Sailors have been flocking to the area surrounding the present site of Naval Station Mayport for more than 400 years. With its ease of access to inland waterways and the open ocean, early Sailors’ interest in the region has resulted in an important military base with strong ties to the community.
In 1562, French Huguenot Commodore Jean Ribault, then said to be the greatest captain on the seas, was selected by the famous Adm. Gaspard de Coligny to lead an expedition to Florida; his mission was to form a French Protestant colony. Ribault arrived off what is now known as Mayport, near the mouth of the St. Johns River, May 1 of that year. Landing on the north side of the river, now Fort George, it is said they offered up prayers while the Native Americans looked on with attentive silence. They were received warmly by the Native Americans, including Satourbia, their chief.
The following morning, May 2, Ribault entered to the south side of the river with his captains, gentlemen, soldiers and others. They had with them a stone monument that they placed, according to Ribault’s narrative, on a sand hill on the south side of the river near its mouth and plainly visible from the sea. In 1564, de Coligny dispatched another French Huguenot, Commodore Rene Goulaine de Laudonniere, to establish a colony near the mouth of the St. Johns River. The Spanish were fearful of French domination in north Florida. Their “treasure fleet” followed the Gulf Stream up the coast of Florida, past the mouth of the St. Johns River, and discovered the French positions in the area before crossing the Atlantic Ocean for Spain. With the arrival of this news in Spain, the government dispatched a fleet under command of Pedro de Menendez to the Mayport area to prevent continued French occupation.
At about the same time the Spanish fleet set sail for this area, reinforcements commanded by Ribault were sent by de Coligny to the French colony. The two fleets, French and Spanish, met near the site of this base, but the Spanish retired to St. Augustine. Soon afterward, the French fleet followed to drive the Spanish away; but, as the French fleet was ready to attack, the ships were swept to the south and wrecked by a violent hurricane. Menendez took advantage of the situation and moved overland to destroy the then-defenseless French colony (Fort Caroline) at St. Johns Bluff. After seizing this area for Spain, and executing the French prisoners, Menendez set up small military outposts: one at the present site of Naval Station Mayport, one immediately across the river and one at the fort at St. Johns Bluff.
A French expedition under the command of Dominique de Gourgues set sail to take revenge for this act. In 1568, de Gourgues entered the St. Johns River and seized the Spanish blockhouse at Mayport, as well as the other two outposts in this area. In reprisal, he executed all the Spanish and then left for France. In 1580, on the river near the base, the Spanish destroyed a French warship. Six years later, the English fleet under Sir Francis Drake attempted to land here after attacking St. Augustine but was prevented by high winds.
Through old maps, there is evidence of continuous occupation of the naval station site by Native Americans, Spanish, English and Americans since the 16th century. The Native Americans in this area were wiped out by slave traders from South Carolina under Gov. James Moore in the early 18th century.
During the Revolutionary War period, Florida was occupied by the English. The river was patrolled by a group of British vessels called the St. Johns Fleet, whose duty was to prevent American sympathizers from crossing the river from the south side to the north. During this time, many Spanish citizens moved into the Mayport area from the New Smyrna colony. Many of their descendants still live in the city of Mayport, adjacent to the naval station.
At the outbreak of the American Civil War, a Confederate company from Jacksonville, the Jacksonville Light Infantry, set up a fort on the present naval station. They named it Fort Steele in honor of their commanding officer, a medical officer named Dr. Steele. Steele was soon transferred to the Confederate Medical Corps, and command of the company was assumed by Capt. Doggett. Because the fort was considered indefensible, the guns were buried and the Jacksonville Company was made part of the main Confederate forces in Tennessee. A number of years before the Navy acquired this site, these guns were discovered near the present pilothouse and were recovered.
During the late 19th century, the site of this base was a fashionable resort area. At that time there were no jetties, and the wooded area of the base, fronted by a beach, was a shore of the south channel of the St. Johns River. Summer visitors from Jacksonville had their cottages on the area of the base rather than at the beach. In the early 20th century, the site was acquired by a family of northern visitors who established their residences here and set up a group of cottages for rental.
In 1890, there was a flourishing little colony where most of the installations of the naval station are now located. There was a red brick lighthouse, the foundation of which was plainly visible about 100 feet out surrounded by 3 feet of water to a 1,000-foot pier at Wonderwood. There was another large brick home built on the beach, however, a tremendous high tide accompanied by a strong northeast wind swept it and the lighthouse away. In 1932, Sidney Hartley’s general store was located where the Security Office is now. Texaco gas was sold here at 21 cents a gallon.
Under the Hepburn Act of May 17, 1938, (Public Law 528 of the 75th Congress) the Honorable Claude Swanson appointed a board to be headed by Rear Adm. A.J. Hepburn to investigate “a southeastern naval air base.” In communication to Congress on Dec. 27, 1938, the board recommended the establishment of a major base at Jacksonville having the following characteristics:
- Facilities for two carrier groups (planned with a view to expansion to four carrier groups).
- Facilities for three patrol squadrons (planned with a view to accommodate six squadrons).
- Facilities for two utility squadrons.
- Facilities for complete plane and engine overhaul.
- Berthing for carriers at inner end of entrance jetty.
- A channel to permit tender berthing at piers at Camp Foster.
- Development of an outlying patrol plane operating area in the lower Banana River.
The citizens of Duval County (Jacksonville) promised the Navy Department they would buy the land for the main naval air base and carrier berthing (Naval Station Mayport). Upon passage of H.R. 2880, 76th Congress, 1st Session, which authorized the projects contained in House Document 65, the citizens of Duval County on July 18, 1939, passed a $1.1 million bond issue to purchase land for the two stations.
In April 1939, the Navy Department initiated plans for this area, which included a site along the south jetties for the development of an aircraft carrier basin. In December of that year, on the basis of a report made by Cmdr. Carl Cotter, officer in charge of construction, Ribault Bay was selected as the location for such a basin. The basin was dredged to 29 feet and used by patrol craft, target and rescue boats, and jeep carriers during World War II.
At the war’s end, $780,000 had been appropriated to build a carrier pier on the north side of the basin. This appropriation, with many others, was canceled, and no improvements were made. On the basis of a proposal submitted by Lt. Cmdr. M.R. Sanders, commanding officer, Section Base 1, Naval Reserve Armory, recommending establishment of a second section base at Mayport, the station was commissioned as a U.S. Naval Section Base in December 1942.
Growth and Development
On April 1, 1944, the air facility at Mayport was commissioned a naval auxiliary air station (NAAS), commanded by Sanders. At the same time, the Sea Frontier Base was maintained in the bay area. The next year, the naval auxiliary air station took over the entire site, including the pier and docking facilities. During World War II, the U.S. naval section base and naval auxiliary air station provided vital support to the country’s war effort in terms of personnel and logistics. Following the war, both the naval section base and NAAS were decommissioned and placed in a caretaker status. The Coast Guard took over the base and operated a small “boot camp” there for several years, but they vacated Mayport in late 1947, due to budget cuts.
Mayport was reactivated again in June 1948, as a naval outlying landing field under the cognizance of the commanding officer, Naval Air Station, Jacksonville. Three years later the land area of Navy Mayport facilities was increased to 1,680 acres and work began on extending the runway. Through the late 1940s and mid-1950s, the Mayport base continued to grow to accommodate new classes of ships and extended runways for the increasing air traffic.
On Oct. 29, 1952, USS Tarawa (CVS 40), under command of Capt. J.H. Munroe, entered Ribault Bay to become the first capital ship to utilize Mayport’s new carrier basin. Operating as a naval auxiliary landing field under cognizance of the commanding officer, U.S. Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Mayport received much assistance in servicing Tarawa, including tug boats from Naval Station Green Cove Springs, Florida.
In 1953, the U.S. Corps of Engineers received $350,000 to re-dredge the basin to 40-plus feet so Midway-class carriers could enter the basin. The first of these ships was USS Coral Sea in 1954. By 1955, Mayport had grown considerably in land area, command importance and activity and represented an investment of nearly $10 million. A master jet runway 8,000 feet long and a 4,200-foot-long runway were in use at the station, and many new structures including an operations building had been built at Mayport. On July 1, 1955, in appropriate ceremonies, Mayport became once again a naval auxiliary air station. Vice Adm. Thomas Combs, deputy chief of naval operations (air), delivered the main address at the commissioning ceremonies in the presence of an assemblage of military officials and civilian dignitaries. Capt. John Thatch, commanding officer, Naval Air Station Jacksonville, read the commissioning directive, and thereafter Cmdr. William Hotrod, formerly officer in charge of the naval auxiliary landing field, read orders designating him commanding officer of the U.S. Naval Auxiliary Air Station Mayport. When commissioned in 1955, the station had an assigned allowance of eight officers and 230 enlisted personnel and employed 101 civilians.
In April 1955, Rear Adm. Robert Goldwaite, Commander, Carrier Division 2, moved his headquarters to Mayport. This was the first time in Jacksonville’s history that such headquarters were shore-based here. The following year, the aircraft carrier USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (CVA 42) arrived in Mayport, its new homeport, from Bremerton, Washington. This was also the first time Navy families moved here with the ship. An “ordnance clearance” of 462 acres in 1956 brought the total land area of Mayport to 1,888 acres; and in 1957, another 540 acres of land was acquired to bring the land area total to 2,428acres.
For the remainder of the 20th century, Naval Station Mayport continued to expand to accommodate more ships, Sailors and their families, and improvements in base facilities. In May 1959, for example, construction of the destroyer slip at the U.S. Naval Auxiliary Air Station Mayport became a link in the nation’s newest, fastest automatic teletypewriter communications system. At this time, the Navy put into operation a 48,000-mile network interconnecting 236 teletypewriter stations in 31 states; this resulted in an immediate 70 percent increase in communications efficiency at Mayport.
Shortly before noon June 8, 1959, the first official dispatch of U.S. Mail was launched from the guided-missile submarine USS Barbero (SSG 317), in international waters at sea. Twenty-two minutes later the Regulus I Missile, carrying about 3,000 pieces of mail, landed at the U.S. Naval Auxiliary Air Station Mayport. Among those officials present for the event was Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield who stated, upon successful landing of the “missile mail” at Mayport, “This peacetime employment of a guided-missile for the important and practical purpose of carrying mail is the first known official use of missiles by any Post Office Department of any nation.” On July 8, 1959, more than 6,000 special souvenir envelopes, commemorating the landing of the first official missile mail at Mayport, and containing a historical brochure concerning the station, were mailed to stamp collectors and Post Office Department officials throughout the world. Aside from being an item of collection value to those who received it, the souvenir envelope and its enclosure served historical purpose and brought credit to the naval service commensurate with its part in the project to develop swifter transmission of mail.
As helicopter aviation evolved during the Cold War, Mayport became the East Coast home for the Light Airborne Multi-Purpose System (LAMPS) MK III community. As a reflection of growth, Mayport Naval Air Facility was redesignated as a naval air station in 1988.
Mayport’s location has given its homeported ships many opportunities to participate in both military operations and several other national interest projects. On Feb. 23, 1962, the Mayport-based USS Noa (DD 841) was a recovery ship for the Mercury space capsule Friendship Seven and astronaut Lt. Col. John Glenn Jr., the first American to orbit the Earth. On June 11, 1965, the carrier USS Wasp brought Lt. Col. Jim McDivitt, Lt. Col. Ed White and the Gemini 4 capsule to Naval Station Mayport following their completion of 62 Earth orbits in four days.
From Oct. 21 to Nov. 22, 1962, the naval station was deeply involved in the Cuban missile crisis. The 2nd Marine Division set up an advanced staging area on the station. Naval Station Mayport provided logistic support to naval amphibious units, PHIBRON 12 and PHIBGRU 4; to fleet support ships USS Vermillion and USS Yancey; and to the carriers USS Saratoga, USS Lexington, USS Thetis Bay, USS Boxer and USS Okinawa.
In February 1973, Naval Station Mayport hit the front pages of nearly every newspaper in the United States as all hands turned out to greet the “Spirit of ’76” and its passengers, President Richard and Pat Nixon and their daughter, Julie Nixon Eisenhower. During their short stay, the first family visited USS Albany to greet the president’s son-in-law, Lt. J.G. David Eisenhower, an Albany crewmember. In responding to the many signs reading “Thank you for bringing our boys home” after their deployment, the president told the crowd at Mayport that it was his responsibility to see that the boys came home to a peace with honor and that “it wouldn’t have been possible if it had not been for the people like the 4,500 men of Saratoga. It was a long and tiring 10-month assignment, but what you did helped to make the great event possible.”
During 1982 and 1983, several ships homeported at the naval station were involved in operations off the coast of Beirut, Lebanon. Three ships and DESRON 24, homeported here, were involved in Operation Urgent Fury, the rescue operation in Grenada in 1983.
On May 17, 1987, the Mayport-based guided-missile frigate USS Stark (FFG 31) was struck by two Iraqi missiles while operating in the Persian Gulf. The resulting explosion and fires took the lives of 37 crewmen. President Ronald and Nancy Reagan attended the memorial service at Mayport five dayslater.
In August 1990, after Iraq invaded Kuwait in the Middle East, several Mayport units in the USS Saratoga Battle Group, including USS Leyte Gulf, USS Vreeland, USS Impervious and USS McInerney, deployed to the region for several months.
In January 1991, Operation Desert Shield became Operation Desert Storm when full-scale military operations began against Iraq. March saw the rapid conclusion of Desert Storm and the return of some of Mayport’s units. The USS Saratoga Battle Group returned to Mayport in late March; the final Mayport unit to return home was USS McInerney in early July.
In December 1998, the USS Gettysburg was heavily involved with the USS Enterprise Battle Group during Operation Desert Fox against Iraqi military targets. USS Philippine Sea was the first unit to launch Tomahawk missiles in March 1999, in support of Operation Allied Force, a NATO operation againstSerbia.
Naval Station Mayport at the Turn of the Century
The new century finds Naval Station Mayport thriving with activity and well-positioned to serve as a vehicle for mission readiness. While the face of the base is familiar to many who have watched it grow for years, the infrastructure has evolved with, and anticipated, developments in technology, service and family needs.
While the teletypewriter system and missile mail program provided significant improvements to message processing and mail delivery in 1959, developments in email and digital communications dramatically changed the capabilities of both the ships and squadrons assigned to Mayport and the base shore facilities that support them. Deployed squadrons and ships are equipped with local area networks (LAN) and satellite connectivity that provide nearly instantaneous message processing, Internet access and email capability, which has a very positive effect on crew morale. The shore facilities are similarly connected to the Internet, and many offices have improved efficiency and productivity through electronic correspondence.
The more things change, the more they stay the same; so it goes for Naval Station Mayport. In 1959, the main gate to the base was moved to accommodate a growing base and improve security; in 2000, it was moved again for the same reasons. The golf course on base was opened in 1960, and it underwent rehabilitation in 2000. In 1956, USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (CVA 42) was homeported in Mayport; in 2000, USS Roosevelt (DDG 80) brought the Roosevelt family name back to Mayport. In 1965, the Carrier Pier Snack Bar was opened; in March 2000, a new single Sailor center opened for the Mayport population of single Sailors. Named “Planet Mayport,” it provides a computer and Internet surfing room, computer game area, large-screen TV room, movie theater, laundromat, ATM, library and many other amenities. The base continues to rehabilitate and modernize its housing areas; its piers are undergoing renovation; and the Morale, Welfare and Recreation team continues to provide the base population with the best in entertainment, value and convenience.
The Navy at Mayport covers 3,409 acres and is the third-largest naval facility in the continental United States. As a major surface and air warfare organization, Mayport remains dedicated to providing “The Finest Service to the Finest Fleet,” as we head into the 21st century.