ROMULUS — No one can say Seneca County didn’t do its fair share for America during World War II and the Korean War.
In 1941, the federal government bought out hundreds of farms, homes and businesses in Varick and Romulus to create the 10,700-acre Seneca Army Depot. Hundreds were displaced, forced to move after being required to accept the government’s payment for their land.
A year later, it happened again. This time, the Navy came calling. It purchased 2,535 acres on the east shore of Seneca Lake in Romulus to establish the Sampson Naval Training Station, using the deep waters of the lake for training. Once again, people who owned small farms, businesses, homes, vineyards and cottages had to sell and move out.
The military announced construction of the training station on May 13, 1942, and it was completed in 270 days at a cost of just over $56 million. Over the next few years, hundreds of thousands of sailors would be trained there.
Now, 75 years later, we look back on Sampson’s rich and storied history.
‘City within a city’
Sampson was described as a “city within a city,” according to observers. Between 4,000 and 5,000 Navy personnel operated and maintained the station and, in its four years of operation, 411,420 Navy recruits were trained there before serving during World War II.
Sampson was divided into five units — they were named Dewey, Callighan, Farragut, Gilmore and Edwards. Each was set up to train 5,000 recruits, and each contained a 14-acre parade ground and drill field, a drill hall with a 2-acre indoor drill area, a gymnasium, a swimming pool, a movable stage and motion-picture equipment. Living and administrative areas included a mess hall; 22 barracks, each of which housed 228 men; two barracks for chief petty officers; two dispensaries; a ship-service building for recreation; an administrative building; a rifle range; a small-arms magazine; and a large storehouse.
There was a 2,700-seat auditorium; a reception and visitors building; a 400-seat chapel; a post office; a brig; disciplinary barracks; and guard barracks. There was a group of buildings for personnel awaiting assignment after completion of training.
On Sept. 15, 1945, with the war winding down, Sampson converted to a separation center for those returning to civilian life. The last sailor discharged from Sampson was in early April 1946.
What it was like
Most recruits arrived at Sampson by bus or train. They filed directly into the station’s huge reception center and lined up. Then they were immediately taught to use Navy sea language of decks, bulkheads and ladders.
A typical day at Sampson, according to Seneca County historian Walt Gable, began with reveille at 5:45 a.m., followed by breakfast at 7 a.m. At 7:45 a.m. came muster and colors at 8 a.m. This was followed by swimming instruction, anti-aircraft training, platoon drills and lectures before lunch at noon. There was more training in the afternoon before supper at 5 p.m. Recruits had time for recreation after supper and it was lights out at 9:30 p.m.
Recruits had 90 days of basic training and were paid $50 a month. They also were taught military history, mathematics, English, spelling, reading, mechanical skills and general intelligence to help the Navy determine their aptitudes.
After 90 days of training, the recruits became Seamen 2nd Class. They were ready for assignment to a ship or for 16 additional weeks of specialized training in Navy service schools, leading to petty officer promotions.
A Hitler was there
Gable also provided a little-known fact about Sampson: one of the recruits who trained there was William Patrick Hitler, the nephew of German dictator Adolf Hitler, the instigator of World War II and the Holocaust that killed more than 5 million European Jews.
William Patrick Hitler arrived at Sampson March 7, 1944, for his recruit training at the age of 32. He had been living in Berlin with his father since 1932. Gable said when Adolf Hitler demanded in 1939 that William Patrick become a German citizen and future Nazi, William Patrick knew he had to flee Germany.
His mother joined him in coming to the United States. Gable said William Patrick Hitler was said to be “overjoyed” to help defeat his notorious uncle.
After World War II
When World War II concluded and the Navy closed Sampson, the facilities were used as a two-year school called Sampson College. It served returning military personnel who took advantage of the GI Bill. The college operated from September 1946 to June 1949. It graduated 7,500 students.
Sampson was turned over to the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1949. Warehouses were used for storage of excess wheat and beans.
The Korean War ushered in Sampson’s return to active duty, this time as a basic training base for the Air Force in 1950. The Air Force spent about $6 million on renovations, including an airport runway, and began training Air Force recruits in February 1951. It trained more than 330,000 airmen until it closed in 1956.
The state of New York acquired about 2,000 acres of the Sampson property in 1960 for use as a state park. Sampson State Park opened in 1963 and has remained a state park ever since.
In 2011, part of the property became the site of the 162-acre Sampson Veterans Memorial Cemetery. It was dedicated in July 2011. The first burial was held on Sept. 26 of that year when Clinton VanGelder, a Korean War veteran who served in the Air Force from 1952-56, was laid to rest.
Since then, more than 50 veterans and spouses have been buried on its grounds.