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 Admiral 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, on May 1 of that year. Landing on the north side of the river, now Ft. 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 Saturiwa, their chief.
The following morning, on 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 which 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 RenGoulaine 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 Jean 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 (Ft. 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 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 Governor 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 Captain 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 three 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. Helpburn to investigate “a southeastern naval air base.” In communication to Congress on Dec. 27, 1938, “the board recommends 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 $1,100,000 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 Commander 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 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 cancelled and no improvements were made. On the basis of a proposal submitted by Lieutenant Commander M. R. Sanders, commanding officer, Section Base One, 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, Fla.
In 1953, the U.S. Corps of Engineers received $350,000 to re-dredge the basin to 40 plus two 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 Admiral 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. Captain John Thatch, commanding officer, Naval Air Station Jacksonville, read the commissioning directive and thereafter Commander 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, 230 enlisted personnel, and employed 101 civilians.
In April of 1955, Rear Admiral Robert Goldwaite, Commander, Carrier Division Two, 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 2,428 acres.
For the remainder of the twentieth 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 on 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 an 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 re-designated as a naval air station in 1988.
Mayport’s location has given its home ported 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 and Lt. Col. Ed White and the Gemini 4 capsule to Naval Station Mayport following their completion of 62 Earth orbits in four days.
During the period from Oct. 21 to Nov. 22, 1962, the naval station was deeply involved in the “Cuban Missile Crisis.” The Second 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; and to fleet support ships USS Vermillion and USS Yancey and 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 and Mrs. Richard 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 home ported at Mayport Naval Station were involved in operations off the coast of Beirut, Lebanon. Three ships and DESRON 24, home ported 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 and Mrs. Ronald Reagan attended the memorial service at Mayport five days later.
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, USS Gettysburg was heavily involved with the USS Enterprise Battle Group during Operation “Desert Fox,” against Iraqi military targets. Most recently, USS Philippine Sea was the first unit to launch Tomahawk missiles in March of 1999, in support of Operation “Allied Force,” a NATO Operation against Serbia.
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 e-mail 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 underwent rehabilitation in 2000. In 1956, USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (CVA 42) was home ported 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/net 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 underwent 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.”