HOFFMAN ISLAND
First U. S. Maritime Service Training Station
Former New York Quarantine Depot

Mast Magazine March 1944

Aerial view of Hoffman Island view Hoffman Island
Aerial view of Hoffman Island Hoffman Island from aboard the Mayfair

Perched in the center of New York City's winding harbor with the Atlantic Ocean dead ahead and the Statue of Liberty astern is Hoffman Island, the oldest station of the U. S. Maritime Service. Opened on September 7, 1938, the station has established a precedent for the entire service to follow in turning out topflight seamen, and a visitor is quickly and firmly told that Hoffman Island is not only the "oldest station, but also the best."

And perhaps nothing is closer to the truth; the island is picturesque, has a friendly atmosphere, and is efficiently operated. But she's a bit more than that. She's more than clean-swept streets and walks, tidy red-brick buildings, docks, boat sheds, and barracks. Of more importance at Hoffman Island is an unmistakable and intangible thing called "spirit."

Mayfair liberty boat
Mayfair transports recruits to mainland
USMS trainee
Welcome trainee!
Trainees at attention
Attention!- Eyes right

Make no mistake that this is a natural phenomenon. It has been carried along steadily since the station's birth and there is no indication that it has ever lagged. Spirit --- morale, if you wish --- is evolved at Hoffman Island by giving trainees something to work for, by placing a sense of responsibility on all hands, and by keeping the "honor system" alive. The island's compactness and smallness undoubtedly contribute to the friendliness that exists among personnel and trainees.

In none of the 72 years of the man-made island's history has more important work been carried on than at the present. The obvious significance attached to training Merchant Seamen since the war began has been proclaimed in time-worn statements. Hoffman Island's prominence is reflected in her role before Pearl Harbor. "The fact that so many seamen were training so well at Hoffman Island before the war is truly of tremendous importance," one officer at the base said.

Men who are sent to Hoffman Island aren't disappointed or disillusioned about their future work. New trainees get a taste of salt spray before they touch foot upon the base, learn to tie a clove hitch before they've slept at the island one night, and they're fully clothed, marching in Saturday review before they've been in uniform 24 hours. Boots find out quickly that life runs at a fast clip -- and that "soft touches" don't exist. When they're first brought to the base, boots go double-time to the receiving quarters. An Apprentice Seaman then receives his gear, is assigned to quarters and by the time he finds out how comfortable his sack is, those new shoes of his have tried out the drill field asphalt. And, in the long run, he likes it. The policy is to make it tough for the trainee at the beginning: from that angle, the rest of the program looks comparatively easy.

Veteran Personnel
The more or less permanence with which personnel have remained at Hoffman Island has added a great deal to the character of the station. Many of the original officers, who came aboard when the station was opened September 7, 1938, are still there. A good example is the engineering department where the "old-timers" include Lieut. H. O. Wiens, Lieut. J. A. Smith and Lieut. E. O. Perey. Lieutenant Wiens, who has been a seagoing man most of his life, reported for duty at Hoffman Island the day it was officially opened, which makes him the No. 1 veteran of the station.

H. O. Wiens
Lieut. H. O. Wiens

E. O. Perey
Lieut. E. O. Perey

J. A. Smith
Lieut. J. A. Smith

Commander Harry Manning, former superintendent of the U.S. Maritime Service radio school at Huntington, Long Island, is now skipper at Hoffman Island. Commander Manning succeeded Commander M. E. Crossman who is now head of the Alameda, Calif. station.

Trainees at Hoffman Island are typical of those found throughout the service. There's Rudolph Maag of Newark, N.J. who was a private in the Army at one time. He was working in a threadmill before joining the Maritime Service. His buddy, Roland Ouellettee, of Leominster, Mass., spent a year in the Navy and is now training for another sea job with a different fleet. He was working in a Pratt-Whitney plant before entering boot training at Hoffman Island. The reason Roy Moon, a smooth-faced lad of 20 who hails from Spout Spring, Va., entered the service was to "learn something about engines so I'll have something to fall back on when the war's over."

Welfare Program
The "all work and no play" axiom holds just as true at a training station as any other place, and the trainees at Hoffman Island are well taken care of in their free hours. The welfare program is handled by Lieut. Benny Leonard, former lightweight champion of the world, and includes activities for the men every night of the week.

Boxing shows are very popular at the base as well as boat races, basketball and other athletic events. There are also radio broadcasts from the station, free movies and USO shows, parties, and in good weather, all-station picnics. "We've never had any difficulty with unorderliness, misconduct or AWOLs at any of our off-the-station affairs," one station official said. "The fellows appreciate the entertainment and don't have to fall all over themselves to have a good time."

Full proof that trainees don't expect to be handled softly is their eagerness to go through a lifeboat drill that is carried out under sea conditions. The men jam the boat to capacity and are sent out in the harbor at 2200 --- and stay out all night. The boat isn't allowed to dock until 0600 the next day. If the weather is rough, so much the better if a few of the boys get seasick, that's just tough luck. The men, rather than resenting the ordeal, are glad to get the experience.

All night Lifeboat "cruise" in New York Harbor
All night Lifeboat "cruise" in New York Harbor

The debatable honor system has also succeeded magnificently. In a year and a half only two men have enjoyed the ignominious role of occupying a seat in the brig. With this tradition established, it is a moral obligation for all trainees to keep their respective noses clean at all times. There is a further incentive to do good work here. Scholastic awards are given men with the highest marks in the Deck, Engine and Steward departments. Deck and Engine honor students get a set of books, while the leading cook is presented a handsome set of knives. All three receive, in addition, a letter of recommendation from the station superintendent.

The proficiency of the training program is well exemplified by the ranks men receive upon graduation. It is a rare day when an Engine student finishes up his work with any-thing lower than an Oiler's ticket. And practically all of the Steward trainees rate Cook and Baker papers. A carpenters school is held in connection with Deck training and there are courses for prospective Able-Bodied Seamen who have had sea time.

Signal practice for Maritime Service trainees
Signal practice for Maritime Service trainees
Former Quarantine building
Former Quarantine building

 

Hoffman Island also holds the distinction of being a Maritime Service "guinea pig." It was the first station to give its men classes in night lookout work and about two years ago a number of Dutch soldiers received gunnery training on the island. The latest innovation was the instigation of a new educational program for officers and enlisted men of the Maritime Service who are going into administrative work.

Every bit of the island is an exemplification of life at sea. Because of its detachment from shore, the base must be a self-sufficient unit. For example, diving equipment is used to make dock repairs despite the absence of a professional diver. Even the structure of the island resembles a vessel and trainees have an opportunity to observe every ship that enters and leaves New York harbor.

Hoffman Island is part of the defense system of New York, with its personnel responsible for manning a battery of guns at one end of the base. An U. S. Army detachment is also located there.

Mitzi bullog mascotAll training stations are not without their personalities, but at Hoffman Island the No. 1 figure is not a well-known athletic figure or movie star. She's Mitzi, the bulldog mascot, [seen at left] who is as independent as a big-league baseball player during the winter season with an unsigned contract. Mitzi is a "democratic pooch" and would just as soon snub the station superintendent as she would a boot. However, she does prefer the officer's mess.

Mitzi is not without her little troubles, such as smashing into buildings and running off the end of docks while chasing airplanes. She also has her feuds with Dopey Joe the Pigeon who taunts the queen of the island with strafing attacks and then retires to a branch nearby while Mitzi barks her lungs out.

Mitzi was promoted recently from a Cox'n to Bos'n Mate and won 45 bucks in a world series pool last year. She was once booted into the brig for biting a civilian.

Hoffman Island's history goes back to 1872 when she was constructed by the City of New York to house a quarantine station. The name was taken from Governor J. T. Hoffman and the island handled the greatest immigration wave in our country's history before it was abandoned and later used to store Navy equipment after the First World War. It served as a harbor defense unit during that war in the same manner it does today.

An outbreak of parrot fever along the coast at one time turned Hoffman Island into an isolation station for parrots instead of immigrants. In 1937 the island served still another purpose when underprivileged children from New York were brought out every Sunday throughout the summer for recreation.

ship radio operatorOn September 7, 1938, she went through another transformation. She became the home for the first U. S. Maritime Service Training Station. The old quarantine delousing plant became a boat shed, the largest and oldest of the quarantine barracks was turned into a gymnasium and other buildings were made into classrooms, barracks and mess halls.

A new school building was constructed in 1940 and a sick bay, additional barracks and a gun shed have been recently put up. The entire base gives more the appearance of a cozy New England town than a training station.

Three sailing ships have been assigned to Hoffman Island, the latest being the 202-foot Vema, which was built in Copenhagen in 1923. The Vema has a 33-foot beam and spreads 14,000 square feet of canvas. The Tusitala and Joseph Conrad preceded the Vema as training ships for the island.

Training ship Vema
Training ship Vema
Morning run
Morning run along sea wall
Guns used for harbor defense
Guns used for harbor defense

The first Apprentice Seamen who appeared in the form of volunteers recruited from the nation's Civilian Conservation Corps. Now they are drawn from all parts of the nation to help win the war. For the duration, the course of training covers a period of from three and six months, as the needs of the service require. It is soon to add courses for the training of radio operators in conjunction with the Gallup Island station.

Since its birth as a training station more than five years ago, Hoffman Island has turned out seamen fully equipped with the essential knowledge to take their places in the greatest Merchant Marine the world has ever known. These men are not only equipped with the tools of their trade, but with the kind of spirit that has carried our merchant fleet through the most perilous days in its history.

Source:
Mast Magazine March 1944

Hoffman Island Radio Association
United States Maritime Service
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7/27/03