The site now occupied by Naval Air Station Pensacola has a colorful history dating to the 16th century when Spanish explorer Don Tristan de Luna founded a colony on the bluff where Fort Barrancas is now. In the ensuing years, the flags of Spain, France, Great Britain, the Confederacy and the United States have flown over the strategic port of Pensacola.
The U.S. purchase of the Floridas from Spain in 1821 spawned government realization of strategic importance of Pensacola Bay as a site for a support facility for naval squadrons operating in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean.
Realizing the advantages of the Pensacola harbor and the large timber reserves nearby for shipbuilding, President John Quincy Adams and Secretary of the Navy Samuel Southard made arrangements in 1825 to build a navy yard on the southern tip of Escambia County, where the air station is today. Navy Capts. William Bainbridge, Lewis Warrington and James Biddle selected the site on Pensacola Bay.
Construction began in April 1826, and the Pensacola Navy Yard became one of the best-equipped naval stations in the country. In its early years, the base dealt mainly with the suppression of slave trade and piracy in the Gulf and Caribbean.
With a large, wet basin, a floating dry dock and other facilities for building, docking and repairing the largest warships of the time, the yard turned out such masterpieces as the steam frigate USS Pensacola, which saw Civil War action at both the Battle of Mobile Bay and the Battle of New Orleans.
Eighty acres in the southeast corner of the yard, around which a brick wall was built, was set aside for use as an arsenal. Portions of the wall are still standing.
When the Union forces captured New Orleans in 1862, Confederate troops, fearing attack from the west, retreated from the navy yard and reduced most of the facilities to rubble. After the war, the ruins at the yard were cleared away and work was begun to rebuild the base. Many of the present structures on the air station were built during this period, including the stately two- and three-story houses on North Avenue.
In 1906, however, a great hurricane and tidal wave destroyed many of the newly rebuilt structures, and less than two years later, an epidemic of yellow fever brought reconstruction to a standstill. In October 1911, the yard was decommissioned.
Meanwhile, great strides were being made in aviation. The Wright brothers, and especially Glenn Curtiss, were trying to prove to the Navy that the airplane had a place in the fleet. Curtiss began construction of a seaplane design, and in January 1911, civilian pilot Eugene Ely landed a frail Curtiss Pusher airplane on a makeshift wooden flight deck onboard the USS Pennsylvania in San Francisco Bay, demonstrating the value of the airplane to the Navy.
The Navy Department, now awakened to the possibilities of naval aviation through the efforts of Capt. W.I. Chambers, urged Congress to include a provision for aeronautical development in the Naval Appropriation Act, enacted in 1911 to 1912. Chambers was ordered to devote all of his time to naval aviation.
He contracted for three planes, one from the Wright brothers and two from Curtiss, with the provision that the builders train a pilot for each plane. Navy Lt. Theodore G. Ellyson was given instruction by Curtiss and became the first naval aviator. Lt. John Rodgers and Lt. John Towers, former chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics, became the second and third naval aviators, respectively. A camp was established at Groonbury Point near Annapolis, Maryland, and the first naval flight organization began operations.
The first successful catapult launching made by Ellyson in 1912 suggested even broader applications, and in 1913, extensive experiments involving fleet and aerial scouting planes were conducted with astounding and gratifying results. The Navy was convinced.
In October 1913, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels appointed a board, with Capt. Chambers as chairman, to make a survey of aeronautical needs and to establish a policy to guide future development. One of the board’s most important recommendations was the establishment of an aviation training station in Pensacola. The recommendation was approved, and the first U.S. naval air station was created in 1914 on the site of the abandoned navy yard.
Cmdr. Henry C. Mustin became the first base commander, and all pilots and planes were ordered for duty. A row of 10 tent hangars was set up along the sandy beach, with wooden ramps running from each tent to the water. Naval aviation consisted of nine officers, 23 mechanics and eight airplanes.
Upon entry into World War I, Pensacola, still the only naval air station, had 38 naval aviators, 163 enlisted men trained in aviation and 54 airplanes. Two years later, by the signing of the armistice in November 1918, the air station, with 438 officers and 5,538 enlisted men, had trained 1,000 naval aviators. At the war’s end, seaplanes, dirigibles and free kite balloons were housed in steel and wooden hangars stretching a mile down the air station beach.
In the years following World War I, aviation training slowed. From the 12-month flight course, an average of 100 pilots were graduating yearly. This was before the day of aviation cadets, and the majority of the students included in the flight-training program were Annapolis graduates. Thus, Naval Air Station Pensacola became known as the “Annapolis of the air.”
In 1928, envisioning great expansion at Pensacola, the Navy Department ordered the construction of an auxiliary field 5 miles northwest of NAS Pensacola in honor of Lt. Cmdr. William M. Corry Jr., Pensacola’s 23rd flight student, who served with distinction in World War I.
With the inauguration in 1935 of the cadet-training program, activity at Pensacola again expanded. When Pensacola’s training facilities could no longer accommodate the ever-increasing number of cadets accepted by the Navy, two more naval air stations were created, one in Jacksonville, Florida, and the other in Corpus Christi, Texas. In August 1940, a larger auxiliary base, Saufley Field, named for Lt. j.g. Richard C. Saufley, Naval Aviator No. 14, was added to Pensacola’s activities. In October 1941, a third field, named after Lt. Ellyson, was commissioned.
As the nations of the world moved toward World War II, NAS Pensacola once again became the hub of air training activities. After the fall of France in 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called for 126,000 planes. Under the administration of its commandant, Capt. A.C. Read, Naval Aviator No. 24, NAS expanded again, training 1,100 cadets a month, 11 times the amount trained annually in the 1920s.
To help produce the quota of men for the emergency, NAS added three more auxiliary fields, Bronson, Barin and Whiting, all named for early naval aviators. During World War II, the number of pilots trained by NAS reached an all-time high in 1944, when 12,010 men completed training and flew a combined total of almost 2 million hours. The growth of NAS from 10 tents to the world’s greatest naval aviation center was emphasized by then-Sen. Owen Brewster’s statement: “The growth of naval aviation during World War II is one of the wonders of the modern world.”
The record achieved by naval pilots during World War II pays tribute to the excellence of their training. Navy carrier planes shot down 6,444 Japanese planes, losing fewer than 450 of their own, a 14-to-1 superiority in aerial combat. The total number of enemy aircraft destroyed by the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps was 15,401.
In 1948, the Naval Air Basic Training Command (NABTC) headquarters moved from Corpus Christi, Texas, to Pensacola. Working with the Naval Air Training Command, which also was located there, NABTC was instrumental in expanding naval air training and coordinating all basic flight, ground and specialized training. New aircraft designed strictly for training appeared, and jets became part of the training syllabus. Helicopters, having proven their value in the Korean War, increased in importance.
The war in Korea presented problems, as the military was caught in the midst of transitioning from propellers to jets, and the air station revised its courses and training techniques. Nonetheless, NAS Pensacola produced an impressive 6,000 aviators from 1950 to 1953.
Pilot training requirements shifted upward to meet the demands for the Vietnam War, which occupied much of the 1960s and 1970s. Pilot production was as high as 2,552 (1968) and as low as 1,413 (1962).
In 1971, NAS Pensacola was picked as the headquarters site for CNET, a new command that combined direction and control of all Navy education and training. The NABTC was absorbed by the Naval Air Training Command, which moved to Corpus Christi.
NAS Pensacola today has myriad activities, including the headquarters and staff of the Chief of Naval Education and Training; Training Air Wing 6 and subordinate squadrons; Naval Aviation Schools Command; Center for Naval Technical Training; Center for Information Dominance; Marine Aviation Training Support Group; Naval Air Technical Training Center; Naval Operational Medicine Institute; Naval Recruiting Orientation Unit; and the world-renowned Blue Angels Flight Demonstration Squadron. A continuing attraction for visitors to the Southeast is the National Museum of Naval Aviation.
The Pensacola Naval Complex in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties employs more than 16,000 military and 7,000 civilian personnel and contributes approximately $1.2 billion to the local economy annually.
PENSACOLA HAS A HAUNTING HISTORY
An aura of mystery and splendor pervades “Admiral’s Row.” Significant on Johnson Street is Quarters A, a stately home where the air station’s most senior officer, the chief of naval education and training, and family reside. When this area was built in 1874, the commandant of the old navy yard lived there.
Now, for a haunting good yarn to spellbind you, and former Quarters A residents say it is true:
Commodore Melanchton B. Woolsey was the first commandant to live here. He was terrified of contracting yellow fever, since an epidemic had already claimed thousands of lives and he didn’t want to be the disease’s next victim.
He erroneously believed, as others did, that disease-carrying mosquitoes could only fly a few feet high. So, Woolsey moved into the third-story cupola. He got his meals, rum (which he claimed was a “tonic” against the fever) and tobacco for his pipe by lowering a basket on a rope from one of the cupola’s windows.
One day, his servant forgot the rum. Woolsey died soon thereafter. Yet, as residents believe, his spirit stayed on in the house. Perhaps to stay with a lovely lady, transparent and clad in white, who also resides in Quarters A, forever.
Building 16 is another certified haunted place. This octagonal-shaped building was the Officers’ Quarters during the 1920s, and today some say the building is haunted by a patron from that decade.
In 1924, Marine Capt. Guy Hall, a flight instructor, enjoyed playing poker when he wasn’t flying. While playing, he had a habit of picking up his poker chips, then letting them fall to the table.
Hall died during a training mission in the 1920s, and on more than one occasion since that fateful day, people in Building 16 have heard what sounds like poker chips hitting the table.
This classic ghost story begins in 1857 with the construction of the Pensacola Lighthouse and two of its early keepers, a husband and wife.
For some reason, the wife murdered her husband while he slept in their quarters adjacent to the lighthouse. The violent stabbing left a large pool of blood on the floor.
A psychologist who stayed there several years ago alleged there are actually three lighthouse ghosts. Two, he said, are probably keepers who died there of natural causes. The third is either the murdered keeper or his mistress.
Take a walk up the lighthouse’s 178 steps, late at night, and perhaps you’ll be “greeted” by its “keeper.”