The Gun of Kingsborough Community College: A historical tribute
Daily, hundreds of students walk past the gun on Kingsborough’s campus without questioning its relevancy or history. Those who know may refer to it, erroneously, as a cannon. It stands in front of the historic flagpole, a souvenir from The New York World’s Fair of 1939. The reason for the gun would be better understood if the World War II Merchant Marine plaque were adjacent to it rather than mounted on a building wall far away.
The gun, mounted on a turret, survives as a relic of the Merchant Marine base that occupied the tip of Manhattan Beach during World War II, from 1942-45. The gun was willed to the college along with wooden barracks, naval street signs and The Rainbow Bandshell. The plaque names 228 sailors who trained on the base but were killed in action.
As incongruous as it seems, today’s college campus at the tip of a prosperous community emerged from the heart of the Maritime Training Station at Sheepshead Bay where a sign over today’s entrance introduced the base. After Dec. 7, 1941, the peninsula mushroomed into a military stronghold for training civilian sailors for “the war effort.” With good reason for in 1942, the Port of New York closed for 30 hours after German submarines mined The Narrows.
All of Brooklyn transformed into an armed camp, the largest staging area in the country, according to the Brooklyn Eagle. With the Navy Yard to the north, Fort Hamilton in the middle and to the south, the Naval Air Station at the former Floyd Bennett Field, Brooklynites confronted the war on the so-called “home front.” Civilians understood the need for rationing, victory gardens and air raid wardens.
Manhattan Beach had always been peaceful, a destination for fishermen and, later, rich playboys who repaired to the magnificent hotels after a day at the nearby racetracks. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, democracy descended on Manhattan Beach; sun worshippers and swimmers could rent a cabana for $25 a season. On weekends, big bands and celebrities entertained.
But the war introduced a different type of guest.
America discovered it was unprepared for war when Pearl Harbor was attacked. The isolationist attitudes ignored realities. When war was declared on Dec. 8, civilians became recruits. While many young men were drafted, others enlisted in the newly created Merchant Marines, an off shoot of the Coast Guard but staffed by civilians.
They did not wear military uniforms, they did not carry weapons. They were sailors on civilian freighters, converted luxury liners, some new Liberty Ships but mostly older vessels. Their purpose was to ship personnel, armaments and supplies to Europe and Africa in days before air transport developed.
All military personnel and armament sailed from the Brooklyn Army Terminal in Sunset Park, reportedly the largest storage warehouse in the world when combined with Bush Terminal. More than 3 million personnel shipped out of Brooklyn’s Port of Embarkation plus 63 million tons of supplies. Every serviceman sent to Europe and Africa sailed and returned to Brooklyn. More than 100,000 troops left from Brooklyn daily; 3,000 never returned.
Merchant Martine recruits enlisted in a dream. They arrived in Brooklyn at the 75 acre base, many from the Midwest, never having seen an ocean; a majority couldn’t swim. They wanted to “do their part” but preferably in a safer way than in battle. They learned to swim in the pool, a remnant from the Manhattan Beach Baths of the 1930s. In classroom barracks (also the original classrooms for the first KCC students), they learned the rudiments of sailing on an ocean. Each building was named after a famous American ship; streets after naval heroes. Along the bay, lifeboat davits lined the waterfront. Five piers housed 200 whaleboats, sailboats and speedboats.
Beside the barrack/classrooms, other amenities filled Manhattan Beach for use of the recruits. The auditorium doubled as a gym. Sailors ate at the mess hall or the canteen. The power house served as training ground for engineers. A hospital — later to become the first Veterans Hospital — and a chapel healed men’s bodies and souls. The brig imprisoned those who weren’t healed.
So why is a gun on campus rather than, say a lifeboat? While the cargo ships were escorted by U.S. Navy vessels, mostly destroyers, the administration realized that the real targets, the freighters, may be attacked by sea or air. Guns were mounted on the ships but they were manned and operated by the Navy Armed Guard, details of naval personnel, based in Bay Ridge at the foot of 52nd Street. These sailors were designated to defend the freighters and their personnel.
But the military tacticians knew that the navy personnel could be killed so they trained the merchant seamen how to shoot. On today’s campus where the Marine Building stands on the southeast corner, there once stood a full sized model of a freighter. On this grounded ship, the SS Sheepshead Bay, prospective sailors prepared for war. Guns mounted on the deck were fired during gunnery practice at target around today’s campus. The particular gun on campus dates back to 1919 and was capable of firing 8-9 rounds per minute, according to Prof. August Tuosto, a campus historian.
More than 115,000 seamen entered a 13-week course and then shipped out. Even 16-year-olds could volunteer — with their parents’ permission — and 10,000 teenagers graduated from the base. As the memorial plaque indicates, it was a dangerous journey. Ironically, these sailors were not considered veterans and therefore were denied veterans’ benefits. Only recently did Congress restore their veteran status, but by then, few were alive.
The Coast Guard Training Station base on the ocean side of the L-shaped property was said to be the largest in the country. Formerly, the Coast Guard operated under the Treasury Department but with the war, it became an independent military unit. More than 7,000 guardsmen trained on the beach there from 1942; in 1944, they were joined by SPARS, the women’s auxiliary branch.
But by 1945, it was all over. The Coast Guard base materialized as a New York City beach under the Parks Department, when the Merchant Marines moved out, the Civilian Air Patrol moved in followed by Veterans Village. Then the federal and state governments decided to sell 64 of the 72 acres by lottery to the city for either a college or a hospital. City University won. The 1964 sale price was $1.
For a dramatic depiction of the role of the Merchant Marine, the film “Action in the North Atlantic” starring Humphrey Bogart is a good re-enactment of the dangers these men faced.
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