Updated: Apr 7, 2022
Joyce Ehlich was only 19 years old and newly married when she boarded a plane from New York and landed in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador. With no idea what she was in for, she wore her prettiest beige mini-dress to impress her husband of two months, who was serving at the American Naval and Air Station Argentia. It was 1969, AG3 John Ehlich had been posted there a year earlier.
John picked her up at the airport in a Volkswagen and told her “It’s not far. It’s only 90 miles to the base and we’ll stay in the B.O.Q.” The B.O.Q. was a ten-story barracks for officers often referred to as the “Argentia Hilton” and was once the tallest building in the province.
Ehlich had already taken a ten-hour plane ride from New York to Montreal in a jet and from Montreal to St. John’s in a prop plane that had eight stops along the way. A good portion of the ride to Argentia was on a bumpy dirt road and the Volkswagen began to fill with dust. By the time they arrived she had been travelling for almost 14 hours. She laughs remembering, “I went into the B.O.Q. washroom to freshen up only to discover my face was covered in dust and dirt from her bumpy ride down the Argentia Access Road.” It was a hard introduction to military life for a 19-year-old, newly married wife of a soldier.
AG3 Ehlich was an aerographer with the United States Navy. He was a member of the Atlantic Weather and Ice patrols at the base. His unit updated weather conditions on the North Atlantic, while the Ice Patrols reported on the position of icebergs.
Naval and Air Station Argentia was a former base of the United States Navy, it operated from 1941-1994 in the community of Argentia which today, would be about an hour drive from St. John’s. The United States government spent approximately $53 million dollars on building the base. A staggering amount for 1940. In 2017, that amount would equal $926,689,857. At the time of its construction it brought welcomed economic prosperity to the area but it also brought immense hardship and resentment for the residents of Argentia and Marquise.
These families were ordered to hand their land and homes over to the Americans. Eviction notices were delivered and many residents were only given a month to leave. They received as little as $3,000 and $6,000 in compensation. Keep in mind these families had to walk away from the homes they grew up in, farmland that was their livelihoods and that had been passed down through generations.
In 1940 when the deal to build Argentia was done Newfoundland was not part of Canada and was still a British colony. The land was given as part of the “Destroyers for Bases Agreement” between the United States and the United Kingdom which was signed on September 2, 1940. In the agreement fifty mothballed Caldwell, Wickes, and Clemson class US Navy destroyers were transferred to the Royal Navy from the United States Navy in exchange for land rights on British possessions. Newfoundlanders were told to move starting in December 1940. They did not blame the Americans and welcomed the much-needed work. They did blame the non-elected Commission of Government who consisted of seven people appointed by the British government. Locals accused them of not representing the residents properly in the deal. In the end, about 200 properties were burnt or torn down to make way for the base.
The American service men and their families knew very little about the homes and history that were lost. Ehlich and her husband were housed off base in Freshwater at Kelly’s Alley. They lived in a small, very rugged house and at one point the landlord wanted to rent the space next to theirs to another military family. He asked if they would mind sharing a bathroom. Ehlich said “Absolutely not” and the landlord turned a small woodpile room into a bathroom for them.
She recalls with fondness how they would go to the base and pay a quarter to play ten-pin bowling and go to the B.O.Q. Mess once a month to dine at the beefeater’s carving station. At 19 she was one of the youngest military wives and found the move from her home town of Long Island to Argentia like going back in time. “We couldn’t buy bread so I had to make my own” she recollected “There was no ice cream and we could only get powdered milk.”
At one point, approximately 12,000 American military personnel were stationed at the Argentia base. It closed in 1994. There is rumoured to be an active submarine base still there today and urban explorers have great fun trying to find it. Urban explorers like to seek out abandoned man-made structures or ruins to photograph and document it as a hobby. Nowadays the base has been taken over as an industrial site. Many of the original buildings are still standing but abandoned. Most of the housing and the main hall have been demolished. You can drive or walk around the base, look through the windows and imagine its former glory. There is also a walking trail that takes you through the wooded area around the base.
February 1942 saw the Argentia base at the centre of one of the worst disasters in the US Navy's history when USS Pollux and USS Truxtun were wrecked 75 mi (121 km) southwest of the base. Over 100 victims are buried in Argentia's military cemetery.
First World War, World War two and Cold war sites are popular with tourists and lots of them have been turned into museums. For example, the “Diefenbunker” formally known as Canadian Forces Station Carp is an underground complex that was built during the Cold War. Its main purpose was to be an emergency shelter for government officials including the Prime Minister of Canada, John Diefenbaker, in the event of a nuclear attack. Now it is a museum offering tours to visitors.
Ehlich says it is a crime that the once glorious 53 million-dollar U.S. Naval and Air Station has been left to decay. Her and John left Argentia in 1970 and shortly afterwards John left the Navy to join the Nassau County Police Department. They have been married for 49 years and reside in Islip, Long Island, New York. She did leave with the best souvenir “I was pregnant with my first daughter when we left” she laughed “I would love to go back and see the base again.”
Naval and Air Station Argentia can be easily found on Google maps and is free to explore. Keep in mind that urban exploring has risks. Due to the dilapidation of the base exploring can be dangerous. The buildings are owned privately and entering them is illegal. If caught you may face arrest and punishment. There are also areas that are restricted by government and trespassing in those may violate Federal laws.
If you like exploring military history, you must visit Navel and Air Base Argentia.
A few tidbits on the history of Naval and Air Station Argentia:
On August 7, 1941 the heavy cruiser USS Augusta carrying U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt arrived in the anchorage at Little Placentia Bay off the base. Roosevelt inspected the construction progress and did some fishing from the Augusta over the next two days. The Augusta was joined by the British warship HMS Prince of Wales carrying British Prime Minister Winston Churchill on August 9, 1941. While in the Argentia anchorage from August 9–12, the chiefs of staff of Britain and the U.S. met to discuss war strategies and logistics once the U.S. joined in the war. The two leaders and their aides also negotiated the wording of a press release that they called a "joint statement". That press release was issued on August 14, 1941 in Washington, D.C. and simultaneously in London, England. Several days later the Daily Herald would characterize the public statement as being the Atlantic Charter. However, there never was a signed, legal document called the "Atlantic Charter". Neither Roosevelt nor Churchill signed it. The conference concluded the evening of August 12, 1941 with the British and American warships and their escorts passing in review before departing the area for their home ports. The joint declaration was publicly announced on August 14, presumably after Prince of Wales had returned to UK waters.
An ex-marine claims nuclear weapons were stored at the Argentia Base in the 1960s according to a CBC story. http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/ex-marine-claims-nuclear-weapons-stored-at-nfld-base-1.519885
See the full story here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naval_Station_Argentia
History on the area can be found here: http://www.heritage.nf.ca/articles/politics/argentia-base.php
Combined Bachelor Quarters Implosion https://www.youtube.com/watch? v=082XIVIlro