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.”
Corry Station is one of the Navy’s technical training showplaces. The base is about 5 miles north of NAS Pensacola.
The original Corry Field had its beginnings in 1923, in a remote area north of Pensacola. By 1926, it became apparent that the meager facilities of this site would no longer suffice. The number of pilots being trained was on the increase, and a growing city of Pensacola began to encircle the flying field. In 1927, a 530-acre tract of land was acquired by the government, the gift of Escambia County, for relocation of the landing field. The present site was dedicated Corry Field on Nov. 1, 1928. Construction of permanent buildings began in 1933, and on Dec. 8, 1934, the field was commissioned as an auxiliary base field under the Naval Air Training Center.
The station’s name honors the memory of Medal of Honor recipient Lt. Cmdr. William M. Corry Jr., who died as a result of burns received while attempting to rescue a fellow officer from a crashed and burning aircraft. Corry was one of naval aviation’s pioneers, having been among the first aviators to receive the Navy’s wings of gold.
In its early years, Corry Field was an active Navy aviation training command used for advanced fighter plane training. Redesignated as a Naval Auxiliary Air Station in 1943, the field continued to serve as a training center for naval aviators throughout World War II and the Korean hostilities until its decommissioning in 1958.
The site, once dedicated to flight training, shifted gears in 1960 with the arrival of the first class of communications technicians — later called cryptologic technicians. Hangars were converted to classrooms, and laboratories were stocked with sophisticated communications training equipment. Corry was commissioned the Naval Communications Training Center, Corry Station as the facility’s mission became more diversified with the addition of the Naval Schools of Photography and the Consolidated Navy Electronics Warfare School.
The command was among the first Navy technical schools to achieve accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Since 1975, this accreditation has assured that instruction is of the same quality as that offered in the best civilian vocational institutions and that students may receive college-level credit for completed courses.
In January 1990, the center’s training capability expanded even further as the first classes convened at the Optics, Instrumentation, Instructor and Information Systems School. From 1995 to 1999, Corry Station served as host of multiservice electronic warfare training with the addition of the Joint Aviation Electronic Warfare School.
The primary mission of the commands at Corry Station today is to provide technical and military training in information operations, cryptology, information technology, information warfare and instructor training to produce well-trained, motivated and disciplined personnel in support of U.S. and allied operational forces.
The Center for Information Dominance (CID) is the most senior staff on Corry Station. The CID headquarters’ offices and largest learning site are onboard Corry Station, with other detachments throughout the continental U.S., Hawaii and Japan. CID graduates approximately 16,000 students annually.
Corry Station also hosts the Navy Information Operations Command (NIOC) Pensacola and various other staff.
Its role has changed over the years, but traditional pride still dwells within the Corry Station education complex as it continues to provide the finest and best-trained personnel in the military.
The field was named in honor of Lt. j.g. Richard Caswell Saufley, designated Naval Aviator No. 14. Saufley was instrumental in setting up the rudiments of naval flight training at its inception in Pensacola around 1914. He set an altitude record of 16,072 feet in early 1916, flying an open-air seaplane. Saufley also set an endurance record of 8 hours, 43 minutes of continuous flight.
Saufley was killed in a crash off Santa Rosa Island in June 1916 while attempting to break his own endurance record. He had been flying for 8 hours, 51 minutes at the time of his crash. Saufley is enshrined in the National Museum of Naval Aviation’s Hall of Honor.
One month after the base opened in August 1940, an instrument flying school was transferred to Saufley Field bringing with it 50 SNJ Texans and 35 “Link” trainers. Two months later, the first primary training squadron was based there.
The outbreak of war in December 1941 brought increased numbers of student naval aviators. Soon the base was swarming with Sailors, and flying went on 24/7.
Saufley’s stature grew as the tempo of flying increased. On March 1, 1943, the base was commissioned Naval Auxiliary Air Station (NAAS) Saufley Field and provided every phase of flight training except preflight.
Following World War II, the Navy began closing numerous Naval Auxiliary Air Stations, but Saufley remained open, and full operations continued for tactical and carrier qualification training.
In 1959, flight instructors were assigned to, and flying for, VT-1 and VT-5. These aviation-training squadrons were commissioned in May 1960 and designated tenant commands at Saufley Field. Saufley’s mission was revised to provide support for the training squadrons. VT-1 instructors, flying T-34Bs, provided flight indoctrination for NROTC and United States Naval Academy midshipmen. VT-5 provided primary flight training for pilots, flight officers and flight surgeons.
During the height of the Vietnam War, Saufley Field became a full-fledged naval air station July 31, 1968. The training squadrons and NAS Saufley Field were decommissioned by late 1976. Saufley became an outlying landing field. Saufley Field was reactivated in 1979 when Naval Education TrainingProgram Development Center moved from Ellyson Field.
Saufley Field celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2015. Today, there are about 900 acres and 60 buildings and structures at Saufley Field. There are approximately 1,400 military and civilian personnel assigned to NETPDC and tenant commands.