CAMP BLANDING – Clay County is full of history. It’s home to southern rockers like Lynyrd Skynyrd, Molly Hatchet and 38 Special, artists like Augusta Savage and one of the most haunted buildings in northeast Florida, the Old Clay County Jail.
It also has a decades-long history with the nearby World War II camp, now training facility, known as Camp Blanding, which just celebrated its 80th birthday.
Camp Blanding was an important military installation throughout World War II before it was handed back to the state to become a training facility.
“Its glory days began two years before the U.S. entry into World War II when its heavily wooded, mostly sandy, partly swampy terrain was transformed into a training site for the Florida National Guard,” W. Stanford Smith, author of “Camp Blanding: Florida Star in Peace and War,” wrote in his book. “Camp Blanding was expanded in size and given additional missions when war came with the result that it played a major role in successful prosecution of that war.”
Smith said in his book that Camp Blanding owes its creation to the National Guard. Before the second World War, in the 1930s, the U.S. Navy was on the lookout for land in Northeast Florida that could be developed into a Naval Air Station. The site that would eventually become NAS Jax was known as Camp Foster back then and it was owned by the National Guard.
The National Guard and the U.S. Navy agreed to a trade, with financial backing of course, that saw the Navy take over the land of Camp Foster to develop it into a naval air station. In return, the National Guard received several pieces of land and more than 30,000 acres and $400,000 for a plot between Green Cove Springs and Starke.
“The check from the Duval County Air Base Authority in the amount of $400,000 was received November 18, 1939, and deposited with the state treasurer to the credit of the ‘Armory Board Replacement Fund,’” Smith said in his book. “The new camp site turned out to be the Kingsley Lake area acquired after another series of complications and given the name Camp Blanding in honor of Major General Albert H. Blanding, a Floridian who served in the War Department as Chief of the National Guard Bureau.”
Camp Blanding was leased to the U.S. Army as an active duty training facility at the beginning of World War II. The compound became more than just a training facility. It was a prisoner-of-war camp, a holding center for 343 different immigrant residents of the country and a training camp for nearly one million soldiers in its World War II lifetime. Smith said in his book that it was the second largest training camp in the country and that it never slept.
“Operations at Camp Blanding went on a 24-hour basis with anti-aircraft protection, vehicle dispersion and accelerated training tempo,” he wrote.
Of its many functions during World War II, one of Camp Blanding’s most important was its use as a prisoner-of-war camp for key German soldiers. Clay County Archivist Vishi Garig said Camp Blanding was a nice POW camp, relatively speaking, and that German soldiers who cooperated well with the United States were sent to Camp Blanding, rather than harsher camp.
Robert Billinger Jr.’s book, Hitler’s Soldiers in the Sunshine State back that up, citing the success of Camp Blanding’s POW work program.
“The prospect of large numbers of idle German prisoners of war within the United States presented a potential security problem,” Billinger said. “But there was a solution to that problem and to the wartime manpower shortage at military installations and in the civilian economy: it was a POW work program.
“The former wartime American executive officer at Camp Blanding, Col. Harry A. Johnston, recalled that the German workers usually outdid themselves in their labor efforts. Such deeds would be rewarded, as best they could at a [POW camp].”
Camp Blanding became one of the country’s largest POW camps during the war, according to Billingers, and at its height, it contained a population equal to the fourth largest in the state.
Camp Blanding also was one of the largest training facilities in the country.
Following the war, Camp Blanding reverted to state control and by the end of the 1940s, many of its structures were destroyed or moved to a new location. Since that reversion, the Florida National Guard has retained its purpose as a training base.
Until the 1970s, Camp Blanding wasn’t heavily used but following an expansion in the 1970s, the camp began to grow in a way it hadn’t since the 1940s. The expansion allowed Camp Blanding to be used as an artillery firing point base, a tank range, a parachute drop zone and an airport for military aircraft, according to Smith.
People that live close today can hear practice bombings and Northeast Florida conservation efforts have turned land surrounding Camp Blanding into a wildlife corridor that serve as sanctuaries for Florida wildcats like the Florida panther and other species of Florida wildlife.
Camp Blanding is now home to a museum detailing its history and a memorial park complete with displays of U.S. military equipment ranging from World War II to as recent as the war in Iraq in the early 2000s.