At the beginning of the 20th Century, both the Pacific Ocean and the undersea domain were becoming increasingly important to the security and prosperity of the United States. America now had colonies and territories in that vast ocean. It had a tiny but expanding submarine fleet. And its leaders watched with interest and alarm as the emergent technology of the self-propelled torpedo was used to devastating effect in naval battles from Chile to China.
The U.S. Navy’s inventory of, and expertise with, torpedoes was struggling to keep pace with other rising powers. But because the effectiveness of even rudimentary torpedoes is based on complex mechanisms for assuring proper guidance, depth, speed, and range, they needed to be tested in the water before being issued for use. This was especially time consuming and expensive for the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet, which had to ship their torpedoes across the country to Newport, Rhode Island, the U.S. Navy’s only depot for testing and repairing torpedoes.
To remedy this situation, in 1908 a group of naval officers was sent to search from “San Diego to British Columbia” for a new U.S. Navy torpedo station. The ideal location, they were directed, was to be a “clear water site on the west coast, not over 10 fathoms deep and not under five, with a sandy bottom and virtually no current.” It should also “have little tide and must not be too cold.”
The isolated peninsula of Keyport, Washington was chosen as that perfect place. By November, 1914, the Navy had bought up land from local families and commissioned the Pacific Coast Torpedo Station.
By 1919 the Station had grown to include a contingent of U.S. Marines for security, U.S. Navy divers for torpedo recovery work, and a small civilian workforce learning the emerging art and science of testing and maintaining torpedoes.
In 1930 the base was renamed the United States Naval Torpedo Station, but then as now was often simply referred to as Keyport.Even before the U.S entered World War II, many American leaders saw the devastation caused by German U-Boats and realized that was the first conflict in which superiority in the undersea domain would be instrumental to victory.
When the U.S. entered World War II, Keyport quickly increased its workforce, reaching nearly 3,000 people by 1944, more than 40% of those women. As many as 100 torpedoes were tested in a single day during the most active of the war years. By the time Japan surrendered, the majority of U.S. torpedoes used in the Pacific Theater had passed through the Keyport. When the War was won, production slowed and the workforce size plummeted.
But a new, Cold War soon began, and much of that conflict would take place beneath the world’s oceans. To meet the Navy’s needs in this new era, Keyport had to expand its presence. Torpedoes being produced in the 1950’s, made to operate at great depth, couldn’t be tested in the shallow waters around the Keyport peninsula. Fortunately, nearby Dabob Bay was found to have sufficient conditions, and in 1954, Keyport created the world’s first 3D undersea tracking range in that Bay.
To share operations and technology with one of America’s closest allies, a joint test range with the Royal Canadian Navy was established near Nanoose, British Columbia in 1965.
By the end of its first 50 years, Keyport had proven its value to victory in the largest war in history, and was growing well beyond an organization defined by geography and a single type of weapon.During the Cold War, the U.S. Navy’s role in the undersea domain was providing deterrence by maintaining a technological advantage over the Soviet Navy.
The Naval Torpedo Station at Keyport had become such an instrumental part of this strategy that by 1966, they were testing nearly every torpedo used by the Navy. But maintaining, and increasing, America’s technological advantage undersea meant that Keyport had to do more than just torpedoes. And that it had to operate outside of just the Pacific Northwest.
In the 1970’s, Keyport helped with naval undersea tests in the Arctic Ocean, and added detachments in San Diego, Hawaii, and Indian Island, Washington to keep the unique Keyport expertise closer to the Fleet. Keyport also added a detachment in Hawthorne, Nevada to store and maintain naval mines, and increased work with foreign allies and partners around the world to help keep their warfighting platforms and equipment credible counters to Communist Bloc forces. To better reflect its evolving mission, the Station’s name was changed in 1978 to the Naval Undersea Warfare Engineering Station.
By 1992, the Cold War, on which most of Keyport’s efforts had been focused for 40 years, had been won. As it had after other wars, the U.S. military began shrinking its personnel numbers and closing bases. And as it had in the aftermath of previous wars, Keyport survived, adapted, and continued proving its worth to the nation. Keyport went through another name change and became one of two divisions in the newly-created Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC), and would now be called NUWC Keyport.
NUWC Keyport was no longer tasked with just staying ahead of a single adversary. The uncertainties of the post-Cold War world necessitated the U.S. military sustaining its dominance of the undersea domain while anticipating new threats, and exploring new opportunities. NUWC Keyport’s skills and knowledge began to be applied to keeping America’s warfighting advantage on the land and in the air, as well as at sea.
In the 2000’s, a site on Guam and the Naval Sea Logistics Center in Pennsylvania came under NUWC Keyport, further expanding the geographic reach and Fleet support capabilities.
Today, NUWC Keyport is still headquartered on the little peninsula where it was founded in 1914. It provides an array of services and products to the U.S. Navy, sister services, and allied militaries, but all with the goal of enhancing the competency and innovation in undersea warfare capabilities that began a century ago.