Eighty years ago, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor helped bring Jacksonville fully into the 20th century. The most obvious reason has to do with the United States Navy. Since the onset of the Second World War, Jacksonville has been a Navy town, and to this day approximately one-third of the region’s economy is related to the military – mainly, the U.S. Navy, which maintains three major bases in the area, two entirely within the City of Jacksonville.
Naval Station Mayport alone is the workplace for 8,076 active-duty and reserve staff members, 826 civilian employees and another 1,500 contract workers. Local family members related to the staff at NS Mayport number more than 20,000. At Naval Air Station Jacksonville, the numbers are even greater, with 10,493 active-duty staff, 8,300 civilians, an additional 1,500 contract workers. At any given time approximately 1,000 transient personnel are at NAS JAX, and the local community of family members associated with the base number some 34,000. Add that all up and nearly 86,000 people call Jacksonville home directly because of the Navy. On top of that, consider the tens of thousands of us who settled in Jacksonville because of someone who first came here during their naval career, and either stayed or returned. In the 21st century, naval service crosses every boundary and encompasses Americans of every gender, race, ethnicity and socio-economic status. Without decades of ongoing federal investments, and the extended community of Navy personnel and their families, Jacksonville as we know it would not exist.
The other way that Pearl Harbor transformed Jacksonville was by creating a sudden, critical demand for shipbuilding. Shipyards on both banks of the St. Johns River had ignited the city’s growth once before, during the Great War, and the resulting in-migration of workers helped push Jacksonville from a 1910 population of 57,699 to 91,558 by 1920 – an increase of more than 58% in a decade. The interwar years were less prosperous for shipbuilding and ship repair, but through the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression, Jacksonville’s maritime industry hung on, and many of the workers it had attracted settled down to stay. In the late 1930s, the industry began to revive, owing to critical federal investments through New Deal programs, including the Works Progress Administration. In the 1940s, war came again and Jacksonville firms such as Merrill-Stevens Shipbuilding prospered mightily, as did the entire city and region.
In 1940, the year before Pearl Harbor, Jacksonville’s population stood at 173,065. By the end of the war in 1945, it was 273,843 – again, an increase of more than 58% in just five years. Elsewhere the story was similar – by creating new defense-related jobs, WWII kicked off the American Sunbelt phenomenon throughout the South and across the Southwest, all the way to California. The other enabling causes were the adoption of chemical pest control, the availability of affordable air conditioning, and the construction of a new federal Interstate Highway System. All affected Jacksonville as much as they did the rest of the South.
Since World War II, the presence of the Navy in Jacksonville has waxed and waned, as it will continue to do. But, as long as there is a United States of America, there will need to be a U.S. Navy, and as long as there is a Navy, it will be an important part of Jacksonville’s story. That is why the Jacksonville Historic Naval Ship Association (JHNSA) aims to bring the former USS Orleck, a U.S. Navy destroyer, to the downtown riverfront as a museum ship and a place to help educate the public about the service that is so elemental to Jacksonville’s past as well as its future. The Jacksonville Historical Society stands with the JHNSA and looks forward to welcoming the Orleck in the Bicentennial year, 2022.
Alan J. Bliss, Ph.D.
CEO, Jacksonville Historical Society
In the photo above, James and Ann Merrill christen the SS Screven on Nov. 23, 1943 in the Merrill Shipyards in Jacksonville, Florida.