Great Lakes Naval Station turns 100
It was July 3, 1911, and Joseph Gregg was excited about joining the U.S. Navy.
So excited, in fact, that the Terre Haute, Ind., native didn't just walk through the gates of the facility then known as Naval Training Station Great Lakes.
He ran -- and thus became the newly opened facility's first recruit.
"Our recruits used to arrive by train," said John Sheppard, spokesman of what is now called the Great Lakes Naval Station. "He got out of the train and he sprinted across the street so he could be the first recruit."
Gregg -- who's buried at the base near North Chicago -- was the first of roughly 3.5 million young men and women who underwent basic training at Great Lakes.
The base is publicly celebrating its centennial this year. But unlike Joseph Gregg, you won't have to run to the base to participate.
Activities will kick off Friday, Jan. 21, with a concert by the Great Lakes Navy Band. Scheduled for later in the year are an architectural tour of the base, a panel discussion featuring athletes who served at Great Lakes and many other events.
Capt. John Malfitano, the commanding officer at Great Lakes, was reluctant to pick a favorite.
"This sounds noncommital, but I am looking forward to every single one of them," he said in a telephone interview. "Honestly, I look at the next event on my calendar and get excited about it."
Great Lakes' story began in the early years of the 20th century, under the watch of President Theodore Roosevelt. Following the Spanish-American War, Navy leaders noticed many of the best sailors came from the Midwest, according to the official "Naval Station Great Lakes Base Guide."
The idea developed to train them in the area rather than on the East Coast. Roosevelt announced the creation of the base in 1905, and construction began that year.
When Great Lakes opened its gates on July 1, 1911, it consisted of 39 buildings and cost $3.5 million. Two days later, Gregg and the other first recruits arrived.
For its first few years, about 2,000 recruits went through basic training at the base annually. But when the U.S. joined World War I in 1917, activity exploded. By the time the war ended in 1918, more than 125,000 sailors had been trained at Great Lakes.
"We're a reflection of what's going on in the world," Malfitano said.
Recruit activity at Great Lakes was even greater during World War II. Between the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the surrender of Japan in 1945, 1 million active-duty sailors trained at the base.
Among them was future baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller, a member of the Great Lakes baseball team during the war.
As the result of base closures in Orlando and San Diego, Great Lakes became the Navy's only basic training program for recruits in 1996 and remains so today.
The base now features the Navy's largest simulator, a full-sized, special-effects laden ship dubbed the USS Trayer. It's also home to a naval special warfare preparatory program for sailors looking to join the elite SEALs.
And this past October, the Capt. James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center opened in North Chicago as a partnership between Great Lakes and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Named after the famed Apollo 13 astronaut, it's the nation's first hospital of its kind.
Great Lakes personnel are inviting area residents to help them celebrate those features -- and its storied history -- throughout 2011.
All of the events are free and open to the public.
"It's a confirmation that were it not for the support of our neighbors here, we wouldn't be here in the first place," Malfitano said, referring to the outpouring of support from area residents and lawmakers that kept Great Lakes open in the 1990s.
The centennial concert scheduled for Friday, Jan. 21, is the first of several such shows. Other centennial highlights include:
• An April 14 panel discussion with renowned athletes who have served at the base.
• Three days of activities set for April 22-24 that will mark the centennial of Naval aviation, which also is occurring this year.
• A Centennial Day with as-of-yet-unspecified activities on July 1.
• A Fourth of July Festival that will run from July 2-4.
Malfitano, a former Navy pilot, said he's "kind of tickled" that 2011 marks two important anniversaries for the Navy. The dual centennials should be especially important for the Chicago area, given its history as home to not only Great Lakes but also the former Glenview Naval Air Station and Navy Pier, locations that were vital to pilot training during World War II.
"It's a wonderful confluence of events," Malfitano said.
To learn more about the centennial events, go to the Great Lakes Facebook page, facebook.com/navalstationgreatlakes.