Governor’s Island Army Brats Go Home

By Tricia Vita Premium

When the US government transferred ownership of Governor’s Island to New York City and state and the National Park Service (NPS) last year, history buffs were thrilled: This 200-year-old military post off the southern tip of Manhattan had long been closed to the general public. Now it’s set to become the city’s newest national park, slated to open in 2006.

But NPS is offering a peck of the island through guided tours. Last summer’s inaugural tours quickly filled up and were extended through the fall to accommodate more than 4,000 visitors. Among the first to sign up were former Army and Coast Guard “brats” eager to revisit the place they called home from 1935 to 1996.

“The high point for me was Fort Jay, of course,” says Army brat Jeff Holmes, 59, referring to one of the island’s architectural gems. The fort was completed in 1809 as part of the fledgling United States’ coastal defense. The fortress, now a national monument, served as living quarters for many 20th-century military families stationed on the island. “But finding the old schoolhouse behind the South Battery was a very close second — first room on the left off the foyer … Miss Duff,” says Holmes, whose boyhood memories of a second-grade teacher sparked the interest of his tour group.
“For most people, that personal connection is the hook,” says Linda Neal, superintendent of the Governor’s Island National Monument, who seeks to include reminiscences like Holmes’ in the new park’s exhibits. “There are a whole host of ways we can incorporate that — audio tours that supplement what the ranger is saying, exhibits or brochures.”

Although the park is still in the planning stages, NPS hopes to begin collecting stories during this season’s tours. Governor’s Island “alumni” have a head start: Tom Clinard, who was born on the island in 1936, has scrapbooked fellow Army brats’ memories, including Holmes’ travelogue, on his Web site, <www.govislandarmybrat. com>. Many Coast Guard brats, whose tenure on Governor’s Island began in 1966 after the US First Army Headquarters departed, still reunite yearly. About 3,000 members of the Coast Guard lived with their families on the island when it closed.

NPS tours, which will resume this summer, also visit the island’s historic district and Castle Williams — a massive, 1811 circular fort where the US Army defended New York during the War of 1812 and later imprisoned Confederate soldiers. For more information on tours, go to <> or <>.

Castle Williams’ 8-foot-thick sandstone walls made it virtually bombproof.

From the June 2004 Family Tree Magazine