The state of Rhode Island has a long and colorful association with the US Navy, starting with the formation of the Rhode Island Navy on June 15, 1775, the first colonial navy established after the Revolutionary War began. Although the Rhode Island Committee of Safety issued Letters of Marque and Reprisal, the Rhode Island Navy was primary a defensive force protecting the New England colonies trade in local waters.
To honor Rhode Island’s early naval efforts and current connections the Navy has named some ten US warships for either the state, its capitol city, or the navy’s homeport in Rhode Island. The USS Rhode Island (SSBN-740) is an Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine, the third ship to be so named. The USS Providence (SSN-719), a Los Angeles-class attack submarine, the fifth ship to carry the name, and the USS Newport (PF-27), a Tacoma-class frigate, the second ship of the name. But what of the11th, the USS Rumford, a curious omission in the Naval Vessel Register, but why?
The Navy returned to Rhode Island during the Civil War. The Naval Academy and its training vessel, the most famous ship in the Navy, the U.S.S. Constitution, Old Ironsides, was located in Maryland, a Border State with a tedious connection to the Union. The tempting targets for the Confederates were moved to Newport for safety.
The U.S. Naval Torpedo Station was established on Goat Island in 1869, The Navy purchased Coasters Harbor Island from the state in 1881 and launched its first recruit training station there two years later, followed by the Naval War College in 1884.
In the early days of World War I the Navy took over a small rifle range owned by the Rumford Chemical Company, its most successful product being Rumford Baking Powder, still manufactured by Hulman and Company at its Terre Haute, Indiana facility. Rumford is not a city or town of its own, but rather the northern section of East Providence. It is named for Sir Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford, an American-born British physicist, begging the question, “Why does a man who served as lieutenant-colonel in the British Loyalist forces during the American Revolutionary War have a town named after him in the first colony to declare independence for England?”
World War II saw a massive expansion of naval presence and activity. The Training Station grew by leaps and bounds to accommodate the huge influx of officer and enlisted students; it was here where logistics officer LTJG Richard M. Nixon learned his trade. Coddington Cove was acquired as a supply station, fuel facilities were built at Melville, along with a PT Boat Training Center where LTJG John F. Kennedy completed PT Boat training, Naval Air Station Quonset Point and further down the coast at Naval Auxiliary Air Station Charlestown, Naval Aviator ENS George Herbert Walker Bush honed his craft, the Seabee’s found a home in Davisville, while Sachuest Point was home to Naval Radio Station Sachuest Point and a rifle range commanded by NRA President Commander Thurman Randle.
As a side note Nixon, Kennedy, and Bush all had differing naval careers. Nixon retired as a commander from the Naval Reserve in 1966 after 24 years of service while Kennedy was retired on physical disability as a lieutenant.in 1945. Bush was released from active duty in September 1945, placed in the inactive reserve, and formally discharged in1955 as a lieutenant.
The Navy takeover and expansion of the Rumford Range was swift and extensive. War was declared on April 6, 1917 and three weeks later the first detail of what would become a permanent party of 300 naval personnel arrived at Rumford and tent city sprang up overnight . Following Federal blueprints the Blue Jackets began construction on May 1st of what would become 32 ranges with 200, 300, 500, 600, 1,000 yard firing lines for rifle, pistol, and machine gun training. As time went on the Navy replaced much of the canvas with wood structures, a 400 man mess hall, Bachelor Officers’ Quarters, hospital, and administrative buildings.
Firearms training was scheduled and the plan of the day, which ran from 0730 through 1700 five days a week and part time on Saturday and Sunday, saw as many as 500 sailors and state guardsman on the line or in a classroom setting learning about, and get hands on training, with the Springfield 1903 Rifle, .38 revolver and .45 1911 pistol, the Lewis and Browning machine guns, and various types of hand and rifle grenades.
Sailors sent to Rumford for training were detailed on Temporary Additional Duty orders to the “USS Rumford.” The assignment of the title United States Ship to a land facility was rare for the US Navy. However the British commonly use HMS, with the H standing for His or Her depending on the gender of the monarch at the time, for both vessels and shore establishments or ‘stone frigates.’ Examples mirroring the activities at Newport at the time are the basic training facility HMS Raleigh, Maritime Warfare School HMS Collingwood, and Portsmouth Naval Base’s HMS Nelson.
Despite the Armistice on November 11, 1918, and demobilization, the range lived on under the control of the state guard. The Navy was always welcome and in1920 the crew of the USS Tennessee (BB-43) arrived for small arms training. The range was purchased by the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations in 1922 for use by the state militia and the National Guard and saw extensive use during World War II. It closed in 1946 and eventually became the site of an elementary school and playground.
My shooting crony Dave Czerwonka, who lives close by the old range area, reports that there are still some ruins of the range just visible to bikers, runners, and walkers using the recreational path that now wends through the area.
Two world wars saw the creation, in the nation’s smallest state of all places, of some of the Navy’s largest range facilities. Today, all that is left of the buildings, firing points, and pits of the Rumford and Sachuest Point ranges are a few rotting foundations, crumbling concrete, and the fading memories of the kids, now grown old, who used to scavenge for brass to take to the scrap dealer to exchange for candy money.