Reviewed by John Galluzzo
Authors choosing to work with Arcadia Publishing set themselves up with a challenge. With strict word counts accompanying each image size (small and large portraits and landscapes, and double page spreads), brevity becomes more than an issue, it becomes a ritual. Yet while writing a book essentially comprised of captions, a talented author can still create a flowing narrative that tells a detailed and engaging story about the topic at hand.
Most Arcadia titles are place-based, as the company built its reputation by becoming a highly successful national publisher of local histories, sprung directly from the similarly successful Tempus Publishing efforts in the United Kingdom. Once the list of unpublished and marketable community titles began to winnow, Arcadia moved into specific themes, with titles on railroads, large businesses and aviation, among other similar subjects. With aviation titles, authors were allowed to expand the bounds to which authors of community books were held, specifically within the 1850 to 1950 timeframe for imagery. Titles on naval air stations, for instance, would not need be halted before the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Neither would titles focused on the wars in the Middle East fought over the last two and a half decades.
Porcelli’s title, therefore had the potential to cover the entire history of its subject, Naval Air Station Atlantic City, and the airfield’s antecedent iterations. But, since that story was to be told in the standard Arcadia format of 128 black-and-white pages, Porcelli had room for approximately 225 photographs. The author took strong advantage of this set-up, choosing to use small images, two per page (save on chapter title pages), throughout the book, making it a highly visual title. The strategy also allowed him to carry his book’s theme back to the roots of aviation in Atlantic City, providing context for the evolution of the airfield that would become a naval air station during World War II.
Excluding the story of Bader Field would have robbed the book of some of its most compelling imagery. A 1910 “Aero Show” highlighted the potential of aviation for the people of Atlantic City, and the field from which the aviators flew that July soon thereafter became a municipal airport (aviator Augustus Post coined the term “air port” that year to describe the facility). The first ten pages of the book serve as a celebration of early aviation. Aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss is shown in action during the meet, and then again in 1919 when he returns to develop a base for flying boats off Brigantine Inlet. After successfully flying across the Atlantic in 1919, Lieutenant Commander Albert C. Read brought the NC-4 to Atlantic City as part of a recruiting tour. In October 1927, Charles Lindbergh, conducting a victorious tour of his own, flew the Spirit of St. Louis to Atlantic City. Even Amelia Earhart’s smiling face beams outward at the reader of this book.
The bulk of the book covers a brief sixteen-year period during which the Navy held control over what was to be a second, larger municipal airbase, carved out of the famed New Jersey Pine Barrens. Completed in 1943, the base operated during World War II and the Korean War. Units began assignments at Naval Air Station Atlantic City (NASAC) on May 1, 1943, both training and providing coastal patrols. For the next few months fighters, scout/dive bombers, and torpedo bombers all soared over the city, but by August the mission had been solidified. NASAC would become a premier Fighter Training Unit base. In reality, though, that hard-and-fast designation would simply be the first in a long line of such bold new missions attached to the air station over time. As missions, enemies and technologies changed, so, too would the purposes with which aviators lifted off from the runways of NASAC.
The author took the liberty of expanding the selection of imagery for the book beyond the borders of the base itself, which is one of the advantages of creating an aviation title for this series. While authors of community-based titles are mostly pinned inside their towns, authors like Porcelli are free to allow the imagery to wander. Units that formed or trained at NASAC joined the fights in both the Atlantic and Pacific, operating from carriers in both theaters of operation. Aviators who learned how to fly their Hellcats or Corsairs at NASAC carried the base’s story overseas.
The postwar images, while perhaps not as compelling as the pictures from the World War II era for the layman American historian, nonetheless hold deep interest. The base expanded its scope in 1947 to include fighter, attack, antisubmarine and reconnaissance units, as well as missions of what at the time must have seemed like science fiction proportions. Drone testing took place at the base during these years, with the technologies developed in Atlantic City being tested under fire in Korea. Radio-controlled F6F-3Ks also gathered radioactive particles after atomic bomb tests in the Pacific.
Porcelli carries the story seamlessly into the Jet Age, transitioning out the old prop planes and bringing in waves of F2H-3 Banshees and F8U Crusaders. Beautiful images capture icons of the New Jersey shore in the background, indelibly stamping them in time and place.
The final third of the book deals with the post-Navy days, when “the base” was no more. The Federal Aviation Administration set up shop on the old base on July 1, 1958, redubbing it the National Aviation Facilities Experimental Center, doubling its size and broadly expanding its mission. It later became today’s William J. Hughes Technical Center.
Many Arcadia authors fail to tell a cohesive tale, reverting instead to a series of individual, unrelated captions that turn their works from potential histories to local history scrapbooks. Porcelli excels at the storytelling side of the work, and finds ways to creatively fill image gaps that would have otherwise been obvious detriments to the book.
John Galluzzo is the author of Images of America: Squantum and South Weymouth (MA) Naval Air Stations and Images of America: Millville (NJ) Army Air Field.