In early 1942, Capt. O.C. Badger, commanding officer of the battleship North Carolina (BB-55), identified Little Chebeague Island as a site for a recreational center for the crews of Navy ships operating in Casco Bay.
In 1942, sailors began using the island for baseball games, lobster dinners, and other recreational activities, based on an informal agreement with the owner of the majority of the island.
In August 1942, Badger asked the Navy to buy the island.
The island continued as the site of Navy recreational facilities, even as the firefighting school began to take shape.
Denebola crew members probably began building the firefighting school in the fall of 1942.
The firefighting school was part of a Navy wide effort to improve shipboard firefighting that began shortly after Pearl Harbor.
This effort included technical improvements in firefighting equipment, improved doctrine, and, most importantly, firefighting training for many members of ships crews.
In September 1942, the USS Wakefield (AP-21) caught fire south of Nova Scotia while in convoy from the United Kingdom to New York. More than 1,400 people were aboard.
Passengers and non-essential crew were evacuated, but the fire proved to be difficult to control.
Commander Harold J. Burke, a veteran of the New York City Fire Department marine unit, flew to the ship with Rockwood WaterFog nozzles, invented in early 1942, which made it easier to extinguish oil fires using seawater. The effort was successful.
Burke was instrumental in developing new technology and techniques of shipboard firefighting and insuring that they were rapidly and effectively delivered to the fleet.
The Little Chebeague school was one of many established wherever groups of warships gathered.
Their mission was to make "every sailor a firefighter" by "taking the fear of fire out of the sailor" through realistic training.
The Little Chebeague facility focused on short training courses for crew members who might be called on to help fight fires, but usually did other tasks aboard ship.
The one-day courses started with a bit of "book learning" about fire science followed by a practical introduction to handling fire hoses, extinguishing real oil fires in an open oil tank and finally dealing with the heat and smoke encountered in extinguishing an oil fire in an enclosed space similar to a ship's compartment.
U.S. Navy firefighter training structure, Little Chebeague Island, 1943
Item 67318 info
National Archives at Boston
The centerpiece of the school was the steel training structure that still survives.
Oil burning on water under the floor grating provided realistic practice for sailors learning to extinguish fires using seawater applied with WaterFog nozzles.
By learning that they could enter an enclosed compartment and extinguish an oil fire burning inside, sailors overcame their fear of fire and were prepared to effectively assist in firefighting aboard ship.
The Navy also operated larger firefighting schools such as the Newport, R.I., facility where firefighter specialists also were trained.
A dramatic example of the success of the Navy’s firefighting training is the survival of USS Braine (DD-630) that was built at Bath Iron Works and passed through Casco Bay before and after shakedown in Bermuda.
On May 27, 1945, while on radar picket duty off Okinawa, she was hit by two kamikaze planes in quick succession.
Sixty-seven men were killed and 102 wounded out of a crew of about 325.
Despite sustaining apparently overwhelming casualties and fire damage, the Braine was saved by an efficient and well-trained crew.
After temporary repairs at a tender in Okinawa, she sailed to Boston for permanent repairs, arriving Aug. 6, 1945.
The Navy used similar shipboard firefighting trainers at schools around the world through the Vietnam War era.
An apparently insignificant relic on the shore of a small island in Casco Bay was crucial to successful firefighting efforts on Navy ships in World War II.
In two years of operation, the Chebeague Island school trained some 15,000 sailors.
After the war, the government sold the island to a private investor. The state purchased it in 1972.
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