Kirkpatrick Field honors visionary commander who led Naval Weapons Station Yorktown through World War II

Story Number: NNS130926-08Release Date: 9/26/2013 11:52:00 AM
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By Mark O. Piggott, Naval Weapons Station Yorktown

YORKTOWN, Va. (NNS) -- On a solitary field aboard Naval Weapons Station (WPNSTA) Yorktown sits a singular white brick platform, flanked by two cannons and adorned with a large brass plaque.

This field is used for physical training or ceremonies like change of command, retirements and special commemorations.

People drive by it every day on their way to work aboard the Navy's ordnance hub for the Atlantic Fleet, yet most do not know what it is or who it is named for.

This is Kirkpatrick Field, so-named for Capt. Robert D. Kirkpatrick, commanding officer, Navy Mine Depot Yorktown (the precursor of WPNSTA Yorktown) from November 1942 to March 1946. During the tumultuous years of World War II, Kirkpatrick concluded a 37-year Naval career by leading the installation through war and into peace, preparing for the future of Navy munitions.

"The mission of the Naval Mine Depot is to store high explosives, to fill, service and store mines, depth charges, war heads, torpedoes, anti-submarine devices, aircraft rockets, bombs and their component parts in order to maintain a supply and provide a reserve for the U.S. fleet," Kirkpatrick said in a speech to more than 2,000 civilian workers May 8, 1945.

"That we have executed our mission has been fully confirmed by letters, telegrams, and cables setting forth the damaging blows inflicted on our enemies by munitions which were loaded and assembled here. That we, of this command, are playing an important and essential part in the successful prosecution of the war, is unquestioned," he concluded.

Established in 1918, the Navy Mine Depot was envisioned as a place to store underwater mine materials left over from World War I. But over the years, the role of the depot grew to manufacture, transport and store a variety of ordnance, especially during World War II under the leadership of Kirkpatrick. At the height of the war, the installation shipped an average of 800 tons of ordnance per week, 80 percent of which was shipped by rail.

"Throughout the Mine Depot, literally everywhere, he was the one who approved the designs and personally supervised the construction and installation of the equipment that would meet the requirements of war," said Leo Forrest, a base historian and employee with Navy Munitions Command (NMC) aboard WPNSTA Yorktown.

"And no detail was too small," he continued. "Many times, long after normal working hours, the lights could still be seen in the captain's office as he studied ways to improve operations at the Mine Depot."

A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy in June 1913, Kirkpatrick reported onboard several ships, including USS Hull (DD 350), where he served as executive officer. In the spring of 1916, Kirkpatrick took advantage of an interesting opportunity. At Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla., he began training in both fixed-wing and lighter-than-air craft. In June 1917, he was designated Naval Aviator No. 48.

After earning his wings, the Navy placed its confidence in Kirkpatrick as he established and organized all Naval Aviation training schools. This work continued throughout World War I, until he was ordered to report to Naval Headquarters, London. While there, he observed the advances being made in aviation over the skies of Europe. In December 1919, he reported to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, completing the initial construction of Naval Air Station Ford Island. While there, he helped lay the groundwork for the air field on Midway Island by compiling a detailed aerial topography chart.

In the fall of 1926, Kirkpatrick continued his work in connection with Naval Aviation as a Naval attache in Europe. For the next few years, he was assigned to embassies in London, Paris, Berlin and The Hague; but often, this work was interrupted in order to inspect naval air facilities, including those in Spain and North Africa.

After taking command of two destroyers and a destroyer tender - USS Hatfield (DD 231), USS Hopkins (DD 249) and USS Dobbins (AD 3) - Kirkpatrick was forced to retire from the Navy due to a heart attack. He was recalled to active duty after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, restricted to assignments at shore installations. At age 51, he took command of Navy Mine Depot Yorktown and, with respect to organization, administration and the engineering of facilities for munitions, Kirkpatrick led the way.

"He (Kirkpatrick) required all the operations at the Mine Depot to be run as efficiently as possible," Forrest explained. "For example, he had a state-of-the-art roundhouse built from which long tentacles of new railroad tracks originated and stretched across the Mine Depot. For the next 60 years, these rails allowed the efficient movement of ordnance and other materials around the installation."

Kirkpatrick also encouraged everyone, especially those who lived on the Mine Depot, to plant a "Victory Garden." He saw these backyard vegetable gardens as both a sign of patriotism and an important source of food during this time of war. Of course, even the "Victory Gardens" were subject to inspection, and with food supplies being rationed, he expected to find the plants well-watered and the soil free of weeds.

During all this, a feeling of pride and appreciation developed - both for the civilian workers, military personnel and for Kirkpatrick. Almost overnight, the Navy Mine Depot turned into a state-of-the-art ordnance production, testing and storage facility. Once the war was over, it was the employees turn to recognize their commanding officer.

On Sept. 3, 1945, the civilians of Navy Mine Depot Yorktown, after learning that Kirkpatrick would soon be retiring and moving to California, presented him with a reviewing stand of concrete and brick, emblazoned with a plaque honoring their leader through a time of war.

"This plaque is the gift of the civilian employees as a token of respect and admiration for Capt. Robert D. Kirkpatrick, whose wise planning, bold vision and persistent effort during the war years wrought lasting benefit to the Depot and under whose inspiring leadership it was a privilege and honor to have served."

Kirkpatrick retired to Coronado, Calif., spending time with his family, including his wife, Lucille, and their son, Robert Jr. He enjoyed years of gardening and was even able to lend his leadership skills as president of the Coronado Floral Association.

Kirkpatrick died June 20, 1961, and was buried in Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego, Calif. At the time of his death, his wife noted how proud he was to have been the commanding officer of the Navy Mine Depot during World War II and his contributions to Naval Aviation.

"Kirk was an adventuresome person, always ready to try the untried and to face the challenges of the unknown," she said. "In his early days, he regarded aviation as the great opportunity it turned out to be."

Though most of the buildings from that era are empty and dark or demolished for a new energy efficient structure, the accomplishments of one man still echoes through the corridors of WPNSTA Yorktown today. On a solitary platform in a place known as Kirkpatrick Field, the memory of the man who led this station through a time of war will never be forgotten as generations of new Sailors report for duty.

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