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updated: 6/26/2011 8:37 AM

Great Lakes Naval Station celebrates 100 years

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  • A 1911 dedication ceremony at Great Lakes Naval Station near Ross Field.

      A 1911 dedication ceremony at Great Lakes Naval Station near Ross Field.
    Courtesy/U.S. Navy

  • Ross Field at Great Lakes Naval Station during World War II.

      Ross Field at Great Lakes Naval Station during World War II.
    Courtesy/U.S. Navy

  • Great Lakes Naval Station once played major college football teams. This is a 1943 photo of football being played on Ross Field at Great Lakes.

      Great Lakes Naval Station once played major college football teams. This is a 1943 photo of football being played on Ross Field at Great Lakes.
    Courtesy/U.S. Navy

  • Battle Stations 21, a state-of-the-art training simulator, was dedicated in 2007 at Great Lakes Naval Station.

      Battle Stations 21, a state-of-the-art training simulator, was dedicated in 2007 at Great Lakes Naval Station.
    Daily Herald file photo 2007

  • Recruit barracks USS John F. Kennedy was dedicated in 2005 at Great Lakes Naval Station's Recruit Training Command.

       Recruit barracks USS John F. Kennedy was dedicated in 2005 at Great Lakes Naval Station's Recruit Training Command.
    Paul Valade | Staff Photographer 2005

  • Millions of sailors have graduated from Great Lakes Naval Station since its founding 100 years ago. The station having a four-day celebration next weekend.

       Millions of sailors have graduated from Great Lakes Naval Station since its founding 100 years ago. The station having a four-day celebration next weekend.
    Paul Valade | Staff Photographer 2002

 
 

More than 100 years ago, President Theodore Roosevelt had what many thought was a crazy idea that eventually made Chicago's suburbs home to one of the most vital Navy bases in the country -- with no ocean in sight.

Roosevelt ordered the Navy to turn land on the shore of Lake Michigan into "the biggest and best naval training station in the world."

Today, as Great Lakes Naval Station celebrates its 100th anniversary, it stands as the largest military base in Illinois and the Navy's largest training center, having graduated millions of sailors on a 1,600-acre campus that has more than 1,100 buildings.

And Great Lakes has big plans to celebrate that long and valiant history, with a four-day schedule that will include some serious military ceremonies and free admission to a festival for the public.

U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, who will lead a rededication of Great Lakes, said the celebration is about the future, as well as the past.

"This rededication is more than just a heartfelt tribute to the past, but it's a chance to turn our gaze forward," said Kirk, who is an intelligence officer for the Naval Reserves. "I unequivocally believe that America's best days still lie ahead, and that fact is due, in measurable part, to the service and sacrifice of the bold men and women of our armed services."

Situated between Lake Bluff and North Chicago, Great Lakes has the Navy's only boot camp and expects to mint nearly 40,000 sailors this year. It also is home to technical training schools for surface warfare.

Great Lakes opened on July 1, 1911, six years after Roosevelt first pushed to build a naval base on barren land in the Midwest and away from an ocean.

While the base usually is off-limits to the public, that won't be the case for the 100th anniversary festivities noon to 10 p.m. each day from Saturday, July 2, through the Fourth of July. At least 60,000 visitors are expected over the three days at Ross Field near Great Lakes' signature clock tower.

Capt. John Malfitano, Great Lakes' commanding officer, said it will be the longest the base is open to the public since before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He said visitors will particularly enjoy the historic areas.

"When they come to see us here, they'll see where it all starts for most naval personnel," Malfitano said.

John Prue, director of Great Lakes' Morale, Welfare and Recreation Department, said there will be fireworks at dusk July 3 and on the Fourth of July. The July 3 show will run about 20 minutes, while the Fourth pyrotechnics will last 30 minutes and feature surprises that Prue declined to divulge.

Saturday's highlights include eight amateur boxing bouts under a tent at Ross Field and the U.S. Army Soldier Show. Active-duty soldiers selected from auditions throughout the Army are showcased in the 90-minute musical production at 2 and 8 p.m. in the 1,400-seat Ross Auditorium.

In addition to the fireworks, the bands Pop Evil and Saving Abel will be the July 3 headliners. Entertainment on July 4 will offer tributes to artists such as Johnny Cash, the Beatles and Led Zeppelin before the blowout fireworks.

"This is a huge bash," Prue said.

No one will go hungry -- among 50 entree-type food choices will be barbecue from national champion pitmaster Mark "Boss Hogg" Kennedy of Louisville.

The day before the public events, about 1,000 recruits will graduate on the anniversary date in a grand pass-in-review on Ross Field. Seating will be available for about 6,000 spectators for the invitation-only graduation, which typically is indoors and more low-key.

Dignitaries will include Navy Vice Admiral Ann Rondeau, president of the National Defense University and Great Lakes' former commander, Mark Kirk, U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh and Master Chief Petty Officer Rick D. West, who tops the Navy's senior enlisted personnel.

Kirk will lead a rededication on the steps of the clock tower that'll mimic how it was done in that same spot in 1911 when President William Howard Taft attended.

Great Lakes spokesman John Sheppard also has organized several smaller events to recognize the base's centennial. One was a round-table a few weens ago about Great Lakes' rich sports history, which includes a football victory over No. 1-ranked University of Notre Dame on Ross Field during World War II in 1943.

Sheppard said Navy veterans who have returned this year as part of the festivities have been greeted warmly.

"These young sailors want to meet these guys and shake their hands," Sheppard said.

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