The Fleet was in town
The United States Navy first came to Orange in an official capacity in 1940 and stayed for nearly six decades.
Warships had visited Orange and been built here since the 19th century. At the end of World War I there were 16 wooden ships that had been contracted for war service. When the war ended those ships were no longer needed and were towed down the Sabine River near the mouth of Conway Bayou and burned to the waterline. The remains of those ships are still there today. They are both a hazard to navigation and a lure for fishermen.
With the shipbuilding history in Orange and the probability of another war in the very near future the Navy came to Orange and on August 24, 1940 established the Office of the Supervisor of Shipbuilding under the command of Commander E.B. Perry. The office was to oversee the construction of 24 landing craft and 12 destroyers.
The shipbuilding efforts and contributions of Orange to the war effort are well documented in the records of Consolidated, Levingston, and Weaver Shipyards. Orange had the distinction of being the only city in Texas to build warships for the Navy. Consolidated built destroyers and destroyer escorts, Levingston built auxiliary vessels and seagoing rescue tugs for the Royal Navy. Weaver produced wooden YMS class minesweepers.
By the end of the war there would be a large surplus of ships that would no longer be needed, but were too valuable to the Navy to be either sold or scrapped. The solution was to establish reserve fleets to hold the ships in an inactive status, but ready to be returned to service in short order if needed again.
In August 1945 the Navy Department announced that Orange would be one of eight sites selected for a reserve fleet location.
Orange was selected for its location on the Sabine River with the abundance of fresh water and also because of the shipbuilding facilities in the city.
Bids were requested for the construction of the facilities and the construction of 12 piers in the river began. The first buildings were the barracks and the administration building, later called “The Baby Pentagon.” The large white frame building was destroyed by fire about 30 years later.
In November, 1945 the facility was renamed the U.S. Naval Station, Orange, Texas. Captain T.R. Cowie was assigned to be the base commander. The mission of the facility was to provide berthing space and logistical support for the reserve fleet.
Later that same month the Texas Group, Atlantic Reserve Fleet was established to inactivate and provide maintenance for ships transferred to the Reserve Fleet. The first vessel to report to Orange for inactivation was the U.S.S. Matagorda on November 5, 1945.
By 1946 the end of the war had brought a reduction to the shipbuilding industry in Orange and the Navy purchased part of the Consolidated Steel Shipyard and also cleared a section of Riverside to expand the base, which by this time covered 168 acres.
In the years after World War II all types of ships came to Orange, from the small LCI and LST landing craft to the larger light cruisers, submarines to floating shops and water barges.
In 1950 when the Korean Conflict started, the base began to perform the work it had been designed to do. Even though the naval activity in Korea was limited, the Orange base sent over 30 ships to that conflict.
After the cease fire in Korea the base returned to the preservation work, though on a more limited scale.
In 1961 the Defense Department announced that 52 naval based would either be closed or scaled back. The Texas Group and the Florida Group would be in the affected class. 140 ships were transferred from Florida to Orange.
At the height of activity during the Korean era there were 850 Navy personnel assigned to Orange. That number would decrease to 25 officers and enlisted men.
By August 1962, 175 civilian contractors would be hired and trained to do the work previously done by the Navy technicians. The regular Navy personnel would function as overseers.
Despite the cutbacks and reorganization the Texas Group remained a vital part of the Navy. It was a major facility for ships with a low mobilization priority and a long term potential. By 1969 there were 250 ships berthed in Orange.
The preservation of the ships required that all outside openings be sealed so that there would be no outside-inside air exchange. Electrical dehumidifiers were installed and all outside surfaces were covered with preservative compounds and paint. Gun turrets were covered with special enclosures. To prevent hull corrosion, cathodic protection was installed to prevent the electrolic corrosion of the underwater hull.
On October 1, 1966 the Texas Group was eliminated and the Naval Inactive Ship Maintenance Facility, Orange Texas was commissioned with 197 ships remaining berthed. The Commanding Officer was downgraded to the Officer in Charge.
All duties remained the same, but by 1967 the number of ships had decreased to 172. In November, 1970 the number had further decreased to 166.
On December 28, 1975 the Department of Defense announced that the facility would be closed. For the next five years the remaining ships were either transferred back to the Navy for alternate use of sold off to countries such as Mexico, Ecuador, Peru, South Korea, and China. The few remaining ships were transferred to the Beaumont Fleet.
By 1980 all of the ships had been removed from the facility.
Some of the property was sold to American Bridge, U.S… Steel to once again be used for construction. Some of the property went to Lamar State College, Orange. Some of the adjacent land was sold to the Orange County Navigation and Port District.
Eighteen and one half acres remained with the Navy and was used as the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps Reserve Training Center.
On July 23, 2006 the Department of the Navy announced that the property was surplus and was for sale. The installation closed in September, 2008. The existing administration building and one adjacent building is now vacant. The remaining warehouse structures are used by various local businesses, the exception being the buildings used by Lamar State College, Orange as their welding training facility.
There is one of the 12 original piers on the river that remains in use. The pilings of one pier upstream are still visible. The other 10 piers have been removed with only the ramps still remaining along Pier Road.
A legacy of the Navy years is that some of the sailors stationed in Orange met young ladies from Orange and married them. Some of those Navy families remained in Orange or returned here after their Navy service ended.