By Joe Pickett
Former Station Librarian
Editor's note: This article is the first in a series on the second phase of the history of Naval Station Mayport. Beginning with the reactivation of the naval station in 1950, the second article will cover the activities from 1950 to 1955.
The winds of peace had replaced the winds of war in 1945, and for three-and-a-half years, they swept over the nearby dunes and open spaces of the deactivated naval facility. As windswept sand was blown across the vast, treeless acres of the airfield, the airborne particles settled, covering portions of the unused landing strips and taxiways. Weeds were growing up through cracks in the pavement of parking areas and sidewalks around buildings that had been abandoned since 1946. The buildings themselves were showing signs of weathering and deterioration.
Except for a small force of security personnel to protect the buildings, Mayport's Naval Auxiliary Air Station was deserted.
Naval Station Mayport, as we know it today, as first commissioned in December 1940 at the Southside Naval Reserve Armory in Jacksonville as Frontier Section Base Number 88, according to the July 5, 1943 edition of The Florida Times-Union. In July 1943, the facility was reclassified a section base; and so it remained until April 1, 1944, when the facility was commissioned an auxiliary air station.
Following the conclusion of hostilities in September 1945, NAAS Mayport continued its mission of training pilots for carrier qualifications until May of the following year, when the station was deactivated. Shortly thereafter, the Coast Guard used the facilities for auxiliary training purposes until budget constraints forced the Coast Guard to abandon the site.
When the facility was deactivated in 1946, the economic impact on the Mayport area was devastating. Employment was practically nonexistent, and small businesses were feeling the effects of the postwar depression.
Money was scarce and returning veterans were drawing unemployment benefits from the 52-20 club - $20 a week for 52 weeks, to help meet everyday expenses as they searched for employment. Many veterans returned to the only employment available to them - reenlistement in the armed forces. But this situation was soon to end.
A young Army veteran with a vision and a dream was destined to set into motion the machinery for reopening the Auxiliary Air Station at Mayport. Charles E. Bennet's first connection with the Mayport installation was in 1939. At that time, Bennett was president of the Jacksonville Jaycees, a member of the Chamber of Commerce committee, and chairman of the bond promotion program designed to create a marriage between the Navy and the Jacksonville area. The future congressman's efforts were rewarded when, on July 18, 1939, Jacksonville voters passed a $1.1 million bond issue; the money to be used to purchase land in Jacksonville and Mayport for acquisition by the Navy. The future was looking good.
Prior to his enlistment in the U.S. Army, Bennett served in the Florida House of Representatives in 1941. During his service as an infantry officer in World War II, Bennett commanded Philippine guerrilla fighters and was awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in action. The Philippine government awarded him its highest decoration for a non-Filipino, the Legion of Honor.
Following his separation from military service in 1947, Bennett was elected to Congress in 1948, where he immediately set the wheels in motion for reactivation of the naval facility at Mayport. On July 15, 1949, the House Armed Services Committee voted on authorization of $4.9 million, which was later sent to the floor of the House for action.
It wasn't easy getting a money-conscious Congress to approve legislation involving a massive amount of money. Bennett had to force the issue by a discharge petition among members of Congress to bring the bill to the floor of the house. In September 1950, Congress approved a $17 million appropriation that released nearly $2 million to begin work at Mayport.
Bennett's successful fight to reopen the base was followed by further developments, new visions and new ideas to strengthen the Navy. Additionally, local businesses and the local economy were put on a firm footing.
The reopening of the Mayport facility infused new money into the area. The birth of new businesses, coupled with increased employment opportunities, became the catalyst for an explosion in real estate development.
Bennett served in the House of Representatives from 1949 to 1993, the longest-serving memer of either house of Congress in Florida's history. Bennett died in 2003.