Time erodes military legacy in New York

From Revolution to Cold War, city was bastion for armed forces

January 06, 2002|By David W. Chen | David W. Chen,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - In the Rockaways, sand dunes ripple past underground silos that once housed nuclear-tipped missiles. On the island where New York City maintains a potter's field, prisoners bury the indigent near the foundations of former Army barracks. At a Staten Island park, children dig soccer cleats into land that offers a faint outline of a former Army air field.

Almost anywhere you go in New York City, there are vestiges of a colorful military past.

Today, the city is home to only one active-duty base, Fort Hamilton, at the Brooklyn foot of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, a small garrison whose primary mission is recruiting. As late as the 1960s, however, several thousand soldiers lived on more than a half-dozen installations scattered throughout the five boroughs, continuing a tradition that has guarded against redcoats, civil unrest and Cold War shenanigans.

But the uniformed men and women standing sentinel at vulnerable locations in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks provide a rare reminder of how the military once had a significant presence in New York.

"There's a rich tradition, but there's a tendency to forget," said Jack Fein, the unofficial historian of Fort Totten, in Queens, which was decommissioned in 1967 and is now used primarily by the Army Reserve and the Police and Fire departments.

New York can certainly claim its share of military distinctions. Fort Totten was the site of the Army's earliest East Coast radar installation. Floyd Bennett Field was one of the country's busiest military airports during World War II. Abner Doubleday served at Fort Hamilton. So, too, did Stonewall Jackson, who just missed overlapping with another Confederate leader, Robert E. Lee.

But the history of the military in New York is largely a story of fortifications built out in concentric rings, away from the heart of the city, according to Russell S. Gilmore, a historian and author of a 1983 monograph called Guarding America's Front Door: Harbor Forts in the Defense of New York City.

To defend the city, first from warships, then much later from missiles, the fortifications began with earthen berms built by Dutch. Then they moved out to the stone forts at Liberty and Governors islands, to the granite forts in the outer boroughs guarding the harbor, and, finally, to the underground silos on the city's fringes and in the suburbs.

Strategy worked

For the most part, the strategy worked. In fact, before Sept. 11, the only time New York was attacked was in 1776, when the British won the Battle of Brooklyn and occupied the city for the rest of the Revolutionary War.

In the early 19th century, the military sought to protect the southern flank of New York harbor by building two sister fortifications facing each other at the Narrows: Fort Hamilton, in Brooklyn, and Fort Wadsworth, in Staten Island. Later, the same strategy was applied to Long Island Sound on the east, with the erection of Fort Totten, in Queens, and Fort Schuyler, in the Bronx.

During the Civil War era, when the city already had large contingents of both Union and Confederate sympathizers, tensions climbed with the Draft Riots of the 1860s, a rash of fires, ethnic rivalries, widespread labor strife and roving, undisciplined militia units.

In time, New Yorkers grew accustomed to the military. In the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn near Fort Hamilton, residents knew to remove or protect wall-hanging mirrors and pictures on the days that the Army conducted its loud and jarring gun tests. In the 1950s and 1960s, residents within earshot of Floyd Bennett Field grew inured to the roar of Navy planes.

Indeed, by the early 20th century, air defense had become a vital component of New York's military makeup. During World War I, the Army relied on a small airfield in Staten Island called Miller Field. Floyd Bennett Field, meanwhile, was built in 1931 as New York's first municipal airport, and was later sold to the Navy, which used it extensively during World War II.

New York had a sizable role in World War II, particularly as a transit point for supplies and men. Tens of thousands were deployed out of New York. The Brooklyn Navy Yard, where the battleship Missouri was built, was probably the single largest industrial entity in the country, with 70,000 workers working three shifts, said Arnold Markoe, executive editor of the Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives.

New York's military focus in the 1950s shifted largely to missile defense, as evidenced by the 20 or so sites throughout the metropolitan region that deployed surface-to-air Nike Ajax and Hercules missiles. But given the atmosphere of the Cold War, few, if any, protested their existence so close to the urban core.

Nike sites in city

While most of the Nike sites were in suburbs like Livingston, N.J., Orangeburg, N.Y., and Lido Beach, on Long Island, two were within the city: at Fort Tilden, in the Rockaway section of Queens, and at Hart Island, near the Bronx, which is also the home of Potter's Field.

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