Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Navy Came and Green Cove Changed

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Navy Came and Green Cove Changed

Article excerpt

Byline: Mary Jo McTammany, County Line columnist

In 1939, the U.S. Navy came to Green Cove Springs and built Lee Field just southeast of the city limits.

The townsfolk had some experience with entertaining guests. In the late 1800s, they were accustomed to having their lives turned upside down by the annual winter migration of northern invalids and tourists, who stayed six months. The Navy stayed year-round for 23 years. Life changed when it came, when it left and all the time in between.

The installation had a clear military objective in response to the battle rattle emanating from Europe and the Pacific. The consensus was that the embryonic aviation industry and air superiority would prove the deciding factor in this and future wars. The goal was simple -- build planes, train lots of pilots to fly them and do it quickly.

Lee Field served as an auxiliary airfield for pilots training at Jacksonville Naval Air Station. Landing strips were also built on Fleming Island, in St. Augustine and Switzerland. For the sleepy town of Green Cove Springs, which was struggling to break the painful grip of the Great Depression, the military invasion was a mixed blessing.

Almost immediately jobs were available for civilian men and women. Local suppliers of lumber, fresh foods and Coca-Cola gratefully struggled to meet demand and watched the bookkeeping numbers turn from red to black.

But no community can double its population overnight and remain the same. Before the base actually opened in March of 1941, a little over 1,500 souls claimed Green Cove Springs as home. The station complement hovered at over 2,000 people.

Most of these new arrivals were very young men who were considered boys before they enlisted. On base, their lives were run with strict military discipline. Off base, they were facing war and away from home for the first time, free of the restraints of parents and community. They were ready to kick up their heels and find out how far they could go. …

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