|The Village Sun
November 5, 1992
by Jack Connolly
I was one of several hundred thousand Navy recruits who, during World War II, took boot training at Sampson Naval Training Station in New York State.
The site, described at the time as being "on the east shore of Seneca Lake, 14 miles south of Geneva, N.Y.," was approved by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in May , 1942. In one of those World War II production miracles, the facility was completed and commissioned by Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox, just five months later - 50 years ago as this article is being written.
The new station was named for Rear Admiral William T. Sampson, USN, hero of the Battle of Santiago, Cuba in 1898, and a native of Palmyra, N.Y., a scant 20 miles from the facility that bore his name.
In addition to being a major boot training camp, Sampson also had mechanical and non-mechanical trade schools. A high percentage of boot graduates returned to these schools to be trained in one or more of the 49 job classes, or ratings, which were essential to the Navy at that time. Highly-trained personnel were disbursed from Sampson to Navy ships, bases, and stations around the globe.
While Sampson was primarily a boot camp for men, many members of the WAVES and Navy Nurses attended schools here and/or were members of "ships company."
As military facilities go, Sampson had a very short life. Not long after the war ended in 1945, the boot training station was closed. The facility was used for a variety of purposes and some of the barracks were recycled - ending up as temporary dormitories at east coast colleges. Eventually the site became a New York State Park and Recreation Area. The Sampson name was retained for the park, but the postal address is now Romulus, New York.
Little remains today that would even hint at what was once a huge important military facility. A few of the original buildings survive, including the military prison, or brig, and the original guard house at the main entrance still keeps its lonely watch. Of course there are no longer armed guards, and the only time the guard house is manned is when volunteers are available to offer information to visitors.
The original road network, covering the landscape like a giant spider web, was left almost intact when the park department took over. Many of the roads end uselessly in a cul-de-sac; others are almost grown over by weeds. With a map of the training station as it existed in 1944, however, it is possible to envision exactly how the facility appeared at that time. The roads seem remarkably well-preserved considering their age.
Among my memories of those days at Sampson, two experiences stand out above all others. One was the trip from Philadelphia to Sampson and the first day at boot camp. The other was the time I spent several hours in the brig.
I was sworn in a few days before my 18th birthday, in Philadelphia, Penn. along with several dozen others. I was ordered to report to Reading Railroad Terminal in center city Philadelphia that evening at 2100 hours to catch a troop train to Sampson - a place I had never heard of, and the location of which I had no idea.
We boarded a Lehigh Valley Railroad train promptly at 2100 hours and took off into the cold, dark December night. The coach was ancient, had no heat, was filthy dirty, and most of the seats were broken. We rumbled and rattled through the night, huddled together trying to keep from freezing. Just before dawn we arrived at the sideyards in Sampson. There had been a light snow during the night, and we were greeted by a countryside blanketed in white.
Before disembarking from the train, we were given individual box breakfasts, containing a sandwich, an apple and a half-pint of milk.
In quick succession, we had our hair shorn to within a milimeter of our scalp, were subjected to another physical exam, outfitted with regulation bedding, shoes and clothing, and then separated from our last semblance of individuality when we packed our civilian clothes in a box to be shipped home.
After having pictures and fingerprints taken, we were issued dog-tags and I.D. cards, assigned to a boot company, and marched a mile or so in the snow to our barracks. After we were shown the proper way to make up our bunks, we were rewarded with an individual box-lunch - a sandwich, an apple and a half-pint of milk. Then, bald, tired, homesick, scared, and thoroughly dehumanized, we were marched to a huge hall where we took a three-hour intelligence test.
Back in the barracks once again, we were lined up alphabetically and were given the dreaded immunization "shots" - one in each arm.
I must admit that in the days that followed - after we got over the initial cultural shock, got to know each other and make friends - there was a bonding, an esprit de corps such as most of us had not known in our lives up to that time. The boot camp experience was an unforgettable but positive one for most of us.
My second horror story began a couple of days before I was to graduate and go home on boot leave. I became ill and was admitted to the hospital. Although I was not critically ill, my recouperation was slow and I spent several weeks bouncing between sickbay and hospital. When I was finally released to return to duty, I learned that I had to be assigned to another boot company. Even though I had completed all my "musts," and, technically, had already graduated, I was told to report to regimental headquarters for reassignment to another boot company.
When I arrived at the regimental headquarters I was unceremoniously advised that I was under arrest for being Absent Over Leave. Two burley S.P.'s shoved me in a jeep and took me to the brig, ignoring my futile protestations.
At the brig, it took some time before I got any attention from anybody - personnel at the brig were used to prisoners proclaiming their innocence, and patiently ignored them. I was fortunate that the officer-in-charge finally agreed to contact the hospital, the sickbay, and the Catholic chaplain, all of whom could confirm that I had never been away from the station.
It was the chaplain who responded first. I had served Mass for him several times, and had seen him almost every day while I was ill. After almost six hours in the brig, I was released into the custody of the chaplain. The following day, the mystery of how I came to be listed AOL slowly unraveled.
The company commander of my original company, 429, felt he was doing me a favor by listing me as having graduated, allowing me to go on boot leave as soon as I was released from the hospital. Unfortunately, some of the paper work was not completed properly, and official records showed that I had gone on leave wih my company immediately after graduation.
When I failed to show up for a draft going to Ordinance School in Norman, Okla. the day after my company returned from boot leave, I was automatically listed as AOL. I knew nothing about any of this, and there was nothing in my records to indicate I was right there on the base all that time.
When everything was straightened out, I spent two weeks with company 413, was graduated with them and finally got to go home on boot leave. I may have been the only one ever to graduate from two boot companies at Sampson.
Navy veterans who spent the winter months at Sampson have been known to describe it as "a cold corner of hell in the middle of nowhere." Those fortunate enough to have missed the winter months have more pleasant memories of this picturesque Finger Lakes Region - in the heart of New York's famed Wine Country.
I was at Sampson for the winter months - all of them. There was snow on the ground when I got there and it was still there when I left. In between, it seemed like it snowed every other day. Seneca Lake, one of the deepest of the Finger Lakes, was shrouded in steam the entire time I was there. The first time I saw the western shore of the lake was in 1980, when I made my first sentimental journey back to Sampson.
Regardless of what their feelings might have been at the time, age and maturity seems to have nurtured a nostalgia and camaraderie among Sampson Navy veterans. More than 1,200 of them gathered at Sampson State Park in early September to attend the fifth annual reunion of what is officially named The Sampson WW-2 Navy Veterans, Inc. This organization, founded in 1987, now has more than 3,100 members, with chapters in 44 states, including a Florida chapter that has more than 160 members.
The Sampson Vets group was formed primarily to honor all men and women who trained or were stationed there from 1942-1946, and to create a memorial museum to record the history of the training station for posterity. Through the efforts of this group, there is now a statue, known as the Sampson Sailor, set between two flag poles just inside the main entrance to the Sampson State Park. The statue, dedicated in 1991, authentically portrays a typical sailor as he leaves Sampson for his first assignment after graduation.
The New York Department of Parks has been very cooperative with the veterans group, and have agreed to restore and maintain the original brig, which is being converted to a memorial museum. Restoration work is nearing completion, and memorabilia of Sampson NTS are now being accepted for permanent display.
I had expected to attend the 1992 reunion, but a family emergency negated my plans. In late September, however, my favorite traveling companion and I once again journeyed to Sampson State Park. We spent an enjoyable afternoon there, admiring the Sampson Sailor statue and watching the many activities at this very popular park, which includes one of the largest marinas in the area, and many acres of camping grounds.
We found the brig, and, to me, it was every bit as stark and forbidding as it was on that memorable day almost 50 years ago. I was almost glad that it was not yet open to the public - I don't know if I could have entered that building again.
The Finger Lakes Region is synonymous with New York's Wine Country. Although none of the major wineries are near Sampson State Park, they are not a great distance away, and combining a tour of the wineries with a visit to the park can be easily managed. There are several small wineries near the park, and at least one offers free wine tasting. As you drive along Seneca Lake, you pass vineyards on both sides of the highway - mile after mile.
Sampson State Park is reached by taking State Route 414 from Watkins Glen on the south end of Seneca Lake, switching to Route 96A at the Village of Ovid. From either Geneva or Waterloo on the north end of the lake, take 96A directly to the park.
It is suggested that this is not an area you will want to visit in the winter months.
Should you wish to check on camping information at Sampson State Park, there is a toll-free number for MISTIX reservation system - 1-800-456-CAMP. Reservations are no longer made through the park office.
Anyone interested in joining the Sampson WW-2 Navy Vets organization should write to State Director Harold Kroninger at 1 Avocado Lane, Eustis, FL 32726. The dues are only $10 per year. The newsletters are worth more than that, and you just might locate a long lost buddy.