Atlantic City had already outgrown Bader Field, its municipal airport, by the late 1930s, and city officials had begun seeking a new site on the mainland.
The same limitations that forced Bader Field’s closing in 2006 — narrow runways that ended at the Intracoastal Waterway, planes flying over the city’s resort hotels and residential neighborhoods — meant that larger airplanes being developed for commercial flight couldn’t land there.
City planners had already selected 932 acres of forested wetlands in Egg Harbor Township when, in 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called for the creation of new military bases to prepare for the country’s possible involvement in World War II.
Two years later, in August 1941, Roosevelt approved nearly $1.5 million for the construction of an expansive airport on the site. According to newspaper reports, Atlantic City chipped in just $46,440 toward the project.
The land, used by the Navy as a testing and training ground for more than a decade, is now the site of the Atlantic City International Airport and the FAA’s William J. Hughes Technical Center.
Atlantic City owned the airport property until 1991, when it was taken over by the South Jersey Transportation Authority.
“It was a pretty good deal for Atlantic City,” said Richard Porcelli, the Barnegat Township author of a recent book on the history of Naval Air Station Atlantic City, or NASAC. “It would get a state-of-the-art airport at the end of the war, almost completely paid for by the government.”
Once the war began, nearly all civilian airlines were commissioned to provide planes for the military and commercial air services were also scaled back, Porcelli said.
Not everyone supported the location for Atlantic City’s new municipal airport.
A September 1941 editorial in the then Atlantic City Press raised concerns about placing the facility so close to the city’s water supply, the reservoir off Wescoat Road.
Indeed, the former base would be placed on the Superfund National Priorities list in 1990, prompting a decades-long investigation and cleanup by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers of ordinance and environmental pollutants left behind by NASAC.
“It lacks seaplane landing facilities, is remotely inaccessible to the resort and present transportation facilities, and reduces the much-needed watershed area by nearly one-fifth,” wrote one Brigantine resident.
Construction, which began nearly a month before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, was a mammoth undertaking.
The Works Progress Administration estimated it would employ nearly 1,200 men working 1,389,050 hours to build the airport’s four 5,000-foot-long runways. It also called for 1.5 million cubic yards of earth to be moved to fill in wetland areas.
In November 1942, Atlantic City officially leased the land to the U.S. Navy “for the duration and six months after” the war, with a stipulation that ownership of the facility would revert to the city for use as a municipal airport. Naval Air Station Atlantic City was commissioned on April 24, 1943, with a series of flybys from airplanes stationed at the new testing and training facility.
NASAC initially served as a training facility for Navy fighter pilots.
Porcelli said wave after wave of pilots came through Atlantic City on their way to the front lines in Europe and the Pacific. Meanwhile, similar bases in Wildwood and Quonset Point, R.I., trained dive bombers and torpedo bombers.
Another major program initiated during World War II that foreshadowed the Federal Aviation Administration’s use of the facility was the Navy’s radar-training grounds.
In addition to radar labs at NASAC, the program expanded to the Hotel Brigantine, a tall, art-deco building on the sparsely populated island north of Atlantic City.
“They had radar on the roof and many of the rooms were converted to simulated control rooms on aircraft carriers or battleships,” Porcelli said. “The goal was to teach pilots to coordinate air defense based on radar-controlled fighters.”
Even before it opened, NASAC had had a tremendous impact on the local economy, from the civilians employed on base to businesses that housed or catered to soldiers.
“For the first time in years, there was lively bidding when a choice lot was auctioned off” in Egg Harbor Township, according to one news report from 1943.
The Hotel Wiltshire was the first of many Atlantic City resorts to be commandeered by the military. Soldiers wounded on the front lines were treated at Chalfonte-Haddon Hall and the Traymore Hotel, which were transformed into the Thomas M. England General Hospital. Other hotels were used for housing and administration. The Saturday Evening Post would call the newly militarized Atlantic City “Camp Boardwalk.”
Harold H. Gray, the father of local historian June Sheridan, was NASAC’s first security chief. Sheridan, 76, of Egg Harbor Township, said her family took in a German shepherd puppy to socialize the dog before it was put to work patrolling NASAC perimeter fences. She also got to meet sailors stationed at the base and even ride in her father’s patrol Jeep.
“I remember once in a while, he’d bring the Jeep home and we could ride the Jeep around the field where we lived,” she said.
While it was a good job, Sheridan said her father left after two years.
“He said the devastation of seeing young men killed in these plane crashes tore him apart,” she said. “One young sailor was walking across the runway. A bolt dropped off a plane, hit him in the head and killed him instantly. Another one ... got hit by a propeller on the plane and survived.”
It’s unclear how many sailors died in such accidents, but notices of crashes appeared regularly in the local newspapers.
While Atlantic City officials had been adamant about reclaiming the airport just a few years prior, that changed by war’s end in 1945. Mayor Joseph Altman told the then Atlantic City Press the airport was too large for the city to take over.
“The cost of operation would be tremendous,” he said, “and the only solution is its operation by one of the big airlines.”
But civilian airlines hadn’t yet returned to their pre-war operations.
Civilian layoffs in the late ’40s prompted an outcry from local officials to keep the Navy base open. They said the loss of the base’s $9 million payroll would cripple a tourist economy that hadn’t recovered from the lean war years.
The Navy ended up staying in Atlantic City, where it served primarily as a research and development facility for unmanned aircraft and all-weather combat. Its logo during the 1950s was a turtle against a sky half-light and half-dark, with thunderclouds and a lightning bolt in the foreground.
After all, Porcelli said, the U.S. government had already poured millions of dollars — nearly $10 million by Altman’s estimate — into improvements there.
“At the end of the war, the Navy essentially said, ‘We put a lot of money in — we want to stay for another 13 years,’” Porcelli said. Local officials, who lobbied Congress to keep that $9 million payroll in Atlantic County, didn’t object.
In 1946, Eastern Air Lines became the first civilian airline to lease and operate scheduled flights from the city’s new airport, adjacent to the continuing operations at NASAC. Commercial flights, operated by a variety of airlines, continued sporadically for the next five decades until 1991, when the pseudo-private agency South Jersey Transportation Authority purchased the civilian air field and took over operations at the newly renamed Atlantic City International Airport.
The SJTA’s takeover marked the final transition of commercial aviation from Bader Field, which remained open another 15 years for single-engine and small twin-engine private planes.
Last year, 1.4 million passengers flew from the airport on an average of 30 flights per day, according to SJTA spokeswoman Sharon Gordon.
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