As the storm clouds of war again began to gather in Europe, congressional and military leaders on this side of the Atlantic were determined to be better prepared for the coming conflict than we’d been in 1917. In July of 1935, it was decided to reopen the facility as Naval Training Station Great Lakes. Work was required to get the station back in operational shape as buildings were deteriorating from disuse and the grounds had been overtaken by vegetation. Within months, Great Lakes was again a hive of activity and ready to train the next generation of Sailors.
As lawmakers closely watched the deepening world crisis, they initiated steps to increase the size and scope of the U.S. Navy. In 1940, Congress passed a huge naval expansion bill that would double the service’s manpower to 170,000 Sailors. The draft was also instituted that year, providing a steady supply of Seaman Recruits.
Within hours of the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, Capt. Ralph Spalding, the station’s public works officer, had a master plan for expanding Great Lakes to include 32 new barracks, two subsistence buildings and numerous other structures. Although the cost would be staggering, then-Commandant Rear Admiral Downes agreed and work began immediately. It wasn’t until two weeks later that the Navy Department officially approved the Great Lakes expansion. Some 13,000 workmen toiled seven days a week, 24 hours a day for nearly two years to complete the project. The final cost exceeded $120 million in a time when a Seaman First Class made $60 per month.
The investment proved to be a wise one. The Navy would be tasked with transporting millions of service members, as well as the millions of tons of equipment, food and fuel needed to fight. Great Lakes played a significant role in producing the fighting force that would win the Second World War.
On December 7, 1941, approximately 6,000 recruits were in training at Great Lakes. Six months later, there were 68,000 and by September of 1942, more than 100,000 Sailors-to-be were aboard Great Lakes. By mid-1943, Great Lakes had more than 700 instructors, who were training other instructors as well as recruits. From the attack on Pearl Harbor to the Japanese surrender, more than four million Americans served in the Navy; one million of them were trained at what became known as Naval Training Center Great Lakes.
“The Navy grew to 25 times its pre-war strength, with accompanying growth in the training at Great Lakes,” notes Sheppard. “At its peak in early 1945, Great Lakes’ 13 galleys served 300,000 meals per day. Recruits went through 17,000 pounds of fresh fruit, 7,000 gallons of milk, 108,000 eggs, 11,000 loaves of bread, 7,000 pies, eight tons of cold cuts and cheese, and 2,000 gallons of ice cream daily!”
When the Japanese surrendered in 1945, the whole process began in reverse. As quickly as Great Lakes had grown to meet the Navy’s need for Sailors, it demobilized personnel with equal speed. Approximately 3,000 service members were becoming civilians every day and during the 12 months following the war’s end, Great Lakes processed the discharges for 450,000 Sailors and Marines. The terminal leave disbursing office processed 4.5 million claims for final military pay.