A jet roared overhead — business as usual and an apt metaphor for the day — as Patuxent River Naval Air Station celebrated its 70th anniversary with a small ceremony last week.
“It’s the sound of freedom,” Joseph Dyer said, looking skyward. Dyer is a retired Navy vice admiral who once headed the Naval Air Systems Command. At the celebration, Dyer told of the evolution of naval aviation in Southern Maryland. The air station was commissioned April 1, 1943. World War II was underway, and the Japanese had proved their aviation prowess. The United States had to catch up, Dyer said.
The War Department decided that more than 6,412 acres, a parcel then called Cedar Point, would be an ideal site to house and develop aviation operations. The department needed to consolidate operations in Washington, Philadelphia and Norfolk.
The land in St. Mary’s County was far enough away from other air traffic, vast enough for weapons testing and isolated enough for classified work. The Navy paid $712,287 for the property and gave families living there about a month to relocate, according to an account of Pax River’s history by the Navy’s installations command. Construction began April 4, 1942.
What ensued, Dyer said, could be compared to the fast-paced growth of an old Wild West town. The population in 1940 was fewer than 15,000 people. In less than a year, historians say, from 6,000 to 8,000 construction workers came to help build Pax River, which was dubbed “the Instant City.”
For years, residents of the area felt a mixture of pride and resentment, Dyer said. Pride came from the economic growth the station brought. Resentment stemmed from the dramatic changes the Navy brought to the area.
Today, some St. Mary’s residents say they feel like outsiders, oblivious to what goes on inside “the gate.” But, overall, the county has benefited tremendously, Dyer said.
Pax River is the county’s largest employer. The average yearly wage of federal government workers at the base is $105,508, according to the St. Mary’s Department of Economic Development. Contractors make an average of $81,224 per year, and eight of the county’s top 10 employers are associated with naval aviation.
Pax River started a revolution, Dyer said. It has been “important to our Navy and important to our nation.”