An art center now, Alexandria’s Torpedo Factory began life making weapons


Workers push a flat car at the Naval Torpedo Station on the Potomac River in Alexandria. (Associated Press)
Columnist

My mother worked at the torpedo plant in Alexandria during World War II. I am interested in learning more about its contributions to the war effort, as well as its history before and after the war. Also, did the Chinquapin Village houses that once stood between King Street and MacArthur Elementary School have anything to do with the torpedo plant? Was this housing for the torpedo plant workers?

Carolyn Kramer ,
Springfield, Va.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

The first torpedo made at what was known as the Naval Torpedo Station (NTS) for use during World War II was completed April 1, 1941, and dispatched to the USS Gudgeon, a submarine.

The historians among you will note that the United States had not, technically speaking, yet entered the war. But as things heated up in Europe and Asia, the Navy did not want to be caught unprepared.

By the time production ended four years later, some 9,918 torpedoes, along with motors for airplane-mounted rockets, had been made in Alexandria. During the war, these “tin fish,” as they were dubbed, were responsible for sinking or seriously damaging 1,451 enemy ships.

The weapons plant dated to the First World War, though it didn’t actually start producing torpedoes until hostilities had already ended. It was built on North Union Street on the site of an early Alexandria wharf. In 1923 the factory ceased production. For the next 16 years, a skeleton staff did little more than monitor the 908 torpedoes that were in storage.

In 1939, with the world again going to hell, the production line was restarted. In July 1944 — the plant’s busiest period — it employed 5,050 workers in four buildings. They worked in such departments as Starting Gear, Vertical Engines and Assembly/Exploder Room.

Their product was a 21-foot-long torpedo called the Mark XIV, a piece of ordnance with a range of 4,500 yards at 46 knots.

Though the NTS was a top-secret facility — and photos of it would not be published until after the war — there was a monthly employee newsletter called the Torp. It kept workers up to date on such things as war-bond drives, talent shows, the plant bowling league and “girls” basketball team. It also recounted the fates of workers who left the homefront to fight overseas.

It even printed employee poetry, such as “A Torpedo Speaks,” by Herbert Baker. One stanza goes: “The cannons roar; the smell of death,/ The enemy appears supreme./ Our captain looses his last resort/ And it’s off in a hiss of steam.”

Torpedoes that were manufactured in Alexandria were sent to a facility in Piney Point, Md., to be “ranged” — test-fired from a floating rig — before being dispatched to waiting submarines.

The huge influx of war workers stretched the area’s residential resources. Chinquapin Village, 150 wooden duplexes where Chinquapin Recreation Center is today, was built to house Torpedo Station employees. Buses took workers to and from the plant, three miles away.

The torpedo factory brought hundreds of working-class people to Alexandria. Some old-time residents did not appreciate the influx. “All you have to do,” a woman from West Virginia told an interviewer, “is mention that you’re from Chinquapin and people look at you like you’re a leper.” (While the Naval Torpedo Station had an integrated workforce, Answer Man is fairly certain African Americans were not allowed to live in Chinquapin Village.)

With the Axis decisively defeated, the torpedo factory closed for good in 1946. It then went through a number of uses, most notably as a storage place for records that had been captured from the Germans during the war.

Alexandria bought the complex of buildings in 1969. In 1972, the former plant was described by the Evening Star newspaper as a “hulking blight.” But from blight came beauty: In 1974 the main building reopened as the Torpedo Factory Art Center. In 1983 the site got another overhaul. Today visitors can see artists at work — and run their hands along a Mark XIV torpedo.

By the way, that first tin fish that was dispatched to the USS Gudgeon in 1941 was never credited with a kill. In April 1944 the submarine and its crew of 79 disappeared while on patrol in the Pacific, presumably sunk by the Japanese.

Do you have a question about the Washington area? Why not let Answer Man take a stab at it? Write answerman@washpost.com.

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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