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World Wars Impact Woods Hole Fisheries Lab

January 13, 2022

In celebration of our 150th anniversary, we are highlighting some of the interesting periods during the Woods Hole fisheries lab history, among them the two world wars.

Three pigeon coops and sheds with screening are visible at the edge of a parking lot at center. View north shows private homes in the background looking toward Buzzards Bay. Great Harbor is at left. Materials and some small boats on the edge of the parking lot near the harbor at left. Photo: Courtesy Woods Hole Historical Museum Archives. The Navy pigeon coops and cages are visible at center in this 1944 photo looking north towards Buzzards Bay. The fisheries lab’s cottage and a parking lot are located there today. Great Harbor is at left, Albatross/West Street is at right. Photo: Courtesy Woods Hole Historical Museum Archives, Carlotta Cross.

U.S. Navy Occupation during World War I

The Woods Hole Laboratory was closed during both world wars. From 1917–1919, the U.S. Navy occupied much of the laboratory. Most research investigations conducted at that time, focused mainly on increasing the aquatic food supply, were either discontinued or moved to other locations. Improving methods to preserve fish and a study of nematode or fish worm infestation, which had a direct bearing on marketing fish, were the priorities during the war.

The Navy withdrew from the fisheries lab in 1919, and researchers from many academic and research organizations returned to pursue a variety of projects.

World War II: Pigeons and Crash Boats

Soon after the U.S. entered World War II in December 1941, the Woods Hole lab was closed again. The fisheries laboratory and buildings were occupied by the U.S. Navy, which took control of much of the Woods Hole waterfront until the spring of 1944. The library, laboratory equipment, and chemicals were moved to the basement of the Marine Biological Laboratory for storage. Shellfish research under Paul Galtsoff and Edith Morrison, however, continued in a rented laboratory at the MBL.

“During the war years Woods Hole presented an unfamiliar picture,” Galtsoff wrote in his 1962 lab history (pdf, 133pgs). “The Fisheries grounds and the adjacent buildings of the MBL were surrounded by high fence, and became inaccessible to civilians. The gay crowd that used to assemble near the aquarium and around the seal pool was no longer there. Less than half of the MBL laboratory rooms were occupied. Bright-looking pleasure boats were gone, and very few fishing vessels were seen in the harbor. Even the New Bedford-Nantucket steamer lost its smart appearance under a coat of gray paint. At night everything was pitch dark and the streets were deserted."

A fence was built near the end of Water Street just after MBL Street, with a gate and a guard shack manned by Marines as part of Section Base Woods Hole. Only authorized personnel were allowed access to the area around the fisheries lab.

One of the more interesting sights at the lab were the pigeon coops. Carrier pigeons for Navy communications were bred, trained, and maintained in three small lofts on the northern edge of the fisheries lab property near the harbor. One loft was for breeding, one for flying pigeons, and the third in the center was the “sick bay.” Pigeons from the loft were released occasionally for training exercises. The project was supervised by Lt. Donald Comstock, a member of the American Pigeon Racing Union, with three sailors trained as assistants. The coops remained onsite until the end of the war.

Repurposing Lab Buildings

Some of the changes made by the Navy during the war served other purposes. The U. S. Coast Guard maintained a structure on the Fisheries property as a mess hall. It was used for the sailors on Coast Guard ships, when they were in port. The Navy transformed this structure into a small hospital and dispensary and constructed an adjoining wooden barrack as quarters for Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES). 

There was an acute shortage of housing facilities in Woods Hole. The Fisheries lab’s residence building was temporarily turned over to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution for use as a dormitory for its wartime employees. The hospital buildings and WAVES quarters were later converted to apartments, which in the following years were occupied by the lab’s superintendent, director, and administrative officer.

Photo taken from a rooftop looking at the Navy’s former hospital and WAVEs quarters at center. Cars are parked nearby by a tall brick building. White lab./aquarium building partly visible at left. Houses ad a large hotel visible in the background on the edge of Buzzards Bay.
The navy’s hospital and dispensary and WAVES quarters are pictured from the top of the residence hall, looking toward Buzzard’s Bay at top. Photo circa 1950s at the corner of what is now Water and Albatross Streets. The lab’s brick maintenance building is visible at left, along with part of the white lab/aquarium building. The Woods Hole Science Aquarium is located on this site today. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/NEFSC Weed Collection

The Navy base at the Fisheries lab was decommissioned in October 1943 and Navy and Marine personnel began to leave. Only the pigeon lofts, the heating plant, the hospital building, and WAVES barracks remained. Although the base, fence, and Marine guard shack were gone, Navy presence at the Fisheries facility remained a bit longer.

Crash Boats to the Rescue

In December 1943, the first of two Navy “P” or crash boats (NO. C39069) arrived and was stationed at the fisheries dock. It was known locally by its call sign “Charlie.” A second boat, (C18352, known locally as “Butch”) arrived in mid-1944. Officially called aircraft rescue boats or air-sea rescue boats, the 110-foot long boats had a crew of 15 enlisted men and two officers. Each was equipped with hospital facilities.

Small U.S.Navy boat with number C39069 painted on the bow moves trough Great Harbor on its way to the fisheries dock. The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution pier is visible at left, along with some ship’s rigging.  Photo: Courtesy Woods Hole Historical Museum Archives, Warren Witzell.
U.S. Navy crash boat C39069 in Great Harbor, Woods Hole..Two Navy and two similar Army crash boats were stationed at the Fisheries dock during World War II. Photo: Courtesy Woods Hole Historical Museum Archives, Warren Witzell.

Two U.S. Army crash boats, similar to the Navy boats, were also stationed at the Fisheries dock during 1944. They remained until the end of the war in 1945. In addition to at-sea rescues, the boats also assisted in aircraft target practice. Small naval aircraft would fly over and drop bombs for practice at a target towed 2,000 feet behind the boat’s stern.

The wooden speedboats were built to rescue the crew of downed U.S. and Allied aircraft during the war. The boats would also occasionally take out crates of carrier pigeons from the loft and release them at sea for training exercises. Crews from two of the boats also helped salvage the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s 142-foot ketch Atlantis. The vessel had broken loose from the fisheries dock where it was tied up during the 1944 hurricane and gone aground in Great Harbor.  

Rebuilding After the War

After the war and hurricane, the Woods Hole lab was rebuilt, a little at a time. Its potential use for research in fishery biology and oceanography was championed by oyster researcher and acting laboratory director Paul Galtsoff. Much needed support was received from Albert M. Day, Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from 1945 to 1952. The Fisheries was part of the Fish and Wildlife Service from 1940 to 1970, when NOAA was created and it was transferred to the new agency.

“Careful survey of the buildings indicated that in spite of old age and inroads of several severe storms and two hurricanes, the old structures were still sound and could be reconditioned and re-equipped at the estimated cost of about $175,000 to $200,000,” wrote Galtsoff in his 1962 history. “The Director considered, however, that it was unwise to ask for such a large sum of money to be put in the old and inflammable buildings, and thought that eventually they should be replaced by modern structures. Small amounts of money were made available for the reconstruction of the seawall, new roofs, repairs to a portion of the Fishery dock, etc. A great deal of the work inside the building was done by the superintendent and station carpenter.” The $175,000–$200,000 building estimate would be about $2–2.5 million today. 

By 1947, the Woods Hole Laboratory was restored enough to allow for some research to resume, with the understanding the buildings and pier would eventually need replacement. That came in 1958, when the old buildings and pier were demolished and the current facilities were constructed.

For more information, please contact Shelley Dawicki. 

Credits and Acknowledgements: 

We thank the following for contributing information and images for this web feature:

Deborah Scanlon, Executive Director, and Colleen Hurter, Archivist and Assistant Director, of the Woods Hole Historical Museum 

“The Story of the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole, Massachusetts “, Paul S. Galtsoff, Circular 145, United States Department of the Interior, Washington, DC  May 25, 1962,

“Life in Woods Hole Village During World War II”, Susan Fletcher Witzell  Woods Hole Spritsail, Vol 9, no. 1, 1995.