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Memorials on Memorial Day

Memorial Day has me thinking about memorials, and why they are important. Statues, monuments, and historical buildings provide a concrete memory much more impactful than our fading memories alone.


This Memorial Day, I’m thinking about the Tarheel Navy and naval aviation. In particular those alumns who walked the halls of the UNC Naval Armory and died in service to our country since World War II. The small building with its creaky hardwood floors reminds me of them every time I’m there.

There’s a little history here. For Navy and Marine Corps officers, commissioning holds significance. It is the start of your service journey where a loved one or senior officer places the one stripe shoulder boards on you, and you get your first salute.


For me, that was after 4 years of Naval ROTC at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

This year, the ROTC Armory built by the Navy in 1942 was added to the National Register of Historic Places. It joins three other buildings on that beautiful Carolina campus as such.


It took a long campaign for that to happen.

In fact, the master plan for the Univeristy called for demolition of the Armory just a few years ago. First it was for a new psychology building in 2008 and then for an “Institute of Convergence Science” building in 2018.

Calls from Navy veterans to preserve the Armory fell on deaf ears.


“While the University strives to preserve the character of its historic campus, it must balance those aspects with the evolving needs of current and future students,” the university said.


Tarheel Navy alumni officers got to work. They researched the history and hired a historian to document it. Rob Rivers, NROTC Class of ‘73 and a former Navy F-8 Crusader fighter pilot, co-founded the Naval Armory Preservation Committee.


“We’re here for the fight. We all were Navy and Marine Corps officers. Our tenacity is legendary, and we don’t start fights we aren’t sure we can win. . . . We will fight ‘till the very end, until the bulldozers show up,” Rivers said in 2022.


Gotta love the tenacity of a naval avaitor or Marine officer.


I love Carolina, plenty of fond memories there, but not sure UNC knew what it was up against.


The Armory is where Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush trained. Baseball great Ted Williams, UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, and football coach Bear Bryant taught cadets there.

During World War II, it was home for one of four Navy Pre-Flight schools. That school trained nearly 20,000 aviation cadets on Carolina’s campus from 1942 to 1945.


In fact, Carolina was producing so many Navy officers and aviators that - get this - it was nicknamed “Little Annapolis.”


When I go back to ROTC alumni football weekends every fall at the Armory and on Memorial Day, I remember those who went before me in uniform and walked the halls of that small building with the grey Navy gun and flagpole out front. The building stands as a lasting memorial to them. It allows me to tell our daughters about them.


I doubt now it will be razed for some fancy academic building. Go Heels!

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