’s aide from the Fourth Naval District, as reported in The Delaware Pilot:

… now the town presents an appearance which it has not had for many years. The blue-jackets give the town a military aspect, and show that although seemingly in peace, it is part of the great organization now at war with autocracy.

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About the Book

“A Century of Service — The U.S. Navy on Cape Henlopen, Lewes, Delaware: 1898-1996” by William H.J. Manthorpe Jr., can be purchased at local bookstores or ordered online at cedartreebooks.com.