A Military History of Narragansett Bay

Feb 6, 2018Winter 2018

Narragansett Bay is a gift of the glaciers, which over millions of years left behind a 30-mile long, 102 square-mile navigable waterway, one of the finest deep-water ports on the East Coast.

John King, University of Rhode Island oceanography professor, notes that “you tend to get a pattern of muds in the upper reaches of the bay and in coves, and progressively more sand and gravels as you move toward the mouth of the bay.”

Those sandbars and mud flats played a key role in a landmark event leading up to the American Revolution. On June 9, 1774, the British revenue schooner Gaspee was pursuing a colonial vessel, the Hannah, suspected of smuggling tea. The Hannah’s captain knew the waters like the back of his hand and led the British into the shallows off Warwick. The Gaspee ran firmly aground. A group of Providence men alerted to the stranding, rowed from the city, captured the crew, and burned the English ship the next day.

In 1636, seeking religious freedom from the Massachusetts colony, Roger Williams established a permanent settlement on the upper bay, and later settlers began to move down along the west bay. Meanwhile, another religious leader, Anne Hutchinson, led her followers from Massachusetts to Aquidneck Island. Soon, fishing, agriculture, and eventually commercial trading flourished around the bay. By the early 18th century, Rhode Island was well settled. Although Providence did not emerge as a significant port city until later, Newport, because of its proximity to the mouth of the bay, quickly established its position as a major trading port rivaling Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.

Rhode Island’s military importance was not lost on the colonists or the British Crown. Narragansett Bay was easily accessed from Block Island and Rhode Island Sounds. If an enemy could run the gauntlet guarded by Brenton Point and Point Judith, then Newport, Providence, Fall River, and all points between would be vulnerable.

To address this vulnerability, in the late 1600s, Newport merchants set up a gun battery near what is now the corner of Thames and Pelham streets. Later, the British Crown built the first permanent fortification on Goat Island at the request of the city of Newport. During the Revolution, that fortification eventually reverted to colonial forces and finally came under the control of the new federal government.

When the Revolution broke out in earnest, the Royal Navy was ordered to quell Newport’s independent (and tax-evading) populace. During the war, Britain’s powerful land forces occupied the city while its ships controlled the lower bay and the New England coast. Needless to say, this dealt a disastrous blow to Newport’s mercantile trade. Newport’s role as a center of trade never fully recovered after the war.

America’s alliance with France in 1778 signaled the beginning of the end of the British presence. To deter the French fleet, the British scuttled a number of ships around Newport harbor (the remains of these vessels have been discovered and explored in recent years). When the British pulled out of Newport in October 1779, they left behind a devastated economy and a determination on the part of the new American government to forcefully protect the bay.

Aided by the French, the U.S. established a series of coastal fortifications. Protection of the East Passage was paramount. Under famed French military engineer Major Stephen Rochefontaine, forts were erected on Conanicut Island on a rocky promontory known as The Dumplings, in Newport Harbor on Goat Island, and at Brenton Point. It was from the latter site that local colonials had fired their first shots against the British. On July 4, 1779, the U.S. Army also commissioned what was to become Fort Adams.

These defenses served until the War of 1812 while the threat of a British seaborne attack loomed large. In 1816, recognizing its initial efforts were obsolete, the U.S. Government Fortifications Board authorized a series of stronger installations and established the Army Coast Artillery Corps. Narragansett Bay became a keystone. If the bay could be invaded, all of New England and even New York could be attacked. Fort Adams served as a principal defensive position into the early 20th century.

The Civil War marked the next important phase of the military’s commitment. More powerful gun batteries were installed around the bay’s entrances. The U.S. Naval Academy was also temporarily relocated to Newport, and the Navy steadily increased its presence thereafter. In 1884, the Navy further cemented its relationship with the creation of the Naval War College in what was formerly the Newport Poor Asylum.

As warships evolved from wood and sail to steam and steel, Admiral David Dixon Porter recognized the potential of underwater warfare using torpedoes and mines. Porter’s vision encouraged Secretary of War Edwin Stanton in 1869 to authorize an experimental torpedo station on Goat Island to develop, build, and test underwater weaponry, including explosives, electrical devices, mines, and torpedoes.

From the torpedo station, a testing range was laid out northwards up the bay about 6 miles to a point near Prudence Island. The length and contour of the bay’s seabed was particularly conducive to the layout of the range and recovery of test weapons. The Navy then centered its torpedo design, manufacturing, and testing at Newport until 1951, with underwater weapon research continuing in Newport to the present.

The torpedo station steadily expanded during both world wars, eventually occupying all of Goat Island. In 1919, Gould Island, off the northeast shore of Jamestown, was acquired for underwater weapons storage and testing. In 1942, a firing station was built at the northern tip of Gould, replacing a firing barge that had been located just north of Goat Island.

Thousands of torpedoes were tested from Gould’s firing pier during World War II, monitored from the air and by underwater sensors along the testing range. Aircraft from Quonset Point and PT boats from Melville also used the range to practice torpedo drops.

Although recovery boats were used to bring test torpedoes back to the firing pier, more than a few times during World War II, the “tin fish” went awry. Some sank to the seabed never to be seen again. A torpedo traveled across Newport Harbor and ran aground in Brenton Cove. In 1944, one wound up on the beach at Jamestown at summer resident Mary Miner’s home. Yet another came ashore on Prudence Island.

On April 9, 1942, traveling down the bay from the Motor Torpedo Boat Squadrons Training Center in Melville, PT-59 accidentally launched a live torpedo that struck the stern of an Army transport ship inside the mouth of the bay off Jamestown. The PT skipper used his powerful engines to nudge the damaged ship to shore to be salvaged and returned to service.

The poor performance of Newport’s torpedoes early in the war was eventually traced to outdated manufacturing techniques and lack of appropriate testing. Dummy test warheads were lighter than explosive warheads, and the fact that the latter would run deeper when fired by submarines against an enemy was never taken into consideration. Also, the top-secret magnetic exploder developed at Newport was never tested under combat conditions and thus failed to perform as intended (apparently, it was not taken into consideration that the earth’s magnetic field in the Pacific Ocean area was different from that of the northern hemisphere off America’s east coast). Even when the magnetic device was deactivated, the older contact trigger did not work because the poorly engineered firing pin regularly malfunctioned and failed to detonate the warhead.

It took nearly 18 months for these issues to be addressed, but by 1943, the problems were solved, and Newport’s torpedoes became a major factor in the Pacific theater of operations. In 1951, when torpedo production was turned over to private industry, the Navy continued to center its underwater weapons research and development program at Newport. Under the auspices of the Naval Undersea Warfare Center located at Naval Base Newport, that mission continues today.

Before and during both world wars, Newport was home to squadrons of destroyers and was also regularly visited by naval vessels of all types, including battleships, cruisers, and aircraft carriers. Sixty-five thousand enlisted personnel received training at Newport in World War I, forcing the Navy to significantly expand its base facilities from Coasters Harbor Island (location of the Naval War College) to the adjacent Coddington Point.

In 1922, Rear Admiral Hugh Rodman led a review board that emphasized the need to further expand the Navy’s presence on Narragansett Bay. A coaling station established at the turn of the century at Melville in Portsmouth was converted to fuel oil storage as the Navy’s propulsion systems evolved. An adjacent site became home to the PT boat training center and the Navy’s mine and net repair depot. Bay area residents became accustomed to seeing some of the Navy’s largest ships calling at Newport well into the 20th century.

Onshore defense facilities also evolved. In 1885, Secretary of War William C. Endicott chaired a congressional panel to recommend improved coast defenses. In the 1890s, several so-called Endicott forts were approved for the bay’s entrances, and Fort Adams’ armaments were enhanced. By 1906, facilities were operational on the east side of Conanicut at Fort Wetherill, on the west bay at Fort Getty, Fort Kearny in Saunderstown, and Fort Greble on Dutch Island. All were equipped with heavy caliber weapons capable of reaching well out to sea.

Endicott batteries were open, with reinforced concrete walls as much as 15 to 20 feet thick, underground ammunition bunkers, and support facilities. Artillery up to 12-inch disappearing guns rose up on their mountings to fire and then dropped down for reloading.

After the end of World War I, many forts saw staffing and functions reduced, and provided only seasonal training for some military units. Fort Adams remained the bay’s only active Army facility. However, as the winds of war began to blow in the late 1930s, the government’s focus once again returned to the bay.

In 1940, thanks in large part to the efforts of Rhode Island’s congressional delegation, the decision was made to construct one of the nation’s largest naval air bases at Quonset Point in North Kingstown.

Simultaneously, the Navy established the neighboring Seabee Base at Davisville. Thousands of pilots trained at Quonset and the nearby Charlestown Naval Air Station during the war.

Some 100,000 enlisted men trained at Davisville. The massive expansion also went on at new or existing Navy facilities in and around Newport for the training of officers and enlisted personnel, both men and women. More than 200,000 were eventually trained at Newport, utilizing a complex of Quonset huts that covered Coddington Point.

In 1939, the Army acquired land at Point Judith (Fort Greene) and Sakonnet Point in Little Compton (Fort Church), where a pair of massive 16-inch gun emplacements were installed and became operational early in World War II.

Specially built railroad flatcars carried the huge naval weapons from the arsenal in Watertown, Massachusetts, where they had been stored following reductions in warship construction after World War I. Each 20-ton gun required heavy-duty, multi-axle trailer trucks to move them by road from rail sidings to their final destinations on each side of Narragansett Bay.

The weapons, well protected by reinforced concrete, could fire a 2,000-pound projectile 25 miles out to sea. Their field of fire ranged from beyond Martha’s Vineyard down to Long Island. Army records indicate that whenever the guns were test-fired, numerous noise and vibration complaints were received from neighbors.

New forts—Varnum in Narragansett and Burnside on Beavertail in Jamestown—augmented existing gun batteries at forts Adams, Wetherill, Getty, and Kearny. The military also blocked off the entire southern end of Beavertail for a sophisticated joint Army-Navy harbor entrance defense and command post and radar installation.

Sensitive electronic equipment controlled a minefield protecting the bay entrances. Anti-submarine nets were also placed: a permanent barrier across the West Passage between forts Kearny and Getty and a gated net between forts Wetherill and Adams on the East Passage.

Rhode Island National Guardsmen of the 243rd Coast Artillery were called up to federal duty in 1940 and were supported by troops from other New England units, manning the coastal forts for the duration of World War II.

Rhode Island’s coast defenses were controlled from Fort Adams. Observation and fire control stations, disguised as summer cottages or farm silos, dotted the coastline and Block Island. By late 1943, the threat of surface attacks had diminished, but concern for airborne and underwater enemies remained. Smaller anti-boat, anti-aircraft weapon batteries including mobile 155-mm guns replaced most heavy caliber defenses around Narragansett Bay.

No Rhode Island artillery was ever fired in anger during the war.

In 1973, a major nationwide realignment of military forces saw the Navy transfer a number of ships from Newport (and the closure of Quonset Point and Davisville). By 1994, the last warships had been reassigned from Newport. However, on October 1, 1998, the Navy cemented its presence on Narragansett Bay, with Naval Station Newport assuming oversight of officer training and other education services, the Naval War College, and the Naval Undersea Warfare Center.

The warfare center develops and tests underwater military technologies, including unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs). Spokesman John Woodhouse calls the center’s location on the bay ideal.

“We can literally walk a drone from the lab to the water, test it on our instrumented range running from the mouth of the bay up toward Prudence Island, and recover it using one of our small boats or even … staff who have trained to become Navy-certified divers.”

Christopher Egan, a warfare center program manager, says testing in an area accessible to the public can be interesting. “We’ve had to deter some boat operators on occasion from trying to snap up a cool device.”

The Navy and its civilian partners hope to see underwater drones eventually duplicate the capabilities of airborne systems.

Engineers believe advances in propulsion and guidance could enable an undersea drone to conduct missions as long as 70 days. One drone recently plotted its own course from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute to Newport without reliance on surface GPS or other communications, using features on the sea floor and avoiding obstacles in its path.

In 2015, the Navy established the Annual Naval Technology Exercise (ANTX) hosted by the warfare center to unite industry, warfare centers, and universities in showcasing capabilities and technologies.

In 2016, some 30 organizations, including URI, demonstrated unmanned systems and their command and control and communication methods. URI professor Harold Vincent, partnering with DBV Technology, Inc. of North Kingstown, tested a portable underwater GPS that utilized seafloor-anchored beacons activated by a UUV, allowing it to navigate to its desired destination while remaining below the surface. ANTX 2017 was expected to bring together an even larger number of participants.

Currently, some 33,000 people are employed in the state’s defense industry, and some $750 million in federal defense contracts flow into Rhode Island, the clear majority coming from the Navy.

Those numbers may grow. In 2016, the privately funded Undersea Technology Innovation Center was created to assist local companies seeking defense work. According to acting Executive Director Molly Donohue Magee, “there’s commercial technology that may be suitable for defense and defense technology that may have commercial applications.” And URI recently partnered with the warfare center to develop partnerships and collaborative research and development initiatives between the Navy and private businesses.

Thanks to these new efforts, Narragansett Bay will likely have a role in military history for years to come.

— Brian L. Wallin

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