Naval Hospital rings in 61st year

Local government and military leaders and the staff of Naval Hospital Beaufort gathered early Friday to celebrate the 60th birthday of what the base's commanding officer calls, "the most glorious spot in Navy medicine."

Following the weekly morning colors ceremony along the Beaufort River, Capt. Mark Bernier, commanding officer of Naval Hospital Beaufort, and the hospital's military and civilian stafflookedat old photos of the hospitaland reflected on the installation'shistory.

Bernier said the hospital is almost as storied as the 127-acre Port Royal parcel the hospital sits on.

"As I thought about what I wanted to say this morning, it occurred to me that we're going into our seventh decade in this building. There aren't very many medical facilities that can say that," he said. "This building is part of the charm of this base."

The hospital was commissioned April 29, 1949, before U.S. congressmen, Navy brass and other dignitaries, including then-Gov. Strom Thurmond. The Naval Hospital admitted its first patient May 5, 1949, replacing Naval Hospital Parris Island, which was open from 1891 through May 1949. The Naval Hospital now includes a 200-bed primary care facility near Ribaut Road in Port Royal and branch clinics at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island and Marine Corps Air Station.

The hospital, which employs more than 400people, provides an indispensable service to Beaufort's Marines, sailors and their families, said Carlotta Ungaro, president and CEO of the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce.

"Health carefor our military is a vital service, and this facility continues to meet those needs," she said.

The hospital serves Beaufort's active-duty Marines and sailors, their families, and military retirees in the area.

Though the hospital wasn'tbuilt on its current site until the 1940s, stories about land itself stretch back to Beaufort's colonial days.

English settlers built Fort Frederick in 1735 to protect Beaufort from American Indiansand Spaniards. The land then became home to a plantation owned by John Joiner Smith before it was a Civil War garrison and home to Camp Saxton, the training ground of the First South Carolina Volunteers, one of the earliest all-black units authorized by President Abraham Lincoln to fight for the Union.

Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling said the hospital is an important part of the community's civic identity.

"The hospital is part of Beaufort's military family," he said. "When you come to ceremonies like this, you become much more appreciative of the bond between the people and their governments and our military."

It remains to be seen whether the hospital will spend the next 60 years in Port Royal. A plan to build a new Naval Hospital Beaufort is awaiting federal funding, and the new facility could be built at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort or Laurel Bay, according to the Navy.