Joseph W. Gregg was so excited to join the Navy that he ran through the gates of Naval Station Great Lakes. His sprint earned him the distinction of being the first Seaman Recruit to enter the Navy’s newly-opened training facility. He served honorably and left the Navy in 1914. Gregg was buried in the Great Lakes cemetery on July 5, 1966 – almost exactly 55 years after he eagerly entered boot camp.
END SIDEBAR World War I
Slow-and-steady quickly evolved to fast-and-furious when President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war on the Central Powers in April of 1917. The nation needed manpower to fuel its war machine and Great Lakes moved quickly to meet the demand.
“Sailors with construction skills helped civilian workers build additional housing and training facilities,” says Sheppard. “These Sailors were called the ‘12th Regiment’ and ‘The Fighting Tradesmen,’ and were precursors of the Seabees. They worked day and night, not only to meet the requirements of the war effort, but also to ensure recruits wouldn’t have to endure the coming winter living in tents.”
By year’s end, warm wooden barracks were complete with steam heat, hot and cold running water and systems for waste sanitation – the virtual lap of luxury for some recruits who had come from poor urban or rural backgrounds. Training operations ramped up from 922 recruits in February to more than 9,000 when war was declared in April. By the end of World War I, 45,000 Sailors were in training, Great Lakes had 776 buildings and more than 125,000 Sailors had been processed through “boot camp” at the station.
The cost of WWI was enormous. In addition to the number of fatalities and casualties, the U.S. had mounted tremendous debt and Congress voted to slash military expenses. As the Navy grew smaller, so did NSGL. Recruit training slowed dramatically and even stopped for a short period. By 1933, the nation’s economic crisis forced Great Lakes into “maintenancy status,” with only a small contingent of Marines to keep guard on the station, an eight-man fire department and a “maintenance and preservation force” of four to man it.