Jacksonville has for many years been referred to as a “Navy town”, owing to the presence of NAS Jax and NAS Mayport as well as the city’s high population of veterans.
But how did we become such an important part of the U.S. Navy’s infrastructure?
The answer dates back to just before World War I, when a large parcel of land on the westside along the St. Johns River was purchased for use by the military. It was utilized by the Army and the Florida National Guard.
It was that latter usage that helped bring the land to the attention of the Navy, which was convinced by former servicemen to check out the site for a new base.
Located along the river and safely nestled behind the upscale Ortega neighborhood, the property made for the perfect site on which to build a large base.
The Navy commissioned a new base, Naval Air Station Jacksonville, which was built on the land beginning in 1940. The base expanded rapidly, becoming a key training center as the U.S. entered World War II. It quickly grew into a campus of hundreds of buildings, including a Navy hospital.
In 1941, the Navy acquired 2,600 acres further to the west to be used for a second facility. That land became the site of NAS Cecil Field, which served as an auxiliary campus for NAS Jax.
A year later, the Navy established its third Jacksonville base, this time at Mayport.
By the time the war ended, Jacksonville had become a city of great importance to the Navy.
The action at the Jax bases didn’t slow following the war. The famous Blue Angels took up residence within NAS Jax, while NAS Cecil served as a master jet base and Mayport remained a busy harbor with a newly-added air facility. An air traffic control center was added to NAS Jax in the mid-‘50s, among other infrastructural upgrades.
The Jacksonville bases would serve as major training grounds during the 1950s and ‘60s, as the country handled conflicts in Korea and Vietnam while navigating the looming threat of the Soviet Union.
As a result, tens of thousands of soldiers were stationed in Jax over those decades. This population growth resulted in tens of millions of dollars of economic growth for the city – especially once consolidation placed the bases and their surrounding neighborhoods within city boundaries.
Military presence was also a key factor in the early-‘60s decision to build an international airport in Jacksonville. Construction on Jacksonville International Airport began in 1965, with the airport opening three years later.
Over the years, the military’s presence in Jax has scaled down to a degree. Subsequent population growth has resulted in a less veteran-dominated demographic. In 1999, NAS Cecil Field was shut down and later turned into Cecil Commerce Center.
Nonetheless, the Navy – and other military branches – still hold a major presence in Jax. NAS Jax remains as a massive campus complete with various amenities, and NAS Mayport is a key military port with capacity for more than 30 ships.
And though NAS Cecil shut down, the National Guard and Coast Guard maintain a presence there, as does the Navy. Engineering firms Boeing and Northrop Grumman also have facilities within Cecil Commerce Center.
So while the Navy isn’t so much a way of life anymore in Jacksonville, its presence is still of major economic and historical importance to the city.
Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly named 1993 as the year NAS Cecil closed.