By Joe Pickett
Former Station Librarian
Editor's note: The following article is part of a continuing series on the history of Naval Station Mayport in honor of its 75th anniversary. It was first published on Aug. 9, 1991
From humble beginnings as a Frontier Section Base in World War II to what it is today, the Naval Station Mayport complex has had a 75-year history of growth. The station has seen many changes of command. But an old military adage says, "Commanders come and commanders go, but the organization remains the same."
This is not true of Mayport. The station has not remained the same. From her beginnings of a few hundred acres and a couple of hundred personnel, by 1991 the station had expanded to 3,289 acres with approximately 18,000 personnel serving aboard ships, at aviation facilities and in tenant activities. There were more than 36 tenant activities, and the station was homport for 33 ships.
The British Royal Navy's aircraft carrier HMS Bulwark opened the decade of the 1980s in Mayport when the ship paid a visit in January 1980. And her month-long visit was followed by a succession of visits by warships of foreign nations for the next 10 years. Forexample, 40 ships, of which several were foreign navy vessels, spent a weekend in February 1980 prior to participating in the NATO exercise "Safe Pass '80." One can safely imagine that Mayport's facilities were sorely taxed to accommodate so many ships at one time, in addition to the station's own homeported vessels.
During the decade, new construction continued to provide services and facilities for personnel and ships. When ground was broken on a new $10 million Shore Intermediate Maintenance Activity - now Southeast Regional Maintenance Activity (SERMC) on Massey Avenue -it set off a wave of new construction that included a 17,000-square-foot training facility for the Fleet Training Center, at the end of Baltimore near the Jetties.
In 1982, it was announced that $3.5 million had been released by the Department of Defense to the Federal Highway Administration to improve Mayport Road, the principle access route to the naval station. In 1983, USS Jack Williams was the first ship to tie up to the new SIMA pier (Echo Pier).
Another $20 million was approved for new construction purposes - this time for a new helicopter hangar and an Intermediate Maintenance Facility to support the Light Airborne Multipurpose System (LAMPS) MK III helicopter.
There was plenty of other activity involving ships homeported at Mayport. Destroyer Squadron Eight was reactivated, and carriers and escort vessels were deployed to the Mediterranean and other parts of the world. Here at home, several ships were involved in humanitarian ventures.
In April 1980, two rescues occurred in which one of our ships and a Mayport-based LAMPS helicopter were involved. The first rescue was accomplished by the Impervious and her crew when they rescued two fisherman who had been adrift in the Atlantic for two days. The second rescue took place when the helicopter and crew pulled three fishermen from a sinking boat off the coast of Mayport.
In 1981, personnel of the Naval Station's Port Services Department, Fire Department and the Branch Dispensary were commended for their actions in an extraordinary rescue of a downed pilot. The pilot was flying a jet aircraft on a night training mission from USS Forrestal off the coast of Mayport when the aircraft developed engine trouble. After attempting an emergency landing at the base airfield, the pilot was forced to crash land his aircraft in the ocean, just short of the beach. Luckily, the pilot was not injured.
That same year, USS Dale rescued a stranded fishing boat and crew. In another rescue at sea, while deployed to the Mediterranean, USS Luce recovered a Sailor who had fallen overboard from Forrestal. And the fleet tug Paiute recovered an H-3 helicopter and its crew after there were forced to land in the ocean off Ponte Vedra Beach, a few miles south of Mayport.
Navy women got their wish to be assigned to ships n 1979. Although Navy WAVES were at Mayport in 1944 and 1945, none served aboard ships - neither here nor anywhere else in the Navy. The exception to this policy were nurses aboard hospital ships.
However, in September 1979, four female officers reported for duty aboard USS Yosemite. And in March 1982, the first contingent of female enlisted personnel reported for assignment aboard USS Yosemite. Since then, female personnel not only serve on the destroyer tender, but also on Mayport's harbor tugs.
In 1991 when this article was written, the Mayport naval complex is also included Naval Air Station Mayport. From 1943 to 1945, and again in the 1950s, Mayport was a Naval Auxiliary Air Station. In 1959, the station was designated a Naval Air Station. By 1991, the Naval Air Station consisted of several tenant activities, included five LAMPS MK III helicopter squadrons, one LAMPS MK I helicopter squadron, the Defense Property Disposal Office, Helicopter Sea Control Wing Three, the naval Electronics Engineering Center, a Naval Security Group Detachment, Naval Rework Facility and a Naval Oceanography Command Detachment.
The second half of the decade opened with a tragedy that would leave a lasting impression on America. In January 1986, the shuttle Challenger lifted off for what was supposed to be a routine space mission. Seconds later, before the eyes of millions of television viewers, the rocket carrying the shuttle exploded, plunging Challenger and its occupants into the ocean 17 miles off the East Coast of Florida. Mayport's salvage ship, Preserver, and her crew had the sad duty of recovering the shuttle and its astronauts.
There have been many rescues made by the men, ships and helicopters homeported at Mayport - and there will be more.
The 1980s saw us in Grenada and other trouble spots throughout the world. Early on, yet another attempt was made to assassinate a president of the United States. We saw the destruction of the Berlin Wall, the reunification of East and West Germany, and finally, perhaps, the breakup of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.
In 1990, we saw Mayport's ships and helicopters deployed to the Middle East in an operation called "Desert Shield" that culiminated in 1991 in a hundred-hour war called "Desert Storm."
During its first 50 years that Mayport has been on the Navy's map, the old girl has seen it all. You've come a long way, baby!