NAS Jacksonville: Amid world conflict, base trained generation of Navy pilots for battle

Referendum to transfer land for naval base received near-unanimous public support from Jacksonville voters

Naval Air Station Jacksonville is the largest Naval base in the Southeast region and the third-largest in the United States.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Naval Air Station Jacksonville is the largest Naval base in the Southeast region and the third-largest in the United States.

As Jacksonville celebrates its bicentennial anniversary in 2022, News4JAX dug into the history of this key strategic air station for this brief look at its origins, operations during the world’s largest conflict and the astronomically one-sided vote that made it all happen.

A public referendum

In the summer of 1939, Japan had already invaded China and in just a matter of months, Adolf Hitler’s armies would invade Poland, thrusting the world into a second world war.

Though the U.S. would not join the war initially, the U.S. government was working to bolster its coastal air defense and identified Jacksonville as a prime location for a new naval air station.

“They were looking for a place to put pilot training,” NAS Jacksonville historian Ronald Williamson said. “They also needed a place near the water there so they could train in the big seaplanes, and they also wanted a place where they could get carriers in.”

After congressional approval, it was up to a local referendum of Jacksonville voters to decide whether to bond the land out to the U.S. Navy.

Though the special election day saw rainy skies in Duval County, 92% of voters turned out to cast a ballot, of which, 98% voted to approve the bond issue.

The National Guard operations that had been on the NAS Jacksonville site were relocated to Clay County, and that new base was called Camp Blanding Joint Training Center. NAS Jacksonville was officially commissioned on Oct. 15, 1940.

Full speed ahead

The main operation at NAS Jacksonville as the U.S. entered World War II was the training of naval aviators.

Pilots would begin training on the N2S Stearman biplanes and later graduate to PBY Catalinas and SNJ Texan aircraft for more strategic water or attack missions.

At its peak in 1944, there were roughly 1,000 aircraft on the base and there were an average of two take-offs and landings every 60 seconds.

To facilitate the training, more than 30 satellite bases were drafted into operation, including sites at Cecil Field, St. Augustine Airport, Green Cove Springs, Mayport and many others.

“A lot of the little small regional airports that you hear about today; St. Augustine’s airport, Fernandina beach’s airport, the airport up at Jekyll Island, the Lake City field, they took Lake City Airport,” said Williamson.

More than 10,000 pilots and 11,000 crewmen earned their gold wings at the station during World War II.

Prisoners of war

Near the end of the war, NAS Jacksonville also served as a holding center for more than 1,600 prisoners of war in German uniforms.

The first of the POWs arrived at the air station on June 4, 1945. Under the supervision of the Army commanders at nearby Camp Blanding, NAS Jacksonville was used as overflow for the main POW holding facility in Clay County.

Life on the base was comparatively comfortable for POWs held in America, as U.S. policy was to treat prisoners of war the same as servicemen. Sports, entertainment, religious leaders and even a German chef were available to the captives.

Those POWs were put to work in captivity as well, with work assignments including the construction of a golf course, maintenance and engineering work, and removal of a railroad spur line.

“American farmers still needed help harvesting because we were fighting a war in Japan at least until September,” said Robert Billinger, historian and author of “Hitler’s Soldiers in the Sunshine State.” “The labor priorities of the American government were, of course, first on military reservations, and that’s why they work places like Jacksonville or Blanding.”

Billinger said the U.S. government realized that POWs could serve a dire domestic need.

“Generally speaking, the military found that they didn’t have as many civilian laborers, carpenters, machinists, garbage collectors, food supply people, etc., on the bases as they had before the war because those people had often been drafted, and so they needed to fill those ranks somehow,” Billinger said.

For their labor, the POWs were compensated with spendable currency in the camp, while the labor costs were paid to the U.S. government for the lease of POW labor.

By May 1946, the last of the POWs were released from the base and transported back to Germany.

After the war

After the surrender of Japan, World War II was over and the U.S. government was tasked with scaling down its military.

“Just like any big war, Congress decided, ‘Hey, it’s time to start downsizing the military. We don’t need this massive military that we have that we just won the war with,’” Williamson said. “So they began downsizing and getting rid of bases all across the United States. NAS Jacksonville was just waiting to see if it was going to be on some kind of a list, but it didn’t happen.”

While several bases were closed down in the years following the war, NAS Jacksonville remained in operation as a key training site and strategically positioned naval air station. It remained in operation as the U.S. entered conflicts in Korea, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf.

In 2022, NAS Jacksonville is a multi-mission base hosting more than 100 tenant commands and employing more than 17,000 active duty and civilian personnel.

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Joe covers education and breaking news. He is a frequent contributor to the News4Jax I-team and Trust Index coverage.