By Joe Pickett
Former Station Librarian
Editor's note: the following article is a reprint of a July 6, 1990 article series that chronicles the history of Naval Station Mayport over the past several decades.
The birth of the Mayport Frontier Section Base can be likened to the birth of a baby; accompanied by pain, upheaval of domestic routines, unexpected expense and, in many instances, moving to another residence.
The uprooting of families in the Ribault Bay area, when it was taken over by the Navy in 1940, was as painful and traumatic as the birth of any new baby. Many of the families could trace their roots in the Mayport area back two or more generations. But the needs of a nation, including a strengthened defense posture due to war or the threat of war, can be a very strong argument in favor of invoking "eminent domain," a government's legal right to confiscate, or appropriate and pay for, the homes and property of its citizens for the common good.
Initially, the lives of at least 15 families residing between Mayport and East Mayport were disrupted when, in 1939, the Department of War selected Ribault Bay as America's newest carrier and naval support facility on the East Coast. Some family names, traceable back to Spain and Minorca, included Garcia, Ortega, Solis, Andreu, Arnau, and possibly Mickler. Other families, a few of whom could trace their ancestry back to the early 1800s in Mayport, were Daniels, Manns, McDonald, Edwards, Williams, Cason, Leake, Floyd, King and Stark.
Not everyone was happy about the situation, but most understood the necessity of the move and the positive impact the future naval station would have on the local community.
Probably the most seriously impacted was the small community of black residents which was located on and near the east end of a long, high, winding sand dune fronting the bay where the destroyer basin and SERMC are now located. Those who owned the property were paid for it, whereas renters were generally economically disadvantaged, and suffered the most.
The dredging of Ribault Bay and building construction was well along in early 1941. Progress was rapid under the watchful eyes of the resident construction officer, Lt. William M. Gordon, and George Aucter, the general contractor. Besides his duties at Mayport, Gordon was also in charge of floating drydocks in Jacksonville. Evidently, he had to divide his time between two major projects 20 miles apart.
Others had to divide their time between Mayport and Jacksonville. Second Division personnel who were trades craftsman in civilian life were also rotating back and forth between the two sites. Transportation was by truck during the construction of the barracks, mess hall, administration building and the dispensary. The pace of construction was so rapid that, by November 1941, the commanding officer, Lt. Cmdr. Maynard R. Sanders, could predict that all personnel would move to the new section base in January 1942.
Prior to construction of the buildings, footings had to be poured for the piers supporting the structures, small dune-like hills had to be leveled, and two small buildings, adjacent to each other, had to be connected. One of these buildings was a blacksmith shop, Building 50. The two buildings to be connected had sand floors which, when joined, were replaced by an 18-inch thick concrete floor. The digging and leveling produced several unexpected, startling discoveries.
According to Joe Brown, a resident of Mayport who was stationed here until 1943, several human skeletons were unearthed throughout the area. The most notable discoveries came during the excavation of the sand floor in the blacksmith shop, and when the holes were dug to pour the footings and piers for the dispensary.
The skeleton which was uncovered in the blacksmith shop was that of an individual estimated to have been approximately 7-feet-tall. The bones were in a "crumbly condition," and were left in place and covered with concrete. Two other skeletons were unearthed while digging holes for the pier footings for the dispensary. Laying on the foot bones of each skeleton was a brass shoe buckle. Other human remains would be uncovered later during the expansion of the base in the 1950s.
On Nov. 27, 1941, 32 officers, 27 chief petty officers and 285 enlisted men ate their last Thanksgiving Day dinner at the Southside armory.
For many of them it was to be the last one during peacetime. Ten days later, Japan struck at Pearl Harbor. On Dec. 11, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States.
In January 1942, 344 men of the Organized Second Division moved to the new Frontier Section Base.
War had come to Mayport.