By Joe Pickett
Former Station Librarian
Editor's note: The following story was first published in The Mirror on Dec. 14, 1990 as part of a complete series on the history of Naval Station Mayport. The Mirror is republishing the series in honor of the 75th anniversary of NS Mayport.
The Naval Auxiliary Air Station at Mayport was "looking good" when Petty Officer 3rd Class James F. Overtree reported for duty on board USS Tyrer in January 1945.
He attributed the excellent care of the lawns and landscaping to the "50 or 60" German prisoners of war assigned to grounds-keeping, sweeping boat docks, and other forms of routine maintenance.
The prisoners were guarded by Navy personnel, backed up by a detachment of Marines with guard dogs. Most of the Germans spoke excellent English. When the Germas were taken prisoner they had been serving in the German navy.
Security was extremely tight at Mayport - probably because a mile-long stretch of beach on the east side of the base was being used as a training area for future Marine amphibious landings on enemy-held islands in the South Pacific. Neither station personnel nor civilians were allowed anywhere near the training area.
Another restricted area was locate on the west side of the station towards the village of Mayport. A long range aid to navigation (LORAN) unit had been established near the old lighthouse. LORAN was so new and top secret that unauthorized people caught anywhere near the facility risked getting shot by the Marine sentry or attacked by the sentry's guard dog.
Prior to the arrival of USS Guadalcanal (CVE 60) at Mayport in December 1944, pilots had to practice carrier landings and takeoffs on the station runway. The runway was marked off and painted to simulate the deck of an aircraft carrier.
F-4U Corsairs were the aircraft commonly used for carrier qualification trainng by pilots at Mayport. The pilots were required to fly at night on simulated bombing missions against a target anchored several miles out to sea.
The target itself, according to Overtree, was a replica of a U-boat conning tower that pilots had to locate by radar. When the pilot made his approach to the target he had to press a bomb-release button that activated a bright spotlight. Directed downward, the light had to strike the target if the pilot was to be credited with a hit. The success of failure of the run was reported to the pilot by radio.
Training missions were not without losses in aircraft and pilots. During a "typical month" in 1945, several pilots and aircraft were lost either in the ocean or in the nearby marshes. If the aircraft went down in an inaccessible area of the marshes, USS Tyrer, accompanied by a suction dredge, was immediately dispatched to the site. Tyrer would approach as near as possible to the area, but in many instances the dredge had to be used to cut a channel to the wreckage in order to recover the pilot and aircraft.
If the pilot and aircraft went down into the ocean another system had to be used. In calm seas Tyrer and USS Mary Anne, a self-propelled yard crane, would steam out to the crash site and recover the wreckage and pilot. However, rough seas made recovery difficult and divers had to be sent down to attach a cable and marker buoy to the plane. Later when seas were calmer, the two vessels would return to the site and make the recovery. It wasn't unusual for the rescue craft to travel 50 miles out to sea, making timely recovery efforts more difficult. After the recovery of the wreckage and the pilot, the plane was taken out to sea and dumped over the side into 200 to 300 feet of water.
Since air-sea rescues were a frequent occurrence, a Coast Guard PBY and several crash boats stood by to recover pilots who survived their crashes and were afloat in the water. Due to the excellent training operation of the carrier task force, pilot and aircraft losses were kept to a minimum. Thousands of pilots were qualified at Mayport for carrier operations in the Atlantic and Pacific theaters of operation; and many of them owed their lives to the air-sea rescue units and the individual heroism of the personnel manning the units.
Lt. Cmdr. Melville P. Merritt, commanding officer of the Auxiliary Air Station, did not see the successful conclusion of the pilot training operation. On May 8, 1945, Merritt was relieved by Cmdr. John B. Huhn, who was to be the last World War II commander of the base.
The final chapter of Mayport's World War II series will be presented in the next article. As the war began to wind down, and after Germany capitulated, activities at Mayport were also winding down. Thoughts were on the expected invasion of the home islands of Japan and the potential for enormous casualties such as an invasion would incur. But the invasion and enormous casualties didn't materialize. Japan was to suffer the casualties by a devastating new weapon, unleashed by the United States, that avenged Pearl Harbor.
Aircraft Down! Boats Away!
By Joe Pickett