Asheville is justly renowned as a jewel of the Southern Appalachians, but less well known is the city's strangely rich naval heritage. Thousands of locals -- both men and women -- forsook these hills in favor of the high seas throughout the 20th century to do battle with foes around the globe.
What's more, no less than four avatars of the USS Asheville have sailed foreign waters. The first, a patrol gunboat launched on July 4, 1918, was sunk by the Japanese destroyers Arashi and Nowaki in the Java Sea in 1942, killing all but one sailor aboard (who later died in a prisoner-of-war camp). The second, a patrol frigate, saw service during World War II and was later sold to the Argentine navy. The third, which did battle in Vietnam, lent its name to a new breed of fast vessels (no longer in use) known as "Asheville-class" gunships. And the latest -- a submarine based in Bremerton, Wash. -- is a nuclear-attack vessel notable both for its groundbreaking, high-frequency-sonar capabilities and for the fact that it, too, was sunk by the Japanese (albeit only fictionally, in novelist Tom Clancy's thriller Debt of Honor).
Now, however, another piece of that seafaring heritage -- the Asheville Naval Reserve Center, which nestles atop a rise along Merrimon Avenue behind the Grace Station post office -- finds itself facing its demise. But this time, the culprit is friendly fire from the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, whose mandate is to streamline the U.S. armed forces by shutting down redundant or obsolete facilities.
"It's sad," says Lt. Cmdr. Allen Lamberson, a Madison County native who remembers childhood trips to Asheville to play on the antiaircraft gun that still graces the reserve center's front lawn. "But the whole BRAC process itself? I'm totally behind it," he says.
Such centers were a high priority during the Cold War, when the specter of war against a daunting naval foe such as the Soviet Union necessitated maintaining large numbers of ready reserves. But as the threat profile has switched to more regional, reduced-scale conflicts, a smaller, more nimble and less costly military capability is needed, he says.
Despite the pending loss of Asheville's Naval Reserve Center, North Carolina as a whole has fared better than many other states, having been spared drastic closures and force reductions. To be sure, a U.S. Army Reserve Center in Albemarle with 33 staffers will also be closed, and Pope Air Force Base is slated to lose 4,800 troops. Fort Bragg, on the other hand, will gain 4,078 troops. That's big news, because the military is one of North Carolina's major economic drivers, contributing $18 billion annually to the state's economy and accounting for 6 percent of the gross state product, according to a 2004 report from East Carolina University.
The Naval Reserve arrived in Asheville on Nov. 20, 1946, when the Navy established a 600-man battalion here and began looking for a potential training site. In early January 1947, the Navy signed a long-term lease with the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners for a portion of the Asheville-Biltmore College property on Merrimon Avenue. The county agreed to lease the 2.2-acre parcel to the Navy for 10 years at $1 per year -- an arrangement that continues to this day, says Lamberson.
The Navy built the Asheville facility in 1948, using precast metal buildings behind a masonry facade. It was one of seven reserve centers built in North Carolina during the years immediately after World War II (the others were in Charlotte, Durham, Greensboro, Raleigh, Wilmington and Winston-Salem). The 28,000-square-foot structure will be given to the county after the reserve center closes. So far, the county has given the Navy no word on its plans for the building and the site, says Lamberson.
But when the center will actually close remains anybody's guess. Shutting down a facility costs money, which must come from congressional appropriations to the Defense Department. Those funds would then go to the Navy, then to the Naval Reserve, and ultimately to the regional reserve commands, Lamberson explains.
"It sucks," says Lamberson matter-of-factly. "The biggest thing is the uncertainty. We still don't have money, but we are expecting to get money to have last drills in March." The center could close its doors for good by next fall, he says, but "the money may not show. It's still up to Congress."
The Defense Department has until Sept. 15, 2007 -- two years from when President Bush sent Congress the BRAC Commission's final report -- to begin the required closures and realignments. The process must be completed by Sept. 15, 2011, according to Defense Department officials.
Before being billeted in Asheville, Lamberson piloted carrier-based E-C2 Hawkeyes and taught others to fly them at the Naval Air Station in Atlanta; after the closure, he expects he'll go back to that job. His second in command, Chief Petty Officer Brad Shore, expects to go back to sea -- which is fine with him, "though being on active-duty status in Asheville isn't a bad job. It's great here." But such is the nature of full-time work in the Navy, shuttling back and forth between sea and shore duty.
For the reservists, however, it's an entirely different matter. Of the 130 or so who drill at the center (once a month, plus two additional weeks a year), upward of 90 percent hail from Buncombe County, with the rest coming from elsewhere in the state and as far away as Florida. But once the Naval Reserve Center closes, Lamberson says, they'll probably be reassigned to Knoxville -- about a 230-mile round trip from Asheville. Other possible billets include Charlotte, Charleston and Greenville, S.C., adds Master Chief Gary Frady.
"I'm afraid some reservists will just quit because of the inconvenience," says Lamberson, one of eight full-time Navy administrative staffers in Asheville.
Frady, a 17-year veteran who serves in an assault-craft unit, says he hasn't yet heard from fellow reservists about whether they'll drop out, "but that's not to say that that won't happen. It's going to be a sad closure."
The BRAC indicates that only 546 jobs will be lost due to closures and realignment. But retired Navy Capt. Marshall Hanson, director of naval services at the Reserve Officers Association in Washington, D.C., wrote in a recent edition of the organization's magazine, The Officer, that "the report failed to reflect the impact on the reservists who will be displaced by these closures -- another 12,600 individuals. With more reservists traveling, the dollars spent on overnight accommodations and meals will have an economic impact."
He added: "Apparently, the Navy used a two-hour drive as its standard for a reasonable commute. This policy is extending the commutes of naval reservists, adding increased safety risks when added miles and fatigue are combined with twilight and poor weather."
These reservists are not just weekend warriors, either. The Asheville center drills highly trained hospital-battalion reservists as well as a construction battalion of Seabees, several of whom recently returned from duty in Iraq. Other reservists serve in assault-craft and small-boat units.
The center is also the military ID-card station for Western North Carolina. That spells inconvenience for several thousand retired service men and women in the area, who'll be forced to drive down the mountain to Greenville every four years for a new card if they hope to use any base facilities or be admitted to VA hospitals.
While the direct economic impact of closing the center may be relatively minor, the loss of the facility will be felt in other ways as well. It's an unwritten rule that reserve centers should try to integrate into the community and serve it, Lamberson says. The Asheville center, for instance, hosts a Christmas party each year for a local orphanage, notes Lamberson. And at the request of Asheville City Council member Carl Mumpower, the local Seabees have built a 10-foot-high, 125-yard-long fence between the Deaverview Apartments public-housing complex and the adjoining woods to help stem drug traffic. Mumpower says the Seabees also constructed a fence around the basketball courts at the Klondike Apartments public-housing development, and a bus shelter at the Pisgah View Apartments.
"I've been mourning the loss of [the reservists]," says Mumpower, whose father worked at the facility years ago. "It has a rich history in Asheville; it's a unique building. I've spent time with the men and women there, and I hate to see us lose it."