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Shipping Out : Once the Biggest Business in Town, the Downsizing of the Navy Hits at the Very Heart--and Soul--of Long Beach

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Like so many others in those days, he first saw the city from the sea.

The jade-green roof of the old hotel Riviera steepled into a blue sky. The Pike amusement park spilled across the beach like a handful of children’s toys on the city’s front porch. In 1949, to an 18-year-old sailor from Winganon, Okla., it was beautiful. So Don Clark made Long Beach his home. He married, raised a family, made captain’s rank and retired here.

For a long time it was like this: When a sailor talked about the Navy on the West Coast, no one had to ask where on the coast. San Francisco and San Diego were Navy towns. Long Beach was the Navy town.

After all, the city and the Navy got their first peek at each other at the turn of the century and grew up together. During the fever of World War II and Vietnam, Long Beach eclipsed all other West Coast Navy towns in size and prominence.

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“Long Beach meant Navy on this coast,” recalls Capt. Harry Selfridge, the current regional commander of naval activity in Central California.

Thousands of sailors--men and women who spent years floating from one base to another--decided to make their homes here. Meanwhile, the Long Beach Naval Shipyard next door to the Naval Station on Terminal Island offered thousands of locals steady work and good wages repairing ships. The shipyard gave many an opportunity to escape poverty, to buy homes with back yards and send their children to college.

The Navy helped shape the city. It defined an era, and even after Vietnam, when the service’s presence here began to dim, it remained part of the fabric of the community.

Now the Navy star in Long Beach is on the verge of being extinguished.

In September, just days after its 52nd birthday, the Long Beach Naval Station will close for the third, almost certainly last, time. Only four ships will remain at the naval station--the last of a fleet of 38.

With the fleet will go at least 15,000 sailors once assigned to the station, and when they leave, an entire westside neighborhood where Navy families lived will vanish. Already, 400 homes in the Navy’s Savannah housing tract just a few miles north of the station sit in eerie silence, isolated by chain-link fences topped with razor wire. Next door, the Cabrillo housing tract is slowly emptying as sailors are reassigned and their families are moved out.

Two weeks ago, the Long Beach Naval Hospital discharged its final patient, and in March will be closed. That same month, Long Beach will witness the commissioning of a new ship at the station. After the ceremony, the destroyer class USS Curtis Wilbur will also leave Long Beach.

If all goes as city leaders plan, a mega-mall will take the place of the naval station. A university research park, two schools, a housing project for the homeless and a job-training center will erase any signs of the Savannah and Cabrillo housing tracts. The Port of Long Beach, growing by leaps and bounds, hopes to acquire whatever naval station property it can for a new shipping terminal.

Only the Long Beach Naval Shipyard will remain. After narrowly escaping closure two times in the last four years, its fate remains uncertain. In private, city, business and Navy officials predict that when Long Beach enters the next century, the Navy will not go with it. *

“I feel kind of lost,” said Clark, one of an estimated 13,000 retired Navy people in the Long Beach and Los Angeles area. “As long as I’ve been here, there was a Navy and now it’s going.”

The loss will not jar the lives of all, perhaps not even most, Long Beach residents. But the ripples of closure are already reaching apartment owners and grocers, people who provided services to the families who lived in Navy housing, people whose jobs depended on the Navy and the estimated $330 million a year local Navy personnel spent.

For every military job that goes, 1.5 other jobs will disappear in the overall economy of the area, said Larry Kimble, director of the UCLA Business Forecasting Project, a privately funded program that conducts economic research. When the station closes nine months from now, a minimum of 15,000 active-duty Navy personnel and their families will be gone. In that time, if the formula holds, more than 22,000 non-military jobs in Long Beach and surrounding cities will have vanished too.

“It will have an impact on every grocery store, every hair stylist, every manicurist, doctor, lawyer,” said Rep. Steve Horn (R-Long Beach). “That’s a (small) town disappearing off the face of the Earth.”

The cutting blow for the Navy in Long Beach fell in the fall of 1991. A federal base-closure commission appointed by then-President George Bush recommended closing both the station and the hospital, although neither the Navy nor the Department of Defense had pushed for such action. For a city in the midst of recession, the decision was a sucker punch that left local officials stunned.

Layoffs at McDonnell Douglas Corp. and the April, 1992, riots made a bad situation worse. The naval station closure alone is at least a $700-million-a-year blow to the local economy, city officials estimate.

“If we had to take the hit of losing the station all by itself and everything else was working fine, it wouldn’t be such a big deal, but everything else isn’t working fine,” Long Beach City Manager James C. Hankla said.

The impact is not only economic. For most people older than 50 who grew up in Long Beach, the Navy has been an enduring icon of the city’s past, and of their youth. This generation has watched the once-festive Pike close in desolation, the half-moon of Rainbow Lagoon on the city’s waterfront become a dirt lot, and the Long Beach Boulevard shopping district become a forlorn street of vacant lots and boarded-up automobile dealerships. To this older generation, the closure of the Long Beach Naval Station represents not only the dismantling of a defense industry, but another monument of their past.

“The Navy is part of the old heritage here,” said Vito Romans, a longtime Long Beach resident and member of its Armed Services Commission. “The new generation won’t miss it, but we old-timers will. We know what it was like. We loved all the brass.”

What it was like in its heyday was Alaskan king crab dinners, summer night dances and afternoon teas with officers and their wives. It was days at the beach or at the Pike, eating hotdogs dripping with mustard, and thousands of sailors flooding the downtown in waves of blue and white, crowding into bars with names like the Cruiser, the Midway and the Saratoga.

Sailors helped police patrol the city after the 1933 earthquake. The Long Beach-based USS Arizona was destroyed in the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and while local families grieved, Long Beach spent nights in darkness for fear of Japanese attacks. There were also times when residents could not stand the sight of another uniform, the sound of another bar song. When the fleet came in, 30,000 stir-crazy sailors came with it and Long Beach residents had a choice: join the fun or get out of the way. Apartment owners posted signs reading “No dogs or sailors,” parents kept their young daughters away from the Pike, and resentments simmered. By most accounts, those prickly days ended when World War II began.

It was during the war in the early 1940s that the naval station and naval shipyard were officially opened. After World War II, the Navy boomed, and newspaper stories proclaimed the Navy the biggest business in town. The station and shipyard closed briefly in 1950, and peaked again during the Vietnam era when 140 ships were home-ported at the station. In 1974 the station was caught in the inevitable post-war belt-tightening. Although not technically closed, it may as well have been. The Navy pulled out 63 ships and 20,000 sailors and sent most of them to San Diego. The station, redubbed a “support facility,” was left with only four ships.

The Navy’s departure hit the city hard. As former Assistant City Manager John Shirey once said, “downtown died in 1974.”

The decay left in the wake of the closure forced leaders to diversify the city’s economic base. Redevelopment during the late 1970s and through the ‘80s gutted the downtown bars and pool halls and locker rooms that catered to sailors. The Pike that once lured Clark and thousands of other sailors closed. In their places have sprouted office buildings, high-rise condominiums and luxury hotels as Long Beach city officials seek to redefine the city as a center of international trade and tourism.

In time, the Navy base has been all but overwhelmedby the burgeoning ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles and has become lost in the gray industrial landscape just west of downtown.

Only a single tattoo parlor remains downtown and the artists there are more likely to work on trendy teen-agers. “Because the naval station was out of sight, people didn’t realize its value over the years,” said City Councilman Ray Grabinski, who has lived in Long Beach for 37 years. The future of the Navy in Long Beach now rests with the shipyard, and these days that’s a little like building a house on sand.

Some shipyard employees and city officials say they can’t imagine that the federal government would actually close the yard. In the last few years the shipyard has been singled out for doing work on schedule and under cost. It has received several commendations. It is capable of working on almost any ship. Besides, employees say, rumors that the shipyard would be closed have circulated for decades and it has not happened yet. Next year the last federal base closure commission will convene (with new appointees) and weigh the shipyard’s future. J.B. Larkins, president of the Long Beach Naval Shipyard Employee Assn., is not optimistic. “This time they are going to use the big broom and sweep everything out, is what I’m thinking,” he said.

Larkins came to the shipyard with a high school education in the days when it was so busy a person could work 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and still not keep up.

“The shipyard has been good to me,” he said. “It provided me with a good living so I could raise my family. I was able to buy a home. It was the same for a lot of us. .”

With the station closing, the shipyard, today the city’s fifth-largest employer, has lost its primary source of work. The shipyard must now look to foreign governments and the San Diego station for work. San Diego’s private shipyards and congressional representatives are lobbying furiously for closure of the Long Beach Naval Shipyard. In the meantime, the Navy is reducing its fleet from 585 ships to 348.

Already, some Long Beach shipyard workers have less to do. Only three ships are currently under repair and there is not much promise that this year will be busy. In 1945, a peak of 16,091 people worked at the shipyard. In 1983, there were 6,978 employees. As of Dec. 10, there were 3,833 shipyard workers. City and local congressional leaders, recognizing that they have a tough fight on their hands, are already preparing for battle. There are those who say Long Beach has not been a Navy town for a long time, and there are others who say that no matter what happens, Long Beach will forever be one. “Look at history,” said retired Rear Adm. John Higgenson, a Long Beach resident who was commander of naval activity in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties from 1986 to 1990. “There are eight, nine countries fighting around the world and we never know when one is going to get into our vital interests. . . . There is not one evil empire, but there are plenty of little empires.”

Even if the station never reopens, there will always be a relationship between the Navy and Long Beach, city officials say.

“It won’t be as obvious as it was in the past, but there will be people who will come and stand on the Promenade and remember their father or grandfather or aunt and uncle and how the Navy is the reason they came to Long Beach,” Councilman Grabinski said.

Memories may be all that remain. Three months ago, the naval station had its annual birthday ball in the banquet room of the Officers Club where the windows look out to the ships in the harbor and the sea beyond. This time, the event was called “The Last Hurrah.”

History of Navy in Long Beach

1908--President Teddy Roosevelt parades 16 warships around the world in a historic tour. The so-called Great White Fleet stops in Long Beach.

1919--Long Beach becomes home port of the Pacific Fleet.

1940--City deeds 105 acres of oceanfront land on Terminal Island to the Navy for $1.

1942--Navy station is formally commissioned. Next door, the first major ship is brought into the new shipyard for repairs.

1965--Long Beach Naval Station enters its busiest phase. During the next five years, 120 ships and 45,000 Navy personnel will be assigned.

1991--A federal base closure commission recommends closing the station and hospital.


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