Point Clear Marine Training Command

In the latter stages of World War II, the U.S. Army Air Force (AAF) established a training program at Point Clear, Baldwin County, on Mobile Bay to prepare its service members for life at sea. The program was based at the Grand Hotel and lasted from August 1944 until the end of the year, training more than 5,000 airmen-sailors in groups of 500.

Point Clear Marine Training Command The AAF, in preparation for the final drive on Japan, ordered construction of 35 ships designated Aircraft Maintenance Units (F) for “floating.” These vessels, nearly 200 feet long, were built in the Higgins Industries Boat Yard in New Orleans to serve as floating maintenance bays. Most carried helicopters to ferry personnel and parts and were capable of performing all but the heaviest maintenance tasks for AAF aircraft fighting in the Pacific theatre. Most notable among the aircraft were the B-29 “Superfortresses” bombing Japan, and their fighter escorts, such as the P-51 “Mustang.” The overall effort was known as “Operation Ivory Soap” and was top-secret.

In desperate need of maritime expertise, the AAF approached the Waterman Steamship Corporation in Mobile, Mobile County, so that they would have trained crews to man the ships as they were launched. Waterman Steamship Corporation executive Edward A. Roberts first recommended that the school be held on a ship that would sail around the Gulf and thereby allow trainees to learn both theoretical and practical aspects of life at sea. This novel suggestion was rejected by the AAF as being too expensive. Roberts then offered the Grand Hotel at Point Clear, which Waterman had bought in February 1940 and had razed and then rebuilt to a luxurious standard previously unknown on the Gulf Coast. The hotel had been closed since early 1942 after wartime rationing ended Gulf Coast tourism. The Grand Hotel offered ample rooms for housing students and instructors and classes could be held outside on its grounds and in large public rooms while training could be held on the beach, pier, and vessels that sailed from the hotel into and around Mobile Bay. In August 1944, Waterman leased the Grand Hotel to the AAF for $1.00 for the duration of the war for use as the Mobile Area’s Marine Training Command.

British-born Lt. Col. Matthew Thompson, who had served in both the British and American merchant marines before being commissioned as an AAF captain in 1942, was the school’s commandant. His staff included merchant mariners, civil servants detached to the Army for marine duty, Waterman personnel on loan, and retired sailors from the greater Mobile area.Thompson wanted the trainees to think of themselves as sailors at all times, as his mission was to provide training in elementary seamanship, marine training, and aquatic training for all officers and enlisted personnel. Floors were called decks, smoking was allowed only when the smoking lamp was lit, and the Grand Hotel’s bell tolled “ship’s time” every 15 minutes.

Knot-Tying Class The entire three-week course was directed towards preparing the men for life aboard ship and teaching them how to take care of themselves in the event of an emergency at sea. They learned amphibious boat operations, small boat operations, cargo handling, ship identification, ship drills, lifeboats and lifeboat handling, swimming, first aid, and artificial respiration. In addition, they were taught how to ensure that the ship maintained the proper place in a convoy, navigation and sea terms, knot tying and rope splicing, and signaling. The standard day of training began with Reveille at 6:00 a.m. followed by Mess and Sick Call at 6:30 a.m. with school beginning at 8:15 a.m. and lasting until lunch, followed by afternoon classes and a training or entertainment or a movie in the evening. The course culminated with an “abandon ship” drill during which trainees either jumped from a 24-foot-high tower into Mobile Bay or failed the course. Following two additional weeks at Bates Field, Mobile, graduates were assigned to newly built maintenance ships which had sailed from New Orleans on their shakedown cruise and departed fully manned for the Pacific via the Panama Canal.

Boat Review at Point Clear In tiny Point Clear and nearby Fairhope, the large military presence was unavoidable. The arrival and departure of a set of trainees meant long slow convoys snaking their way through the eastern shore of Mobile Bay. Simulated air raids with aircraft dropping flares and empty soda bottles woke up many locals and simulated gas attacks often covered beaches and beachfront homes in a sticky cough-inducing fog. One resident described the 1944 Labor Day weekend nights lit up with flares over the Grand Hotel.

Despite these inconveniences, the local community welcomed the AAF to the Eastern Shore. On weekends, a morale and morals committee established by Point Clear residents organized a variety of entertainment options for the trainees such as picnics and dinners at homes; and local experts gave lectures on local history and wildlife. Within a month of the Training School being established, the committee had built a clubhouse directly across from the hotel gate where trainees could enjoy soft drinks, read, and dance with local women.

The AAF for its part was keen to maintain good relations with the local population. Locals were encouraged to attend Sunday services at the hotel and often invited to stay for lunch, and children were taken for rides in the various craft at the school, with none being more popular than the six-wheeled amphibious vehicles known as “DUKWs,” popularly called “Ducks.” Locals were also invited to watch the graduation ceremonies.

The training at the Grand Hotel would be the high point for most of the Aircraft Maintenance Units (F) cadets. Only a very few of the graduates arrived in the operational area, the Mariana Islands and Okinawa, before Japan announced its surrender on August 15, 1945, owing to the slow cruising speed of the maintenance ships and stops at various Pacific bases on their way to the front. They were expected to offer major support to Operation Olympic, the planned November 1945 invasion of Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s main islands.

Further Reading

  • Air Force Historical Records Agency. “Unit History, AAF Mobile Air Training Command, 1945.” Vols. 1-2. Records 205.0508-1. Maxwell Air Force Base, Montgomery, Alabama.

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