The new century arrived in 1900 and so did America’s view of its place in the world. With its defeat of Spain in the Spanish -American War, the United States had new claims to be a world power. To flex its muscles meant the refitting of its fleet. The Brooklyn Navy Yard was modernized and became alive again as the government reactivated many shipyards to update and rebuild the fleet along the lines of the major sea powers of that time -Britain, Germany, France, Russia, and Japan. This venture was spearheaded by Vice President Theodore Roosevelt who envisioned new, large, iron battleships, destroyers and frigates that could challenge any power at sea.
When President McKinley was assassinated and “Teddy” became President, he went all out to build his modern “Great White Fleet” that would circle the globe showing America’s new sea power. The navy yard built the fleet’s great flagship, the USS Connecticut. This ship became the prototype for a new class of battleships called the “Connecticut class”, five of which were in the Great White Fleet. (They were originally painted pink. Roosevelt saw the color and busted a gut! “What the blank?!” He fumed at the admiral “Get those ships repainted NOW”! “But we only have one color left, white, sir! FINE! screamed Teddy. Paint “em all white. – I’ll just call them the “Great White Fleet”. Send the idiot who picked pink to Timbuktu!!!!!) Some of this fleet was rapidly built in many different yards around the country, but the navy admirals were concerned that while these ships looked impressive, the speed at which they were built would prove them insufficient as World War I approached. It was a case of “haste makes waste”.
Bigger, stronger and more weaponized ships, up to the task of modern sea power had to be built. The Brooklyn Navy Yard was again up to the task and built four massive dreadnaught battleships between 1911 and 1917. They were the New York, 1911, Arizona, 1914, New Mexico, 1915, Tennessee, 1917 plus two sub-chasers. These became the backbone of the new United States Navy in WWI and some holdovers into WWII.
The battleship Indiana was completed in 1920 and so was the South Dakota, both not in time for the war but they certainly made an impression by weighing in at over 42,000 tons each. During the war and immediate post-war years up to 1920, there were many smaller navy crafts also built. It was a busy time for the Brooklyn Navy Yard but after the Treaty of Versailles, limits were imposed on all the major navies of the world and the Brooklyn Navy Yard scrapped the ones nearing completion including the South Dakota, and then the yard fell into a semi-conscious state for a little over a decade. Just a few small boats and the 10,000-ton heavy cruiser Pensacola were built. Thousands of workers had to be laid off, private supply companies closed, and the surrounding neighborhoods went into decline.
By the time of the depression of 1929, the only place at the navy yard in full operation was the hospital which still took care of sailors and workmen, but things were about to change. Warren Harding was President when the depression first hit. At first, world governments thought it would be short-lived and there was a slight rebound, but it did not last. A new President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Teddy’s cousin, took office in 1932. The depression was heating up again and so was Europe with fascists such as Hitler and Mussolini ignoring the Treaty of Versailles. They became big buddies, adding their friend Tojo from Japan, and began to rearm. Mussolini built the largest navy in the world; Hitler started building huge battleships like the Bismarck and the Tirpitz in addition to U-boats by the wolf pack. FDR had once been Assistant Secretary of the Navy. He knew that starting to rebuild the Navy was necessary for two reasons. The first was for our defense. Ships take much longer to build than tanks and trucks, so he thought “Better start now!’’. FDR also knew that by building capital ships, battleships, aircraft carriers, destroyers, frigates, U-boats, etc., he would get the steel and coal industries back on an even keel. Jobs would be created in every navy yard and our own Brooklyn Navy Yard and the businesses and neighborhoods would be revitalized along with the Navy. FDR knew it was a win-win situation.
Before the war and the war years, the Brooklyn Navy Yard was modernized and expanded to 356 acres from 225 and employed over 75,000 daily workers at the peak of the war years. It became known as the “The Can-Do Shipyard”. Not only were they building ships 24 hours a day, seven days a week but they also repaired over 5,000 battle battered ships and got them back to sea. It was not only sweating men hammering steel, there were women who worked, but in lesser paying jobs as in the thirties and forties, women’s equality was again on the back burner. But most of these workers took pride in working at the largest shipbuilding facility in the world at that time. The pay and benefits were top shelf for those times. Even when all of New York was “Dimmed out” at night for fear of Nazi air and sea raids, the lights of the yard and welding torches burned bright all night as these workers worked on creating the “Arsenal of Democracy”. All this while Nazi U-boats were patrolling right outside the harbor within 15 miles of the Navy Yard, though no attack was ever attempted.
The first ship ready for action was the appropriately named USS Brooklyn in 1933 and was the lead of the new Brooklyn class cruisers. Then came the battle ships – North Carolina, Iowa, and Missouri and the aircraft carriers Bennington and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Numerous other fighting sea crafts were built during these years but in August of 1945, on the deck of the battleship Missouri, built at Brooklyn Navy Yard, World War II ended with the signing of the surrender of Japan on its decks in Tokyo Harbor.
The end of WWII brought changes to the navy yard. Public housing towers began to crop up around the yard. The workforce was pared down to 10,000 workers by its 150th year in 1951. But there was still some life in the old girl yet. For the next 15 years, the navy yard concentrated on building larger and larger aircraft carriers. During those years three were added to the fleet, Constellation, Saratoga, and Independence. The WWII carrier Antietam was modernized, and six new amphibious transports were completed. However, the end of the Brooklyn Navy Yard was in sight. The building of the Brooklyn – Queens Expressway compromised access to the property. Ship designs were getting so large that use of the yard became impractical, taller ships could not pass under the Brooklyn and Williamsburg Bridges. The decision to close the historic shipyard was made and the decommissioning ceremony took place on June 25, 1966 as the flag was lowered and the clang of steel went silent.
Today the old shipyard has been converted to a modern industrial complex of smaller manufacturing, office space, housing and recreational use. Some older original historic buildings remain amongst the fervor of this new era to remind us that the Brooklyn Navy Yard was once the biggest and best in these United States. As those from Brooklyn still say – ‘’The Brooklyn Navy Yard”! FUHGDDABOUDIT!
C.2022 By Mark C. Nuccio – All rights reserved