Hampton Roads

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Twice wholly destroyed and twice rebuilt, Norfolk is again redefined and in the midst of an ambitious rehabilitation.

Until I met Murray Frazee, I didn’t know starboard from aft. My entire nautical experience up to that time had been a few weekend crabbing and fishing trips with my Uncle Dick and Aunt Shirley. Mr. Frazee lived on top of a hill on a large estate he called the Dolphin House. He was the father of some of my schoolmates, so I spent quite a bit of time there, and I always wondered about the fish on the mailbox. What I learned later was that it was a dolphin (the fish, not Flipper), the symbol of the U.S. Navy submarine service. I also found out that Mr. Frazee was retired Captain Frazee, who in the thick of World War II in the Pacific had helped define the essence of a submariner.

He had been the first executive officer on the USS Tang, under the command of the legendary Richard O’Kane. With him, Captain Frazee had participated in some of the most daring and devastating patrols of the war, ones that sent more Japanese tonnage to the ocean floor than any others. Fortunately for him—and, ultimately, for me—he was not on the Tang ’s last patrol. Having taken part in more operations than anyone in the service at that time, he’d been sent to San Francisco for a few weeks before he took command of his own submarine. When he returned to Pearl Harbor, he heard that the Tang had been sunk by one of her own torpedoes; only 9 of the 87-man crew had survived.

The more I got to know Captain Frazee, the more intrigued I became with naval history. I even set my sights at one point on attending the U.S. Naval Academy, but the institution’s eyesight requirements precluded that. (O.K., my grades weren’t good enough either.) But all this ultimately led to the pursuit of my present position as the editor of a magazine devoted to the maritime past. I live in Annapolis now, and I’m immersed in what the sea has meant to this country.

Beyond the bracing smell of the salt air are water highways that carry any imaginable provision, while under the surface are a smorgasbord of culinary delights and, like it or not, deposits of fuels that keep us all warm and on the move. But we owe our freedom to ply those waters and to harvest that bounty to the hardy souls who have, over the centuries, come to its defense. There’s something primal about going “down to the sea in ships,” a place where man meets his earliest past. One never conquers the sea; one can only hope to coexist with it, and the struggle to do that has, from the very beginning, played an immense role in defining Americans as a people. Nowhere is this tremendous story told more vividly than on the shores of one of the most heavily traveled complexes of har bors in the world, an area in southeastern Virginia known as Hampton Roads.

When sailors speak of a “roads,” they mean a safe anchor-age, a protected harbor. This is a vast one, nourished by five rivers and ringed with old towns. This natural convergence of several major deep waterways has drawn many to its shores, and so it drew me. On a warm morning last May, my wife, Susan, and I set off from Annapolis to explore this distillation of our maritime past.

We would have missed one of the area’s signal pleasures if we hadn’t stopped at the Virginia Welcome Center on the south shore of the Potomac River. Determined to bypass traffic around Washington, we had decided on the “scenic” Route 301. But the men behind the desk insisted that Route 17 was “the only way to go.” Cruising through sparse traffic and rolling farmland, that’s where Susan and I saw, across the road and in front of a roadside diner called The Oasis, a sign that read SOFT CRABS R HERE . We looked at each other without a word and promptly made a U-turn. With freshly molted blue crabs topping the menu (infinitely more appealing than they sound; you eat the whole thing, legs and all), we knew we were in the land where seafood rules.

The confluence of the Rappahannock, York, and James rivers and the Chesapeake Bay as it empties into the Atlantic Ocean has provided those crabs to European settlers on these shores for at least 400 years and to Native Americans for a thousand years before them. But these waterways have exerted several other attractions throughout history. That fact is hardly lost on those charged with interpreting this long heritage, especially in the cities of Norfolk, Hampton, and Newport News, on the shores of this gateway to the Atlantic, the great deep Hampton Roads.

 

You can drive across Hampton Roads, but you must go under it, through the tunnel that plunges beneath the shipping lanes. As we re-emerged on the south side, the expanse of the Atlantic to our left grew wider and wider, its blue-water chop simultaneously inviting and forbidding. To the right was a bustle of maritime commerce and naval strength, giant ships in various stages of construction, repair, and replenishment. There, on the Elizabeth River, a tributary between the James River and the Chesapeake Bay, lies Norfolk, a city that has suffered near-total devastation twice in its history: during the American Revolution and the Civil War. Both times its resilient residents rebuilt it, and today Norfolk is again redefined and in the midst of an ambitious rehabilitation. The city has revivified its downtown seaport area, and the mainstay of this model of growth and refurbishment is Nauticus, the National Maritime Center.