On Feb. 26, 1993, a grim-faced U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings appeared on television to announce Charleston’s Naval Base, shipyard and other local installations were on the Pentagon’s hit list for base closure.
To mark the 20th anniversary of that announcement, Hollings, 91, who retired from the Senate in 2004, sat for a question-and-answer session with Post and Courier reporter Schuyler Kropf to discuss that era. Hollings’ comments are edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: Take us back to that time period. What do you remember about Congress’ mind set when it came to the decline in national defense needs and the end of the Cold War?
A: “We were always trying to protect the installations back home. That’s the honest truth,” he said. But the senator added the cordiality of the Senate made it easy for the members with close working relationships — both Democratic and Republican — to horse-trade if there was a problem.
It was also before the Pentagon’s base closure was taken out of politicians’ hands and turned over to an independent commission to decide.
Q: You grew up in Charleston and saw the base and shipyard churn out the ships that fought in World War II, Korea, Vietnam and beyond. How much of it was a “golden goose” for the Lowcountry in terms of being the right industry at the right place and right time?
A: “A big engine. There wasn’t any doubt about it.” He called the base and shipyard the region’s “bread and butter.”
“You had to get a job? You went to the Navy Yard because that was the only employer around.”
Charleston “had a little bit of a paper mill starting. But there wasn’t much industry in North Charleston.”
Q: Do you have a particular memory of some of the work you saw there?
A: From a politician’s standpoint, Hollings, who also had served in the Legislature and as governor, said he remembered “the Navy Yard votes” — a reference to the thousands of people who walked through the gates every day.
“The Navy didn’t vote,” he said of the thousands of sailors who were only temporarily stationed here.
“But all the employees did, and their families did.”
The Navy Yard was Charleston’s “tourism” dependency, he said, before tourism became so vital.
Q: When word came down that Charleston was pegged for closure, what were your first thoughts?
A: “Disaster.” Hollings was able to get an early look at the “hit list” of bases the Defense Department was marking for closure from what he identified as a friendly source in the Pentagon. At the time, Hollings was criticized by some who said he didn’t know what he was talking about, and others who refused to believe the Navy would scrap 100 years of history.
“I was telling the truth,” he said.
Q: It had to play on your mind that tens of thousands of jobs were disappearing. Did images of unemployment, shuttered factories and empty homes in the vein of Detroit enter your mind?
A: “No, I knew it couldn’t close down that quick.”
Q: For all the efforts to save the base from closure, was it really that illogical a choice to close Charleston? Was it unfair?
A: “I think it was a right decision, in hindsight.”
Q: What are your thoughts on the recovery since then, and how the site has transformed?
A: Hollings remains upbeat on the businesses that have been recruited to fill space there, along with the State Ports Authority’s expansion at the southern end. But he said the saving grace to the region is the presence of SPAWAR, the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center situated at the Naval Weapons Station. The site is staffed by a large number of highly skilled, high-paying positions.
“It’s bigger than the Charleston Navy Yard,” he said. “It’s not crews that are passing through that have got bank accounts back home. Their bank accounts are here.”
Q: Finally, what does South Carolina have going for it now in terms of contributing to the national defense?
A: Outside of local Charleston bases, he listed Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter and the Marine Corps boot camp at Parris Island. But he still remains high on SPAWAR.
“The Navy running SPAWAR is bigger and better than the Navy running the Navy Yard,” he said. “It’s more jobs and it’s permanent jobs.”