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CHIPS Articles: End of an Era: NCTAMS LANT Disestablishes Telephone Exchange

End of an Era: NCTAMS LANT Disestablishes Telephone Exchange
By Lori Blann, NCTAMS LANT Public Affairs - April-June 2018
NAVAL STATION NORFOLK, NORFOLK, Va. - Naval Computer and Telecommunications Area Master Station Atlantic (NCTAMS LANT) held a disestablishment ceremony for the Telephone Exchange in Building N-26, Norfolk Naval Station, to officially end more than 100 years of the Navy’s traditional method of providing local and international telephone support April 2.

Capt. Jody H. Grady, commanding officer, NCTAMS LANT, was the presiding officer for the ceremony. Refreshments were served as many mingled around to observe a photograph display from the Exchange’s past. Katherine Evans, NCTAMS LANT’s Administrative Support Services Specialist, provided a brief presentation on the Exchange’s 100-year history. At approximately 10:50 a.m., Vice Adm. Matthew J. Kohler, commander, Naval Information Forces, placed the last call through one of NCTAMS LANT’S telephone operators to the Commanding Officer, Naval Facilities Engineering Command.

“Good morning base operator… NCTAMS LANT and all those gathered here for this event today,” Kohler began the historic final call. “While we applaud the march of technology and the myriad capabilities that modernization provides us, it brings us mixed emotions . . . sometimes it means bringing to end capabilities that have been with us for an era. Capabilities we’ve all come to embrace. And like an old friend, this is certainly true of the NCTAMS LANT Telephone Exchange which has been in existence for more than a century. Which as my wife, Melanie, who is with me here today . . . points out is something in the Navy older than I am. I am honored to make the last call to the storied Telephone Exchange. Thank you and congratulations on this milestone and forging the way of the future. Good luck, fair winds, and following seas to NCTAMS LANT’s Telephone Exchange.”

The first Telephone Exchange was established by the base Public Works Department sometime in 1917 where the original Maintenance/Call logs indicate telephone operators placed calls to 3-digit extensions. While there is little-to-no documented history from 1917 to 1941, the Telephone Exchange continued to expand throughout the years from limited equipment and few personnel to a new dial telephone system that was housed in the Administration Building on Naval Station Norfolk in 1941. The Telephone Exchange was used for all commands on the base and was manually operated by seven telephone operators, two Marines and two Sailors serving approximately 500 telephones on the base.

Later that same year, a fire completely destroyed the site of the Telephone Exchange, forcing the department to seek a new location. The attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 drastically increased communication needs. And four short days after the fire, the Western Electric Company established a temporary office in the Naval Station’s gymnasium.

The war placed great demands on communications, and Western Electric worked with C&P Telephone Company to install a new automatic switchboard. The upgrade reduced personnel requirements to “only” 80 operators, seven supervisors, a chief operator, and an assistant chief operator to support extensive wartime communications.

In 1945, with only a chief operator and nine telephone operators, the Telephone Exchange was able to provide communication support to the Receiving Station, the Fleet Service Schools, Camp Allen, the Naval Hospital and the Supply Depot. These communication demands were made possible with the installation of a new eight-position manual switchboard. These modern capabilities allowed the Telephone Exchange office to install four direct lines connecting Norfolk to Washington D.C.

In 1957, the Telephone Exchange office provided direct telephone support to former President Dwight D. Eisenhower on a short visit to the local area. Their efficiency and superb customer service earned the department a letter of appreciation from Lt. Col. George J. McNally, Officer in Charge of the White House Army Signal Agency.

The Navy embraced computerized service with the Electric Switching System (ESS) in August 1978 and two years later the Navy Public Works Center telephone operators merged with the Portsmouth Naval Regional Medical Center telephone operators. According to Ann Steele, then Director of the Telephone Communications Division, “If you have tried dialing the Naval Hospital in the past, you are aware of the long delays in getting your party, sometimes up to 18 to 20 rings. In addition, the switchboard had been known to be out for 30 minutes at a time. If they hadn’t had efficient operators, I’m sure there would have been total failure.”

Modernization rapidly increased efficiency in the years to follow. The Defense Metropolitan Area Telephone System (DMATS) was established in 1982 and included all defense communications systems within a 50-mile radius. The Public Works Center Base Communications Offices functionally transferred to the Naval Computer and Telecommunications Area Master Station Atlantic in October 1993. Soon after, personal computers replaced the old Wang DATA 40 terminals and AUTOVON was transitioned to DSN which allowed for users to have DSN service on their own telephones. Eventually, an automated attendant was installed and over the past 25 years, operator service demand has been reduced from 45,000 daily calls to 1,800 monthly calls.

The Naval Station telephone operators managed calls for both World Wars, Pearl Harbor, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, the Bay of Pigs, two Gulf Wars, USS Iowa and USS Cole devastations, the Haitian and Cuban migrations, September 11th terrorist attacks, hurricanes, snowstorms, flooding and many, many returning and deploying strike groups.

"Today's ceremony is a bittersweet ending to 101 years of selfless support to both fleet and shore commands," said Grady.

Norfolk, Va. (April 2, 2018) Vice Adm. Matthew J. Kohler, commander, Naval Information Forces, placed the last call to Naval Computer and Telecommunications Area Master Station Atlantic (NTAMS LANT) Telephone Exchange Building N-26, Naval Station Norfolk telephone operator Operations Specialist 2nd Class Mary R. Reyes. NCTAMS LANT held a disestablishment ceremony of the Telephone Exchange Building to officially end more than 100 years of Navy’s traditional method of providing local and international support. (U. S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Rafael Martie / Released)
Norfolk, Va. (April 2, 2018) Vice Adm. Matthew J. Kohler, commander, Naval Information Forces, placed the last call to Naval Computer and Telecommunications Area Master Station Atlantic (NTAMS LANT) Telephone Exchange Building N-26, Naval Station Norfolk telephone operator Operations Specialist 2nd Class Mary R. Reyes. NCTAMS LANT held a disestablishment ceremony of the Telephone Exchange Building to officially end more than 100 years of Navy’s traditional method of providing local and international support. (U. S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Rafael Martie / Released)
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