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Close Up: Naval Station Great Lakes “The Quarter Deck of the Navy”

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08/10/21 11:31 AM

By Cmdr. Jeffrey S. Gray

Commander, Navy Installations Command Public Affairs

An improbable venture was started in 1911 when the Navy, with the assistance of business, civic, and political leaders in the city of Chicago, established Naval Training Station Great Lakes, located 30 miles north of Chicago. What made this an improbable project was the fact that the “naval” training station was located thousands of miles from the Pacific Ocean, Atlantic Ocean, or the Gulf of Mexico.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Navy operated three well-established naval training stations—one at Newport, Rhode Island, which covered the north Atlantic section of the country, another at Port Royal, South Carolina, representing the South Atlantic and gulf coasts, and a third at Verba Buena, California, which provided for the recruiting needs of the Pacific coast. That all changed after the Spanish-American War, when the Navy discovered that naval militia men from the heartland had conducted themselves with notable courage and distinction.

According to Cmdr. Joseph N. Hemphill, Bureau of Yards and Docks, in a story from the Chicago Daily Tribune dated on August 31, 1898, shortly after the conclusion of Spanish-American War:  “I wish to state, without hesitation or equivocation, that the Illinois reserve is the best in the country. They entered the service to fight, and they did so like veterans, and are deserving of much praise for their gallant conduct.”

The service and sacrifice of the men of the Illinois Naval Militia during the Spanish-American War caught the attention of the Navy Department and established a standard whereby the Navy sought to recruit young mechanics, farm boys, and intelligent young men who did not have any previous knowledge of the sea-going arts. Furthermore, it was believed that a training station in the heartland and on the Great Lakes would undoubtedly attract an excellent class of men with “good habits and fine muscular development.”

Opened on July 1, 1911, on the southern shores of Lake Michigan, the first recruit reported to the installation on July 3 and by the end of the month 190 men were onboard for navy training. In the early years, the installation served exclusively as basic training for new recruits.  After basic training, Sailors left for technical training schools or the fleet.  It was not until 1916, that the installation established technical training schools for hospital corpsmen, radiomen, and musicians.

At the outset of the World War I, the installation experienced its first expansion where some 87,000 recruits were transformed into Sailors and approximately 22,000 Sailors received technical training at one of 15 schools ranging from radio school to quartermaster school. During World War II, the installation transformed approximately 1 million recruits into Sailors for the war effort.

By the middle of 1943, there were more than 700 instructors at the service schools—accrediting how important the installation was in providing technically trained Sailors for the fleet. Graduates of the service schools were trained as: electrician’s mates, fire controlmen, gunner’s mates, boatswain’s mates, damage controlmen, enginemen, machinery repairmen, quartermasters, machinist mates, and many other specialized skills and technical fields.

Today, Naval Station Great Lakes is home to 50 tenant commands that are responsible for a range of military support services such as military entrance processing for the entire Department of Defense to regional responsibilities for Marine Corps recruiting to the Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center, which provides medical care to military veterans, active-duty military members, their families, and eligible retirees. Among the numerous military support services found on the 1,628 acres installation, none is more important to the U.S. Navy than Recruit Training Command.

In keeping with the installation’s original raison d'etre, Naval Station Great Lakes is home to the Navy’s only basic training facility—affectionately known as “boot camp” or Recruit Training Command. Between basic training and technical training held in various school houses aboard the installation, the naval station is the first impression new Sailors have of the Navy before they get to the fleet. According to Capt. Jason Williamson, commanding officer for Naval Station Great Lakes, “we are the quarter deck of the Navy.”

This wasn’t always the case. Prior to the Department of Defense decision to retain and expand the installation back in June 1993, the Navy operated three basic training facilities: Great Lakes, San Diego, and Orlando. That all changed because the post-Cold War period required cost savings throughout the Department of Defense. That meant the Navy, along with its sister services, needed to downsize, consolidate, and create efficiencies within their respective organizations.

“The thinking at the time was that a single boot camp would create efficiencies around transportation and facilities,” said Williamson. Chicago has two world-class airports and curiously both are named for an individual and a significant event in naval history.

In 1949, the Chicago City Council renamed Orchard Field as Chicago-O'Hare International Airport to honor naval aviator Lt. Cmdr. Edward H. “Butch” O'Hare, a Medal of Honor recipient who died in World War II. Also in that same year, Chicago's Municipal Airport was renamed Midway in honor of the hard fought naval Battle of Midway that turned the tide for the U.S. in the battle for the Pacific during World War II.

Regarding facilities, there has always been a large potential and capacity to expand and transform facilities aboard the installation. “Logistical support requirements are built into the installation or can be rapidly made available in the event of an unanticipated situation,” said Williamson.

“This installation has an amazing blend of naval history and resiliency. You can see it in the classical architecture and stories of the efforts to expand and integrate naval training for our Sailors in support of the nation’s conflicts throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries,” said Williamson.

Williamson continued, “The Navy’s training commands, the school houses, have always been viewed as leaders in developing innovations and efficiencies in order to accomplish their respective missions—transforming civilians into trained Sailors.”

Another source and example of innovation located aboard the installation is the Navy Operational Support Center, Great Lakes—better known as the NOSC. NOSC Great Lakes is the home to some 1,000 Sailors who work part-time for the Navy in a reserve capacity.

“Our reservists have historically offered the Navy “strategic depth” in terms of the varied and unique skills individual reservists possess because of their civilian education and experience,” said Capt. Paul Annexstad, commanding officer of NOSC Great Lakes. “Leveraging the broad experience and diversity of skills our reserve Sailors possess is an exciting challenge and opportunity.”

Annexstad gave an example of how the installation benefits from reserve support in the realm of force protection. “We have a master-at-arms unit which can quickly augment the force protection requirements of the installation in the event of an emergency, because many of the unit’s members live in the nearby communities and work in law enforcement,” said Annexstad.

Change is taking place within the Navy Reserve--as well as the active component—as the Navy shifts its focus from providing individual augmentees as reinforcements for the joint and allied in support of overseas contingencies and to counter violent extremists. Today, a new era of global strategic competition is on the rise between the U.S., China, and Russia.

The new era will place new and innovative requirements on the Navy Reserve which will have to pivot from the individual augmentee model used for the past 20 years, to a unit-centric model capable of quickly deploying highly-skilled and trained forces. “NOSC Great Lakes will be at the forefront in meeting or exceeding the new requirements of delivering combat ready personnel to the fleet,” said Annexstad.

Delivering large numbers of combat ready personnel to the fleet in an expeditious manner is a cumbersome exercise using the Navy Reserves’ current processes.  At present, the Navy Reserve is developing a new logistical concept termed, Distributed Mobilization.

Annexstad and his staff at NOSC Great Lakes will be exercising with this concept which is supposed to rapidly mobilize the entire Navy Reserve force during a large-scale contingency or conflict.  “Meeting the medical, general military training, and administrative demands of a large-scale activation of reservists assigned to NOSC Great Lakes requires a process change that is different from the current model,” said Annexstad.

NOSC Great Lakes is currently reconfiguring its existing facilities for optimal utilization and expanding the use of reserve personnel, especially those in the medical professions, to meet the new mobilization requirements more effectively.

NOSC Great Lakes’ ability to demonstrate that it can accelerate and expand its mobilization capacity in response to the demands associated with the new strategic security conditions will set a new standard for reserve readiness.

While leaders at NOSC Great Lakes prepare their citizen-Sailors for the new strategic environment, the leaders and staff at Recruit Training Command continue to transform civilians into Sailors for active duty service in the fleet.

The heart and soul of Naval Station Great Lakes is Navy Recruit Training Command, better known as RTC. Again, back in 1911 when the installation opened it was expected that the naval training facility would receive some of the midwest’s best and brightest young men. Essential to the mission of the training facility was to transform these young men into sea-fighting men of the U.S. Navy.

That mission has not changed in the 110 years of the installations history. What has changed over the years has been the organizational structure. Whereas command of the installation and responsibility for new recruit training used to be one and the same, nowadays command of the installation and responsibility for recruit training have been broken apart for the sake of efficiency.

The one constant in maintaining high-quality training standards for our newest recruits is having high-quality Recruit Division Commanders, better known as RDCs.  RDCs are responsible for instructing new recruits in military and physical drill—with special emphasis on maintaining physical fitness standards.  They epitomize the correct way to maintain government issued clothing, equipment, and living quarters.

For Capt. Jeffry A. Sandin, commanding officer of Recruit Training Command, “good RDCs are essential to maintaining high training standards. However, being an RDC isn’t easy.  It’s a hard, demanding, and arduous job pushing recruits.”

In his last Navy assignment, Sandin was the director of enlisted distribution at Navy Personnel Command. He found his “hardest job was convincing quality individuals to go to Great Lakes and become RDCs.” Sandin continued, “quality RDCs care about the good of the Navy and they care about incoming Sailors. They understand these goods are mutually dependent and essential to our mission.”

Just as important as quality RDCs is the need to have and maintain impeccable facilities and grounds.  “We are the only Navy installation in the Midwest, and have some of best grounds and buildings in the Navy. The grounds are well groomed and well-polished. The buildings at RTC are relatively new and are well maintained,” said Sandin.

Sandin continued, “When an installation is well groomed, clean, maintained in optimal condition, and safe for new recruits, RDCs, and staff, the ability for us to inspire recruits improves dramatically. It’s also a source of pride for everyone involved.”

“It can’t be overemphasized that what we do here at RTC is critical to the success or failure of the fleet, and our leaders—both military and civilian—need to understand this. Again, what we do here at RTC is arduous and demanding, and we need the best Sailors from the fleet to come back to train and mentor our young Sailors.”

There is a unity of effort found aboard Naval Station Great Lakes among the various tenant commands.  The effort exerted among the commands profiled here are just an example of how to build a culture of excellence and collaboration in developing and preparing Sailors—both active-duty and reserve—for the fleet.

For Williamson, “As the premier training, working, and living accommodations installation in the Navy we are committed to delivering unsurpassed quality of life support to our military and civilian workforce.  We exist to support the 50 tenant commands and their families, whether it’s the mission of the Navy Band or the mission of Recruit Training Command,” said Williamson.

“We continually collaborate with our tenant commands to evaluate safety and security concerns and determine the prioritization of operational and/or quality of life projects—an outdoor swimming pool for students or modernizing a highly trafficked road that supports entry into Recruit Training Command for during its weekly graduation ceremonies,” said Williamson.

As the Department of Defense develops a clear road map to meet the challenges posed by a re-emergence of long-term strategic competition with China and Russia, Naval Station Great Lakes will be at the forefront of expanding training to man the ships needed to contend with our competitors. This improbable venture continues to surprise many and may have more surprises to come as the installation enters 110th year of existence.

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