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History and Heritage

NAS Oceana turns 70

70th Anniversary Celebrates History, Heritage of Oceana

In 1943, Franklin Roosevelt was president, the Pentagon was completed, first class stamps were 3 cents, the U.S. was in the middle of World War II, future rock star Mick Jagger was born, and on Aug. 17 of that year, Naval Auxiliary Air Station (NAAS) Oceana was commissioned to support the flight training of naval aviators heading off to war.

No one could have imagined that 70 years later, local and national politicians, senior Navy leadership and others who have played an important role in the base's history would gather at a hangar to share stories of Oceana's past, present and future.

During the anniversary celebration Aug. 2, sponsored by the Navy League of Hampton Roads, Capt. Bob Geis, the 41st Oceana commanding officer, paid special recognition to a large contingent of the Potter family whose land became part of the original base. Oceana was originally carved out from 328.95 acres known as "Potter's Farm," and owned by John W. and Dean S. Potter, whose family remains in Virginia Beach today.

As Geis thanked the family for their sacrifice, he noted they "became the ultimate patriots when they gave up their land, their family farm for the benefit of their country."

The land was obtained for $35,000, most of which was deposited on Dec. 18, 1940 with a "declaration of taking," known today as eminent domain. With the U.S. on the edge of entering World War II and with just NAS Norfolk and two grassy airstrips for flight training, Oceana was needed to serve as an auxiliary landing field on which to train naval aviators.

Commander, Naval Air Force Atlantic Rear Adm. Mike Shoemaker was among several guest speakers.

"It's hard to imagine this began with 328 acres of swamp land. I can only imagine how Lt. Jesse Fairley must have felt when he became the first officer in charge of NAAS Oceana. I'm sure Lt. Fairley thought he was in charge of the mightiest naval aviation force in the world," said Shoemaker.

The admiral noted that the original number of officers and enlisted Sailors on Oceana when it was commissioned was half the number at of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 106 today, a squadron Shoemaker previously commanded.

As Shoemaker discussed Oceana's legacy of service, he noted that "as long as we have aircraft carriers, we will need bases like Oceana."

Shoemaker praised community leaders Virginia Beach Mayor William Sessoms and City Manager Jim Spore for their support of the base.

That praise was echoed by Geis. "The city has been fully committed to a relationship built on trust and confidence and I know if they have a question that could potentially affect the Navy, the dialogue that will enable a forward-looking decision will take place," said Geis as he introduced the mayor.

The mayor drew loud applause when he thanked the base for inviting him to be part of the celebration of the "greatest naval air station in the world - NAS Oceana."

Sessoms noted how in the early years of Oceana activities on base and off were very separate; something that he said has changed for the better. Unless someone is in uniform, it's very hard to distinguish them from other citizens in Virginia Beach, said Sessoms.

"In my mind, nothing illustrates this oneness than our combined actions during the Good Friday jet crash," said the mayor, referring to the April 6, 2012 mishap in which an F/A-18 from VFA-106 crashed into the Mayfair Mews Apartment Complex, near Oceana. Navy and Virginia Beach emergency personnel worked together at the scene and long afterwards.

"Our history and our daily lives are increasingly intertwined and interwoven," said Sessoms, adding he was confident the city and the base together could meet the challenges that lay ahead in the next 70 years.

Commander, Navy Region Mid-Atlantic Rear Adm. Dixon Smith also praised the partnership between Oceana and surrounding cities. "I'm convinced that our success may lay in continuing those partnerships and relationships we enjoy," said Smith.

The admiral pointed out 70 years ago, "Issues such as encroachment were non-existent. Seventy years ago, we would have never even thought of training alongside our counterparts ... Strong partnerships will continue to define the installation ... We will continue to work together to build upon our partnerships."

U.S. Congressman Scott Rigell participated in the ceremony. "It's a great joy and privilege to celebrate 70 years in the company of patriots," said Rigell before providing the invocation.

Although never stationed at Oceana, Navy League of Hampton Roads President Jon Gallinetti, a retired Marine Corps major general and aviator, shared his memories of landing at Oceana and visiting the Officers' Club on Friday night. Gallinetti said the Navy League of Hampton Roads was proud to be able to sponsor the anniversary celebration.

Among the guests was Melba Fairley Carter, just 10 years old when her father became the first commanding officer of NAAS Oceana. The family lived in the Norview section of Norfolk and she still remembers how her mother used to pack an emergency kit for the long drive to the base. At that time, Carter explained there wasn't much along the two-lane road known as Virginia Beach Boulevard, so if the vehicle broke down, her mother knew she could be stranded.

Carter was responsible for ironing all of her father's white uniforms. "They had to be creased just so. It was all spit and polish back then," she laughed. She said her father who retired as a commander in 1955, and died in 2006 at the age of 98, would have been amazed at what Oceana looks like today.

Former NAS Oceana commanding officer retired Capt. Dexter Rumsey was also recognized during the celebration. Rumsey, whose 96th birthday was Aug. 4, commanded the air station from July 1964 to November 1966.

Rumsey recalled how his first order of business was to get more money to run Oceana. Only having been allotted $300,000, Rumsey found out NAS Jacksonville had received $3 million. After a lot of work, he was successful in getting that $3 million and believes "that's when the air station really took off."

Rumsey was also successful in keeping Bell House from being demolished. Located on Oceana Boulevard, the historic home served as the Oceana CO's residence until several years ago; it currently serves as a residence for senior military officers. Rumsey also opened the stables on Oceana Boulevard and is pleased to see the expanded facility is still in use today.

Capt. John Allen, who was the base's CO from 1986 -1988 not only represents Oceana's past, but his family also represents the future of naval aviation. His son is currently a master chief at Fleet Logistics Support Squadron (VR) 56 on Oceana, his son-in-law is stationed at Naval Air Force Atlantic and one of his grandsons is learning to fly the F/A-18 Hornet at VFA-106, while another one is in flight school for the Marine Corps.

"Being in Virginia Beach and being the commanding officer of Oceana, how much better can a fighter pilot live? It's the culmination of a career... It was a special time in my life," said Allen, who also served a tour with the Blue Angels.

Allen is happy to see the change in the relationship between Oceana and the City of Virginia Beach, describing it "as being better than it's ever been."

Noting that "we had some issues," when he was in charge, he believes that BRAC in 2005 "scared everybody involved - the Navy and the City of Virginia Beach and the state of Virginia, into being much better neighbors."

The formal program concluded with proclamations from the Commonwealth of Virginia honoring the installation. Delegate Barry Knight who represents the 81st District in the Virginia House of Delegates presented a commendation to the installation in honor of their anniversary. A certificate of recognition on behalf of Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell was also presented which declared Aug. 2, 2013 as NAS Oceana Day in the state.