Most people have driven by it, heard lots of stories about it, but only a small group actually know about the inner world of Naval Weapons Station Earle.
The sprawling tract of land winds its way through 11,000 acres of bucolic Colts Neck horse farms up to the waterfront in the Leonardo section of Middletown, making it one of the most beautiful bases anywhere in the country.
The two parts of Naval Weapons Station Earle (NWSE), the Colts Neck mainside and Middletown waterside, are connected by a private federal road and railroad approximately 22 miles long named Normandy Road. During the Allied invasion of France, NWSE supplied the vast majority of ordnance and ammunition used during the D-Day invasion – meaning it was literally the “road to Normandy” for their ordnance.
As its name indicates, NWSE operates to receive, store and issue out ordnance and ammunition for the Atlantic Carrier Fleet and Expeditionary Strike Groups, supplying Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and the Department of Defense. Its pier extends 2.9 miles into Sandy Hook Bay and regularly hosts a rotating collection of vessels, either dropping off or picking up ammunition.
NWSE’s history dates to before World War II. On the morning of July 30, 1916, in what became known as the Black Tom Incident, 2 million tons of war materials packed into train cars were blown up in the Black Tom railroad yard, now a part of Liberty State Park. The FBI determined it was an act of German agents determined to prevent American munitions shippers from supplying its English enemy during the World War I. High-ranking Army and Navy officers realized establishing a base for the loading of explosives somewhere near the Port of New York would become essential. Most of the ammunition was handled in Caven Point Army Depot in Jersey City because it was close to the ports and rails. While it was an invaluable spot for the marshalling of troops, munitions and materials heading for front lines in Europe, it was dangerously near densely populated areas. The Army and Navy identified the south side of Sandy Hook Bay as the ideal location. They considered Port Monmouth, but the costs of the project were better in Middletown. Additionally in the early days of Monmouth County, the tract of land now occupied by NWSE was largely vacant, which lowered the threat to the civilian population. The Leonardo location is near commercial rails and the open ocean while still being a safe distance from bridges, tunnels and shipping channels. A $14 million plan was approved by the Secretary of the Navy, and construction began on Aug. 2, 1943. It would be named in honor of Rear Admiral Ralph Earle, and it was commissioned on Dec. 13, 1943. Later, the War and Navy Departments expanded the project to include facilities for Army ammunition. The cost of the project, including the expansion ultimately totaled $51.8 million.
Today, Naval Weapons Station Earle is home to approximately 240 service members and their families, with 85 housing units and one barracks. The base working populations hovers around 1,500 personnel on any given day, and the installation hosts a number of amenities such as a Navy Exchange, café, recreation center, fitness center and gymnasium. The base is the homeport for four Military Sealift Command ships.
Rear Admiral Ralph Earle started as a cadet in the Naval Academy in August 1892. His first duty as an ensign was in the Spanish American War on a gunboat, the USS Hornet. He went on to become a division officer on the battleship USS Missouri, where he was cited for bravery for rescuing survivors, following an accident that claimed the lives of five officers and 27 enlisted. He was named head of the Department of Ordnance at Annapolis, and just before the nation entered World War I, he became the youngest officer ever to be Chief of the Navy’s Bureau of Ordnance.
Eventually, he answered the call of the sea and became commanding officer of the battleship USS Connecticut.
In a ceremony held July 19, 1973, a portrait of Admiral Earle was formally dedicated and hangs in the main entrance foyer of C-2, the Administration Building.
Admiral Earle’s exceptional service continued with his son, Ralph Earle Jr., who rose to the rank of Vice Admiral. He was commanding officer of the USS Ralph Talbot, a destroyer that survived the bombing and shot down three planes during the Japanese attacks at Pearl Harbor. Admiral Earle also served in the Battle of Midway and the raids on Wake and Marcus Islands. Like his father, he also served at Annapolis as Chief of Ordnance. He died at age 99 and is buried at Annapolis.
The Journal thanks Bill Addison, public affairs officer at Naval Weapons Station Earle, for his help bringing you this story, and we thank him and all our military for their service.