Dahlgren Day: Celebrating 95 Years of Innovation

by Andrew Revelos Staff Writer

Members of the Dahlgren community gathered Oct. 16 at the University of Mary Washington Dahlgren Campus to celebrate the installation’s 95th anniversary. The festive occasion, sponsored by the Dahlgren Heritage Foundation, brought together service members, community leaders and employees past and present.

“Thank you so much for being here for this very special occasion, the commemorative celebration of the 95th anniversary of the Navy base now known as Naval Support Facility Dahlgren,” said Ed Jones, president of the Dahlgren Heritage Foundation, welcoming attendees.

Jones updated the audience about the Dahlgren Heritage Foundation’s progress in establishing a museum, which opened Oct. 19. “It’s an exciting time to talk about the story of Dahlgren,” he said. “I like to tell people that the only thing that’s more exciting than Dahlgren’s history, is Dahlgren’s future, because with the development of multiple commands on the base, it seems that more than ever, this center of research, innovation, testing, training and support for the warfighter, is more and more essential for this nation.”

Dahlgren was a remote piece of marshland in rural King George County before the Navy fired its first test shot at the new base in the fall of 1918. Though the nature of the work at Dahlgren has evolved during its more than nine decades of existence, the base continues to be called “a crown jewel of national defense,” said Jones.

Marines supervised by Navy Lt. Cmdr. H.K. Lewis fired that first shot from a tractor-mounted, 7-inch, 45-caliber naval gun, hurling a 153-pound projectile 24,000 yards down the Potomac. The restored gun was on display this week at Dahlgren’s parade field.

Jones mused about the effect of that thunderous first shot on local wildlife, which has since grown used to the noise. “That must have been pretty jarring. But you know, in the next nine and a half decades, there were a lot of booms. I grew up on base in the 1950s and that was major boom time, let me tell you.”

Before Dahlgren could fall into its rhythm of methodical research, development, training and evaluation, it suffered from a few growing pains, said Jones. One of the early issues faced by the Navy was what to call its new test range. “There were a number of finalists for that. Were it not for that final decision, we may be talking about not Dahlgren, Virginia, but Stockton, Virginia, or Daschle, Virginia, or maybe Alger, Virginia. Boy, Dahlgren sounds better and better, doesn’t it?”

Capt. Pete Nette, commanding officer of Naval Support Activity South Potomac, praised the Dahlgren Heritage Foundation for making the celebration possible and the thanked University of Mary Washington Dahlgren Campus for hosting the event.

“By any measure, 95 years is a long time,” said Nette. “It’s a milestone worthy of celebrating in itself, an exceptional achievement.”

Nette said the work of the Dahlgren History Project, part of the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division, together with the privately-funded Dahlgren Heritage Foundation, have done a great job telling Dahlgren’s story. “As a result of these efforts, we have a new realm of opportunity to highlight the important legacy represented by Dahlgren,” he said. “It’s remarkable that all these developments have coincided with the base’s 95th anniversary, just shy of its centennial five years from now.”

The success of the base through the decades would not have been possible without the support of the communities that surround it, said Nette. “The deep connections between the Dahlgren base and this community represent an invaluable asset that we in the military should never take for granted.”

The leader of Dahlgren’s largest tenant command shared some behind-the scenes insight about the effort to name the base. “It’s the policy of the Department of Defense to name a proving ground after the geographic location it goes in, not to name it after a person,” said Capt. Michael Smith, commanding officer of NSWCDD.

A post office called “Dido” existed in the area prior to the establishment of the base, said Smith, but the Navy wanted to name the installation in honor of Adm. John Augustus Dahlgren, the father of modern naval ordnance. “So they convinced the state of Virginia to rename the post office Dahlgren, which then allowed the Navy to name the proving grounds after Dahlgren.”

Smith seconded Nette’s praise for the Dahlgren Heritage Foundation. “Through your efforts, you honor then men and women who throughout the years have been pioneers in research and development efforts that have resulted in many and great solutions that have proved so vital to surface and sub-surface Navy,” he said. “Because of Dahlgren’s history museum, we have added assurance that our story will be told as we move forward in developing systems that are increasingly flexible and more effective.”

Smith also thanked the communities surrounding Dahlgren for their continuing support. “Since arriving here three years ago, I have been impressed by local residents and members of the work force that have testified about Dahlgren’s integral role to the history of the surrounding region,” he said. “It is clear that this community has always worked exceptionally well with the Navy.”

Two leaders from that community, Del. Margaret Ransone and state Sen. Richard Stuart, discussed the installation’s history and future.

“Let me tell you, as a little boy growing up in the Northern Neck, listening to those booms, we heard those booms and we didn’t pay a bit of attention,” said Stuart. “But I’ll tell you what we did pay attention to was the fact that we had this base here in the Northern Neck and we appreciated it. We wanted it here and we all worked together to make sure the base felt welcomed and would stay here. I think that’s a critical issue.”

The base also serves as a vital employer in the area. “[Dahlgren] is such a tremendous asset to this region,” said Stuart.

Ransone also grew up along the Potomac River and is well acquainted with the noise. “I’m humbled to stand before so many decorated officers and military personnel and civilians and defense contractors this evening, honoring 95 years of Navy heritage based right here at Dahlgren in King George County,” she said. “Because of your hard work, we’ve been blessed with 95 years of dedicated service to our great nation.”

Ransone read a proclamation from Governor Bob McDonnell declaring Oct. 16, 2013 Dahlgren Day, in recognition of the installation’s contributions to both the national defense and the commonwealth of Virginia. Ransone presented each commanding officer at Dahlgren’s commands with copies of the proclamation.

The guest speaker at the anniversary ceremony is no stranger to Dahlgren. Rear Adm. Brad Hicks (Ret.) commanded Navy Air and Missile Defense Command and was the program director for Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense at Dahlgren prior to his retirement from the Navy in 2009. During his tour, he led the mission that successfully shot down a damaged satellite threatening an uncontrolled reentry into the earth’s atmosphere. Hicks is currently a vice president at Lockheed Martin.

Hicks said it was an “honor” to speak at the ceremony and pondered the challenges of Dahlgren’s past, present and future. The base’s establishment in 1918, he said, also coincided with America’s post-World War 1 disarmament. “The Navy got real small. Only through the perseverance of families [like the] Roosevelts and some others that we maintained a Navy, per our Constitution.”

When Dahlgren increased its output for World War II, anti-aircraft proximity fuses helped win the war. “Those algorithms, those mathematical models were envisioned here at Dahlgren,” said Hicks.

American consumers have also benefit from research and development on the base. “Your car’s navigation system, its GPS system and the science behind it, came from [Dahlgren],” Hicks continued. “So the base has seen good times and innovated and delivered. Questioning people, men and women from engineering backgrounds all over the country came here. In 1973, there was one stoplight, I believe. If you wanted to get a good meal, other than local down home food, you were just kind of out of luck. But people persevered down here.”

Hicks said the colocation of many Navy commands at Dahlgren is a major factor in the installation’s continued success, a situation set in motion by the late Rear Adm. Wayne Meyer, “father” of the Aegis Combat System. Colocation allowed engineers to work closely with the officers and Sailors that would maintain and use Aegis. “We had learned painfully that as weapons systems got more complex, if you didn’t do that, you might not get it right,” said Hicks.

Meyer’s decision to base all things Aegis at Dahlgren has paid dividends to both the Navy and the base, said Hicks, but efforts to improve warfighting capability must be ongoing. “The legacy lives on. As Admiral Meyer said to the workforce down here, when everyone thought we’d reached a milestone, he’d remind them we ain’t done yet, in his Missouri drawl.”

That kind of foresight and perseverance is Dahlgren’s way forward. “When you look at the innovation that’s come out this lab, it has survived good times and bad times,” said Hicks.

Though the nation’s budgetary troubles and their effect on the military remains to be solved, Hicks thinks Dahlgren has a bright future ahead of it. “I will tell you that Dahlgren always stands at the top of the list of things we have to preserve.”

Hicks recounted his conversations with then-Rear Adm. Mike Mullen about the prospects of locating NAMDC in Dahlgren. “Why Dahlgren?” asked Hicks. “Because again, the training, the technical excellence is here.”

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