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Warships drop anchor in Chicago during Navy Week

Today’s Wisch List newspaper column from The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.)

Warships drop anchor in Chicago during Navy Week

The WISCH LIST

When you think of the Navy, you might think of Annapolis. Or perhaps San Diego comes to mind. Or maybe it’s Jacksonville, Fla., Pearl Harbor or Norfolk, Va., all home to well-known bases, that’s the first city to pop into your head.

But I’m guessing it’s probably not Chicago.

However, thanks to the Naval Station Great Lakes in North Chicago – the nation’s only Naval boot camp, located about 37 miles north of downtown Chicago – the Windy City has far deeper Naval roots than most places around the country. And through Monday morning, Chicago is honoring this often-underappreciated aspect of its military heritage with Naval Week.

The celebration also happens to conveniently fall around the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, which included fighting on the Great Lakes and is credited with helping to shape the role of the modern Navy while also leading to a treaty in which the U.S. and Canada agreed to demilitarize the Great Lakes.

A century later, Chicago was established as a true Naval hub with the founding of the Naval Station Great Lakes in 1911. And as the largest military installation in Illinois with 1,153 buildings spread over more than four square miles, Great Lakes trained 125,000 sailors during World War I and 100,000 in less than one year during World War II. Since 1996, when training centers in San Diego and Orlando closed, it has served as the Navy’s only basic training facility.

Chicago’s 54th annual Air & Water Show is being held along North Avenue Beach this weekend, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. today and Sunday. Featuring the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels and a slew of other aircraft, the Air & Water Show is usually really just the “Air” Show. But with Navy Week, the festivities this year actually go beyond the sky and make a splash in the water, as well.

On Tuesday, Naval warships pulled in along Chicago’s lakefront for the first time since 1999, docking at Navy Pier. For decades, Navy frigates cruised the Great Lakes each summer before budget and security concerns put that program on hiatus. In 2001, 9/11 created another set of different priorities for the Navy.

“We’ve been a nation at war for the last 12 years,” Rear Adm. Gregory M. Nosal told the Chicago Tribune earlier this week. “Everybody knows the Army is at war. Everyone knows about the Marine Corps. No one knows about the Navy because we’ve been forward deployed for the last 12 years.”

On Wednesday, the ships at Navy Pier began welcoming land lovers on board, offering the public a chance to meet sailors and tour their facilities. Visitors can do such things as observe inflatable boats used for anti-piracy missions, learn that coastal patrol ship anchors weigh 500 pounds and discover that a warship’s machine guns fire bullets the size of water bottles.

From noon to 7 p.m. today and on Sunday, the five ships at Navy Pier, which includes two Canadian vessels, the USS Hurricane and the Navy frigate USS De Wert, are open to the public. There is no age requirement to tour the ships, but all visitors must go through a security check before boarding. Photography is allowed, but note that the vessels are not handicapped-accessible.

Also on Sunday, at 10 a.m., the Navy woodwind quintet will perform at the Field Museum, while the Navy Band Great Lakes Show is scheduled for 11 a.m. at the Navy Pier Garden. At 8 a.m. on Monday morning, Navy Week wraps up when the warships deploy from Navy Pier.

For more information, visit navyweek.org/chicago2012.