The story of the Alameda Naval Air Station stretches back to 1917, when proponents raised the possibility for a naval base on the island’s West End. Page & Turnbull’s report about the base tells us, “Alameda business leader John J. Mulvany convinced the Navy that Alameda Point would be an ideal location for a destroyer base.”
The Navy appointed Admiral James Helm to take charge of a study to investigate Mulvany’s suggestion. Helm issued a report that agreed with Mulvany, concluding that “a new base at Alameda would fit in well with the Navy’s plans to establish a chain of facilities stretching along the Pacific Coast from San Diego to Seattle.”
It was the Army, not the Navy, that was the first on the scene with its aircraft, however. In 1931, the City gave some 1,100 acres to the Army, which built Benton Field. The airfield operated on land that stretched from today’s Main Gate south to today’s West Captain Dodge Place, east to Main Street, and west well past Monarch Street.
Four years later, the Navy approached the City about acquiring the 935-acre Alameda Airport. The Navy had cast its eye on the Army Air Corps’ Benton Field east of the airport and no doubt saw the Army getting ahead in the rivalry to control the skies. Indeed, Page & Turnbull’s report suggests “interagency rivalry” may have spurred that meeting with the City.
The City said it was ready to sell, and the Navy plunked down $1 to close the deal. Congress authorized Franklin Delano Roosevelt to accept $1 for Alameda Airport and its tidelands. Later that year, the Navy had the last word in its rivalry with the Army, when it took over Benton Field.
The Navy now owned all of Benton Field, the “land bridge” to Alameda Airport, and the airport itself on land that later became the “Northwest Territory.” They rolled up their sleeves and began dredging operations in 1938. This new “made land” grew gradually westward for runways and hangars along Monarch Way.
The Navy also created the made land that supported a second set of hangars. These buildings and the adjacent lagoon supported a seaplane base. In his description of Seaplane Lagoon for the Historical Marker Database, Joseph Alvarado tells us that “the Navy completed the 3,000 x 1,500-foot Seaplane Lagoon in 1940. Construction included three seaplane ramps and four hangars along the northern edge of the taxiway area. After the planes taxied these ramps, crews mounted them on wheels. Tractors then pulled the planes out of the lagoon and into the hangars, where crews washed and serviced them.”
Further south, the Navy built three piers as homeport for what the Page & Turnbull report describes as “dozens of aircraft carriers and other naval vessels (that served during World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.” The Navy built Pier 1 in 1939 as part of the original construction to berth smaller vessels that serviced carriers and destroyers. The Navy extended a breakwater west of this pier to contain Seaplane Lagoon. The Navy stopped using this pier in 1988.
Alvarado tells us that the Navy designed and constructed Pier 2 to handle aircraft carriers. In April 1942, USS Hornet (CV-8) berthed there to take aboard 16 Army B-25 bombers and crews who successfully bombed Japan in the famed Doolittle Raid. In 1973, the Navy lengthened and extensively modernized Pier 2 to handle larger ships.
The Navy created the current home of USS Hornet (CV-12) in 1945. This pier was expanded and improved in 1977 and its electrical systems modernized in 1981. The Navy upgraded Pier 3’s systems in 1983 to support all phases of carrier operations. This included service to USS Enterprise and other Nimitz-class nuclear-powered carriers, CVNs. In December 1995, Pier 3 became home to the USS Hornet (CV-12) Museum.
Until April 2022, the federal government’s Maritime Administration (MARAD) used all three piers to dock its Ready Reserve Ships. In 1997, eight MARAD ships berthed at Alameda Point. Over the years, MARAD moved all its ships to Oakland, San Francisco, and Benicia. A $10 million dredging job would have been required for the MARAD ships to remain berthed in Alameda; Congress did not appropriate the funds and the job was not done.