Woods Hole During World War II
The museum staff is now on winter hours and will be at Bradley House on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The Dispatch will be posted every other week for the time being.
On this Veterans Day, we turn to an article from the Winter 1995 issue of Spritsail written by Susan Fletcher Witzell, Life in Woods Hole Village during World War II.

“Martha Hilton wrote in her diary that the blackout started on April 28th, 1942. The entire shoreline of Buzzards Bay was darkened to protect the convoys of merchant ships and their military escorts as they lined up in order at night in an anchorage marked by buoys. The ships then left Buzzards Bay through the Cape Cod Canal to rendezvous with other ships waiting in Boston harbor for the hazardous voyage across the Atlantic to Great Britain. The first convoy, BX21, with 27 ships, left on May 29th, 1942. In late May 1942 a Port Director's Office was established in Woods Hole and Sandwich to route and dispatch convoys utilizing Buzzards Bay as a protected assembly area. Lt. Commander Archibald D. Turnbull was Port Captain.“

Coincidentally, Turnball’s cousin wrote to the museum in September 2020 to see if we had any material on his tenure as Commanding Officer. Our archives did contain Turnbull’s obituary and a copy of his 1944 convoy report to the Port Director in Boston.

The Navy began to take control over a good portion of the Woods Hole waterfront. A Navy Section Base, under construction since October 1941, was established in Woods Hole in March 1942 with headquarters in the Fisheries buildings and surrounding area… A fence was built near the end of Water Street, just beyond the present MBL Street, with a gate and a guard shack manned by Marines. Unauthorized people and civilians were not allowed access to that section of Woods Hole during this period. As more military personnel arrived they took over various buildings of the Marine Biological Laboratory, including the mess hall, obligating the MBL to use the Woods Hole Inn for its students and scientists when they arrived for the summer session. Other MBL buildings utilized were the old lecture hall, the botany building, the Homestead (where MBL employees had been housed) and the apartment house on West Street. A square brick heating plant and two long wooden buildings. one of which was a hospital, were located where the Aquarium is now. Patrol boats were tied up at the dock. Photos taken at this period show a jumble of small sheds and structures surrounding the larger Fisheries buildings and piles of coal next to the heating plant.”
View of the Fisheries and MBL buildings taken from Great Harbor, circa 1938-1954 showing the small boat basin in the foreground, the Fisheries residence (right) and the laboratory (Ieft).
One of two beacons is near the laboratory building. Also on the left is the brick heating plant and a water tower. In the background center is the MBL Mess Hall (left) and dormitory (right)
with other MBL buildings in the background.
“A pigeon loft for breeding, training and maintaining carrier pigeons for Navy communications was also located near the shore on the northern edge of the Fisheries/Navy area. There were three small sheds with wire cages on the outside. One section was for breeding, one was for flying pigeons and the center section was “sick bay”. Supervised by Lieutenant Donald Comstock, a member of the American Pigeon Racing Union,  the loft had three sailors trained as assistants".
View looking north from the roof of the Fisheries in 1944 showing the Navy pigeon loft sheds and cages. Albatross/West Street is on the right and Great Harbor is on the left.
“Peak numbers of Navy personnel during the period reached about 500. The Port Director's Office had about 20 commissioned officers; enlisted personnel utilized in Sandwich were provided by Section Base Woods Hole, a situation which occasionally led to conflicts of scheduling and discipline. The families of Naval officers serving in Woods Hole were housed in the summer season in the nearby Breakwater Hotel. Mr. & Mrs. Francis D. Bartow lent their Penzance home in 1942 for use as a clubhouse for the officers, a very necessary organization in any Navy town.

“Martha Hilton wrote that on July 3, 1942, Water Street was roped off and the wardens and police began to guard the area. Everyone thought that a boat had been torpedoed off the coast and that they were going to bring in casualties. This was not a rumor and in fact Ray D. Wells, the director of Civil Defense, had been called to the Navy base at three o'clock that afternoon and told to prepare to accommodate survivors of a merchant vessel that had been torpedoed 150 miles off the coast. The Red Cross and the Civil Defense began to organize their workers and volunteers: civil defense wardens, auxiliary police and the state guard, doctors, nurses and ambulances reported for duty. The Woods Hole Fire Station became the headquarters for the whole operation and Captain George Ferris arranged with Lieutenant Commander Daniel Larkin to transfer the fire equipment to a neighboring Navy garage. The Red Cross also requested the use of the Community Hall and so the Saturday dance, which was to be held that night, was canceled. The Service Club and canteen were closed…There had been thick fog all along the coast and this delayed the rescue vessel by five hours. About noon the next day (July 4th), the rescue ship arrived in the harbor, escorted by the Coast Guard. A doctor was taken out to treat very badly wounded men and at three o'clock , the ship and its 31 survivors docked at the Navy Base. Five of the most seriously wounded were taken off in ambulances to a Marine hospital. The Woods Hole women volunteers in the canteen began to make beef stew at four o'clock and at six-thirty, the 26 remaining men, exhausted and wearing an odd assortment of misfit clothing arrived to eat supper. They spent the night on cots in the Community Hall and were fed breakfast by the ladies next morning. In order to give the men clothing for their trip home, the stores of those who sold shoes and other wearing apparel in Falmouth were opened by special request of Mr. Lawrence of the Red Cross on July 5th.
“British sailors, along with American sailors, Coast Guardsmen and salvage workers were guests at the Service Club about a week later and Woods Hole residents who were born and raised in England joined the party. The British sailors impressed everyone with their singing and dancing ability, especially in the jitterbug.“
Back of the Community Hall and Fire Station with the Methodist Church on Dyers Dock.
The church was moved to School Street in 1949 and later became the WHOI Exhibit Center.
Credit: ©Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
“In April 1943, six newly commissioned WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service) officers were assigned to the Port Director's office to work with communications...Local girls went into the services also."

WHOI’s first federal contract for wartime research was granted in 1940 and it became a year-round institution in 1941.

“Much of the research work for the Navy at this time was secret. ….A barbed wire fence, gate and wooden guard shack were installed on each end of the building here, too, and everyone who worked here had to display a badge to gain entrance. Harry Handy was the guard. The Navy Seven or Underwater Explosives Research laboratory took over the top floor. Research was being done on anti-fouling paints and on the fouling organisms that caused the problems. Waves were studied to predict the effect of breakers on amphibious landing operations. Temperature distribution in the surface layers of the North Atlantic was analyzed, as well as air turbulence and convection over the ocean. SONAR, with the accompanying development of the BT was developed."
Guard shack at Bigelow wartime security gate
Credit: ©Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Harry Hudson Handy in the guard shack.
He was a watchman from 1944-1953
Credit: ©Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
The Section Base Woods Hole was decommissioned on October I, 1943. The Marines and personnel from the base began to leave the village earlier in the year.  The gate and fence were gone leaving only the pigeon loft, the heating plant and the little hospital buildings. The Port Director’s Office was located solely in Sandwich, controlling convoys in Massachusetts Bay.

In 1943/44,  "P" boat or "crash" boats were stationed at the Fisheries dock in Great Harbor, becoming a new Navy presence in Woods Hole. One of their functions was to tow a target 2000 feet behind their stern then Naval airmen and gunners  flew over and dropped bombs for practice. 50 pound non-explosive water bombs were dropped by Navy bombers on the Weepecket Islands and small smoke bombs were used in Vineyard Sound. Larger bombs (500 to 1000 pounds) were dropped over a target area southwest of Nomans land, a small island on the south side of Martha's Vineyard. The crash boats’ second function was to pick up downed airmen who had the misfortune to crash during one of these exercises. The boats also would occasionally take out crates of homing pigeons from the loft and release them at sea for training exercises. 
Navy Crash Boat in Great Harbor with the rigging of the WHOI ketch Atlantis on the left.
Photo courtesy of the Witzell family
The ketch Atlantis broke loose and went aground in Great Harbor near Ram Island during the Hurricane of September 14, 1944 and the crash boats were used to salvage the research vessel. In 1944, two Army crash boats were stationed at the Fisheries/Navy dock and remained until the of the war in 1945.

Spritsail issue volume 9, number 1 also contains an article by Frederick T. Turkington on
The War Years in Falmouth where he presents "an account of an eventful era...based on contemporary reports selected from the weekly issues in the Falmouth Enterprise". The clippings and photographs range from 1940 to the Welcome Home Day parade on September 12, 1946.
Painting by Dorothy Crossley of a stormy Great Harbor done during the war years
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Woods Hole Historical Museum
579 Woods Hole Road (P.O. Box 185)
Woods Hole, MA 02543
Phone: 508-548-7270