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Tuesday, March 7, 2000

Ward Island was hush-hush radar school

Veterans recall arduous, top-secret training they received at local installation during WWII

By Deborah Martinez
Caller-Times

Paul Iverson/Caller-Times
Henry Nerwin, an alumnus of the Aviation Radio Material School, stands on the former athletic field track on Ward Island. Now it is the jogging track for A&M-Corpus Christi. Nerwin holds an old banner he bought as a souvenir at the 'secret school.'
Henry Nerwin remembers a time when radar was so top-secret he didn't dare mention it off the base.
   It was 1944, and World War II was under way. Nerwin and thousands of military service members were going through intensive training at a radio materials school on Corpus Christi's Ward Island, working to become electronics technicians on aircraft equipment and aboard ships.
   Radar was at the center of the training but no one other than students and instructors -not even the guards who patrolled the school's grounds - knew the technology existed. Textbooks explaining radar couldn't even leave the classrooms.
   "Radar really was serious stuff," said Nerwin, remembering the lengths he and his classmates had to go to keep it under cover. "It was a well kept secret we tried hard not to lose."
   Nerwin, now a 74-year-old retired electrical engineer who winters in Corpus Christi, remembers the daily marching ranks he and his friends had to follow to class, to the beat of a marching band, so they could be tracked at all times.
   He also remembers the school compound that was patrolled around the clock.
   Virtually no civilians were allowed in the school, which was masked by a sign on the Ocean Drive gate that read: Aviation Radio Materials School, Nerwin said.
   A Texas historical marker explaining Ward Island's history as a Navy radar school was unveiled at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi earlier this year. The university now stands on the island once home to the naval school.
   Nerwin said the marker is one of few references to that era between 1942 and 1947.
   The British military had just developed radar back then, said military historian Ken Snyder, and its powers were still unknown to world powers such as Germany.
   Right before the Korean War, radar's secrecy level was dropped from top-secret to classified, said Snyder, a researcher at the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, Fla. It wasn't until after the Korean War ended in 1953 that radar became common knowledge, once more sophisticated technology, like sonar, was developed, he said.
   Thousands trained
   Officially, the radar school was the Naval Air Technical Training Center, the secondary school for radio training in the Navy. Pre-radio and primary schools were located across the country.
   An article in a 1943 edition of the Navy's The Beam describes the Corpus Christi center as the principal school of its kind in the country during that time.
   So, Nerwin wonders - to the point of sadness - why he hasn't heard more about the school.
   "It was a major part of the city's naval operations," said Nerwin, who has homes in Illinois and Corpus Christi. "There were a lot of students that went through there. I'm surprised I haven't heard about it here after the war."
   Ward Island is named after John C. Ward, a land investor who bought the island in 1892 after its previous owner, Col. Elihu Harrison Ropes, went bankrupt. The island developed into a popular hunting and fishing site before it became Navy territory.
   By the time the Navy school closed in 1947, more than 20,000 electronics technicians were trained, according to a 1947 article in the Corpus Christi Times.
   The training school was moved to Memphis after Ward Island was turned over to the Baptist General Convention immediately after the Navy left. The Baptist organization established the University of Corpus Christi, later to become A&M-Corpus Christi in 1993.
   The Naval Air Technical Training Center still exists today in Pensacola, Fla. It was moved there two years ago from Memphis, said Mac MacDonald, a researcher at the naval aviation museum in Pensacola, Fla.
   Clear memories
   Norman Lentz, who studied at the school in Corpus Christi from 1944 to 1945, said he isn't surprised that the center's legacy has faded. His memories of the school, however, are clear.
   He chuckles when he remembers how hard it was to do homework with the textbooks under lock and key in the classroom. The school itself, cordoned off by a fence, was off limits to students unless they were in class.
   Detonators were put in radar equipment, so if a pilot went down he could pull a switch and the equipment would be destroyed before the enemy could find it, Lentz said.
   More than two years ago Lentz, now a retired electrical engineer in Hawaii, returned to Ward Island.
   He had to make his way back to the island, he said, because his memory was working against him and because the residents he asked weren't aware of a radio materials school ever being in Corpus Christi.
   For Nerwin, the Ward Island of the 1940s was a magical place. He remembers yellow single-engine planes filling the sky and Corpus Christi filled with people wearing white Navy uniforms on recreational leave. Ocean Drive was just a two-lane road.
   And a top-secret radar training school called the Naval Air Technical Training Center stood guard on Ward Island.
   It really was a different world, Lentz said, a far cry from the one he visited when he came back in 1997 and found A&M-Corpus Christi there.
   "(The island) looked much more like a park rather than a Navy base," he said. "You don't expect a world fort to become like that."
  
  




Staff writer Deborah Martinez can be reached at 886-3618 or by e-mail at martinezd@caller.com

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