In 1939 the U.S. Navy came to Green Cove Springs and built Lee Field, an auxiliary air station, just southeast of the city limits.
The townsfolk had some experience and success with entertaining large groups of guests. In the late 1800s hordes of northern tourists and invalids flocked south escaping harsh winters, but they only stayed six months had lots of money to spend and were very well behaved.
The navy stayed year around, new sailors had considerably less money to spend and most of Lee Field’s compliment were very young men. On base, their lives were run with strict military discipline. Off base, they were facing war and away from home for the first time, free of the restraints of parents and community. They were ready to kick up their heels and find out how far they could go.
Lee Field served as an auxiliary airfield for pilots training at Naval Air Station-Jacksonville. Landing strips were also built on Fleming Island, in St. Augustine and Switzerland.
For the sleepy town of Green Cove Springs struggling to break the painful grip of The Great Depression the military invasion was a mixed blessing. Almost immediately jobs were available for civilian men and women. Local suppliers of lumber, fresh foods and Coca-Cola gratefully struggled to meet demand and watched the bookkeeping numbers turn from red to black.
But no community can double its population overnight and remain the same. Before the base opened in March of 1941, a little over 1,500 residents claimed Green Cove Springs as home. The Navy presence hovered at more than 2,000 officers and men.
New businesses were attracted to town – some to serve the sailors and others to prey on their baser instincts. Car dealerships popped up like corn. A Green Cove Springs resident could shop for the best price with all the major auto manufacturers and never leave the city limits. With the arrival of older servicemen’s families, appliance sales and service facilities blossomed.
But the shady trades also thrived because money was burning holes in the thin wallets they tucked in the waistbands of those buttoned bellbottoms. Local and imported ladies of the evening set up shop and despite the Navy’s shockingly vivid filmstrips warning of the dangers of venereal disease, they prospered until local law stepped in.
Fresh meat attracted hustlers of every sort. The local shine industry worked overtime to meet demands of this young group of marks. They were less discriminating than locals and didn’t recognized good do-it-yourself whiskey. A lot of rotgut made it on the market.
The people of Green Cove Springs took the good with the bad. They guarded their daughters and kept tabs on their sons who were prone on weekend night to go looking for fistfights with sailors. They mainly wanted to keep the lid on and try to keep anyone from getting hurt. There was sure to be plenty of that from the war.
They also knew that their sons would soon be in some strange place, in a uniform, training to be warriors.