Jacksonville’s Pacific War - Part 1

August 26, 2013 2 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Metro Jacksonville's Robert Mann explains how Jacksonville and Northeast Florida helped win a war in the Pacific: a salute to our veterans and our home front population and industry.


World War II came roaring onto Jacksonville’s stage when the SS Gulfamerica was torpedoed off the coast of Jacksonville Beach. The message was loud and clear, Jacksonville, Florida and the free world were in the fight of their lives.  (source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:SS_Gulfamerica.jpg)

One of the lesser known stories of WWII is that of the SS Gulfamerica, a merchant ship taking its first voyage from Port Arthur, TX to New York with over 100,000 barrels of heating oil.  Illuminated by the lights of Jacksonville Beach, which at that time was not observing a blackout, the ship was attacked by a Nazi submarine, the U123.  At 4:22 am on April 10, 1942, in full view of the gathering crowds along the shoreline, the ship, hit by a torpedo, burned in the night air.  

Five crew members were killed by the torpedo blast and another 14 drowned after entering the water. A total of two officers, two armed guards and 15 crewmen were killed in the sinking. Survivors were taken to Mayport. The ship burned for two days afterwards, providing the city with a visual reminder of their fatal carelessness. Fears grew rife that we could be invaded, and indeed we were.  These fears prompted Florida Governor Spesser Hollard to declare a strict blackout  along the Jacksonville coast.  

If citizens of Jacksonville had paid attention to this war time warning, it's possible the SS Gulfamerica would have never been torpedoed off our coasts. (Florida Archives)

Although the first Nazi invasion of US was when the German Navy (called the Kriegsmarine) submarine U-202 landed 3 uniformed men in Amagansett, NY on Atlantic Avenue Beach, on June 12, 1942, the second and last invasion took place on June 16, 1942, in Ponte Vedra Beach, when 4 more saboteurs came ashore. These agents made their way to the Jacksonville Terminal and caught a train for New York City. A double agent on the New York team and another Nazi, who defected and worked for the Americans, quickly gathered evidence and assisted in the capture, arrest and prosecution which led to the ultimate execution of all 6 of the others.

While Germany certainly possessed a more lethal army in terms of equipment and innovation, at its height it controlled 1,420,000 square miles, while Japan controlled 2,864,000. It is true that much of the Japanese territory was made up of islands and sea; but one could consider that they also took virtually all of Southeast Asia, many U.S. territories, and the most productive parts of China. Consider also that German soldiers confronted with desperate odds would surrender, while the Japanese would not.  Eniwetok was defended by some 3,000 Japanese and Korean soldiers, 19 surrendered. In the Philippines, the last known holdout surrendered in January 1997 (not a typo) when 85 Year old Sangrayban was discovered on Mindoro and flushed out by fellow Japanese soldiers.

Jacksonville became a huge shipbuilding and military aviation training center during the World War II.  While it would not be 100% accurate, in a broad description, the war could be roughly broken down as a Naval/Marine war in the Pacific, and a Army/Army Air Force war in Europe, in both cases these efforts were supported by units from all branches of service. As a Naval center, our city contributed greatly to the Naval air, surface and Marine fronts, with the Navy’s fight in the Pacific front and center.  Much of the training for all of these uniformed men – was performed right here at the Jacksonville.

Just before the war, Jacksonville hosted the large Army Air Force base that would later become the city’s airport at Imeson Field. After Pearl Harbor, Imeson became a Naval Training Center.  There was also the Keystone Heights Army Airfield. Camp Blanding was home to the Army's 31st Infantry Division, another Pacific force which saw action in the liberation of the U.S. Territory of the Philippine Islands and Papua New Guinea. Our area also contributed training to some of the team that would break the Japanese Naval Code.


Infinite SNJ-35 trainer aircrafts line up on the tarmac at Lee Field in Green Cove Springs (Military Museum of North Florida)

In the Jacksonville region during World War II, the Navy in our area maintained  the Naval Fuel Depot, Cecil Field, Whitehouse Field, NAS Jax, Yellow Water Gunnery Range, Branan Field, Spencer Bomb Range, Switzerland Airfield, Thunderbolt Field, Francis Field, Herlong Field, Naval Air Station Lee Field, Green Cove Naval Station, Naval Station Mayport, Hart Field, Jasper Field, Mile Branch, Francis Field, Lake Butler Field, Lee Gilmer Field, Fernandina, Naval Auxiliary Air Station St. Augustine, St. Augustine Gunnery Range, Formost (Penny Farms), Middleburg, Black Creek Bomb Range, Palatka, Naval Air Station Lake City and Keystone Heights, NAF Naval Air Facility-Glynco LTA-Lighter Then Air. Our shipyards built Liberty Ships, used to transport troops and cargo mainly to the Pacific Theater and the successful ‘deep Vee’ hull design for the American PT Boat (Patrol Torpedo) fleet; used extensively in the Pacific, originated on the Ortega River at Huckins Yacht.

Caption reads: Squadron VN-12 on flight line at NAAS Lee Field in Green Cove Springs, FL.  SNC-1’s in the background & SNJ-3’s in the foreground.  (Military Museum of North Florida)

Anti-Submarine Warfare Blimp Base, Glynco, (Present-Day Brunswick) Georgia (US Navy Photo)

Next Page: Liberty Shipbuilding in Jacksonville

 PREV 1 2 3 NEXT