- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
A jet roared overhead — business as usual and a timely metaphor for the day — as Patuxent River Naval Air Station celebrated its 70-year anniversary during a small ceremony Monday.
“It’s the sound of freedom,” Joseph Dyer said, looking skyward. The retired Navy vice admiral once headed the Naval Air Systems Command. Monday he offered a synopsis, concise and nostalgic, of the evolution of naval aviation in Southern Maryland and, ultimately, around the world.
The air station was commissioned on April 1, 1943. With World War II already under way, the Japanese had proven their prowess in aviation. The United States, essentially, had to catch up. The War Department decided that a more than 6,412-acre parcel of land, then called Cedar Point, would be an ideal location to house and develop aviation operations. The department needed to consolidate operations in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and Norfolk, Va.
The land in St. Mary’s County was far enough away from other air traffic, vast enough for weapons testing and isolated enough for classified work. The Navy paid $712,287 for the property and gave families living there about a month to relocate, according an account of Pax River’s history by the Navy’s installations command.
What ensued, Dyer said, could be compared to the fast-paced growth of an old Wild West town. The population in 1940 was just less than 15,000 people. Construction began April 4, 1942. In less than a year, historians say anywhere from 6,000 to 8,000 construction workers came to help build Pax River, which became dubbed “The Instant City.” In keeping with the Wild West theme, Marines took over security that October and arrested about 2,200 workers, over 10 months, after collecting fingerprints and conducting background checks.
For years, feelings of pride and resentment were mingled among residents of the area, Dyer said. Pride because of the economic growth. Resentment stemmed from dramatic changes the Navy caused.
Today, some St. Mary’s County residents say they feel like outsiders, oblivious to what goes on inside “the gate.”
But, overall, benefits to the county have been tremendous, Dyer noted. Pax River is the county’s largest employer. The average yearly wage of federal government workers at Pax River is $105,508, according to the St. Mary’s County Department of Economic Development. Contractors earn an average of $81,224 per year. And, eight of the county’s top 10 employers — including DynCorp International, BAE Systems and Wyle — are associated with naval aviation.
Pax River, started a revolution, Dyer said. It has been “important to our Navy and important to our nation.”