Noel & Middendorf: RI giants of job creation


This year 650 welders and other skilled trade workers will be hired for the submarine hull fabrication facility at Quonset Point.  In the years to come, the work force will expand steadily as the Navy’s nuclear submarine force adds new Atlantic class fast attack subs and a dozen mammoth intercontinental missile-firing boats of the new Columbia class. 

Dynamic as it is, the Quonset Point jobs dynamo in the Rhode Island employment picture is largely taken for granted today. Most Rhode Islanders were not yet born when two giants of 20th Century Rhode state history combined to battle dwindling employment opportunity and to empower job creation for the past 45 years and for decades into the new century. 

Defense Department plans call for construction of the new generations of nuclear submarines to the 2040s and beyond.  

Quonset Point was largely vacant acreage in 1972 when the Trident Intercontinental Ballistics Submarine Program was starting up at the Electric Boat shipyard in Groton, Connecticut. That acreage might well have remained vacant but for the inspiration and determination of J. William Middendorf, secretary of the Navy in the Ford Administration, and Phillip Noel, who was elected governor that year. 

Three years before, during the Nixon Administration, the homeport of the Navy’s Atlantic destroyer squadron had been shifted from Newport to Norfolk, Virginia. Rhode Island unemployment, already high, had surged to over 10 percent. Governor-to-be Noel was campaigning in Groton, soliciting the votes of the 3,000 Rhode lslanders working at Electric Boat, when he discovered the opportunity for Quonset.  

Because of the steep banks of the Thames River Valley, Electric Boat lacked the space to construct the 600-foot hulls of the Trident subs. Alternate sites along the Thames had been considered and rejected. “Why not build the hulls at Quonset and barge them the 40 miles over to Groton?” Noel suggested. He pointed out that Quonset, already government owned, had 400 acres of level land and deep-water access. Wouldn’t this be the perfect solution to Electric Boat’s problem?” 

Noel’s suggestion won immediate and powerful support from Secretary of the Navy Middendorf.  

“If you’re a public servant, you try to make things better for people,” Noel said at that time. “Better education, better opportunities and better health care.”

After his election, Noel formed a coalition of business, industry and labor and developed the most sweeping package of economic development legislation in the state’s history.

It was under the leadership of Secretary of the Navy Middendorf that the Trident missile equipped submarine and the Aegis Missile System were developed. Both played a major role in ending the cold war.

“Peace through strength is the only major war preventive,” Middendorf said in a recent op-ed printed in the Providence Journal, citing the threats from China. “While the Chinese have been building up their submarine force, the United States has been underfunding its undersea fleet,” Middendorf warned.

It takes a 10-12 year lead-time to achieve a new weapon system, Middendorf said. “We must accelerate our resent research and develop weapon systems capabilities to match or exceed those of our potential adversaries,” he added.

“We must build against projected capabilities, not the intentions of a potential adversary. To rely on continued “good intentions” is a fool’s game. Remember Japan’s profession of friendship before Pearl Harbor, and Hitler’s pledge that he would be satisfied with the Sudetenland.”

Middendorf, A Rhode Island resident and World War II veteran, also served as Ambassador to the Netherlands and Ambassador to the Organization of American States and to the European Community.

Gov. Phillip W. Noel was inducted into the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 2011. Secretary of the Navy Middendorf gained admission in 2014.

Editor’s note: Kenneth Dooley, a playwright and author “Relentless Pursuit” and 38 books, is a member of the Board of Directors of the RI Heritage Hall of Fame. He lives in Newport.


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