CLAY COUNTY – The Spanish builders of Fort San Francisco de Pupa had to have no idea that they would be the first in a long line of military installations in the county.
Writing in Florida Historical Quarterly in 1951, University of Florida anthropologist John Goggin believed the fort was first mentioned in the early 18th Century. The first structure was already degrading in 1737 and was, “... little more than a sentry house.” Located about three miles south of Green Cove Springs, the fort was rebuilt in the 1740s.
The colonial period is rife with conflict between Spain and England. James Oglethorpe, the founder of Georgia, led forays in Clay County in 1740. English aggression toward the Spanish was part retaliation for not returning escaped slaves and previous attacks, and partly because the two colonial powers were used to fighting.
Oglethorpe took the fort with ease after two bombardments, though Goggin wrote that a cannon blast missed Oglethorpe by a matter of feet. He moved on to the Castillo San Marco, where he was less successful.
While Oglethorpe occupied the fort with a reported 40-man garrison, he later abandoned the structure. Goggin mentions the Spanish may have occupied it again, but by the 1760s the fort was in ruins.
Years after the Spanish withdrew from Florida, American settlers in Clay County had a different problem. The second Seminole War mostly raged in Central Florida, but Garey’s Ferry, near modern-day Middleburg, was an outpost in Florida’s dangerous frontier.
Fort Heileman, a supply depot that grew to two dozen buildings, was in operation from 1836-1841 on the north bank of Black Creek. It was named after Lt. Julius Heileman, who died at the Battle of Micanopy in 1836.
Soldiers were frequently ambushed and beset by sickness. The Clay County Archives casualty list from the war shows at least 19 men from Garey’s Ferry killed. As the Indian chiefs consolidated their forces further south, Fort Heileman became less and less necessary, supplies were funneled to Fort Shannon in Palatka, and it was eventually abandoned.
But Clay would only have to wait about 20 years for the breakout of the Civil War, where Confederate forces tried to fend off a mounting Union presence.
The Union heavily outnumbered Confederate forces in the area and later assumed control of the St. Johns River. Prior to 1864, Union forces would occupy and reoccupy Jacksonville. The Middleburg Press’ Tom Parham wrote in 1988 how Northeast Florida was a lawless region held barely intact by Confederate Capt. John J. Dickison.
As the Union fortified its position in Jacksonville and Fernandina they crept west into Middleburg in July of 1864. That fall, the 4th Massachusetts Cavalry established an outpost in modern-day Green Cove Springs called Magnolia, raided Middleburg and took rebel guns in Fleming Island. Union and Confederate forces skirmished in Middleburg, Lake Asbury and most notably Halsey’s Plantation.
In October of 1864, the 4th Massachusetts Cavalry was ambushed about two miles north of Penney Farms. Reports suggest the Confederates only had a couple wounded while they took 23 Union prisoners and, “...killed 10 or 12,” Dickison wrote. Some of the deceased Union troops were interred in Magnolia Springs Cemetery, where they remain today.
Another setback for the Union was the civilian chartered Maple Leaf steamboat, carrying about 400 tons of equipment and baggage. It was sunk by a mine on the St. Johns River in April of 1864. It was excavated from the murky St. Johns in the late-1980s and since then was designated a National Historic Landmark.
Fortunately, that would be the last serious fighting in Clay County. The 20th Century saw the U.S. Army and Navy use the county for year-round training.
Bases radically transformed the county’s population and importance with Camp Blanding, Naval Air Station Lee Field, Keystone Army Airfield, Naval Air Station Jacksonville and Naval Air Station Cecil Field.
The Camp Blanding Museum is in one of the camp’s last remaining original structures, a guest house. Camp Blanding was originally slated to be a National Guard facility before the U.S. Army assumed command prior to World War II.
Aerial photos show the camp sprawled around Kingsley Lake, Camp Blanding museum curator Gregory Parsons pointed to a sliver of the fully-realized camp and said the camp was supposed to be significantly smaller with the National Guard. He said the military preferred the warm weather for the 60,000 men that could be on the base at a time. Throughout World War II, the base funneled through about 800,000 troops.
The National Guard’s 30,000 acres was increased to about 70,000 after the Army expansion. The government also leased another 80,000 acres for training.
“It was considered the fourth-largest city in Florida during that World War II era,” Parsons said.
A handbook for new soldiers referred to the area having “... the most stylish assortment of alligators this side of the Congo.” The camp newspapers mentioned charity boxing matches and vaudeville shows prior to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Troops would stay for about three-and-a-half-months. The camp would also train infantry replacements after the war.
“The troops still had to fulfill occupation duty,” Parsons said. “Blanding was one of the few sites to continue training replacements all the way to the end of 1945.”
Clay County could about 1,200 German Prisoners of War and the camp held about 4,000 over time. Most were crews recovered from U-boats. The German sailors were given books, titled “Kleiner Fuhrer durch Amerika,” from the Nazi regime on how American culture worked. Camp guards followed the Geneva Convention and prisoners could take classes on “American Civics.”
In the early-1950s, the base, with its size reduced, was returned to the state and is operated as one of the National Guard’s primary stations in Florida.
In Green Cove Springs, Naval Air Station Lee Field was a highly regarded pilot training school. Cadets flew F6F Hellcats, F4F Wildcats, F4U Corsairs, N25 Steermans and the NR-1 Ryan. The field was named after Ensign Benjamin Lee, a Jacksonville pilot who was killed in World War I.
Opened in 1940, the field consisted of 1,300 acres. Near the front of the Military Museum of Northeast Florida, formerly a repair shop, is an engine of a crashed Hellcat. The pilot was handicapped for training purposes and his altimeter was a few hundred feet off. He lived.
Joe Kennedy Jr. and Ed McMahon served at Lee Field. Falling out of use following the war, the property was annexed by the city of Green Cove Springs in 1980s.
Ray Scott, an eight-year veteran of the Marines who volunteers for the museum, was preparing the museum for Armed Forces Day last week.
“We get people all over the world here,” Scott said.
To the south, Keystone Army Airfield had an important run as a reconnaissance school with the 432nd Reconnaissance Group, the 3d Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron and the 313th Fighter Squadron stationed at the field. All three were gone by 1944. The field was given to the city of Keystone Heights in 1947 and is now Keystone Heights Airpark.
In North Clay and Southwest Duval sat Cecil Field, a U.S. Navy air base. The base was decommissioned in 1999, and the city of Jacksonville discussed tearing down some of the older structures. The field saw fighters, carriers and bombers during World War II and a wide range of uses as an Auxiliary field for NAS-JAX.
Former pilot Buddy Harris said after Vietnam, bringing back POWs and servicemen missing in action wasn’t as high of a priority for the military as it should have been. Harris worked in the Pentagon after his flying days were over and was a friend of Scott Speicher, who was one of the first casualties of the Persian Gulf War in 1991. Speicher’s body was recovered in 2009 in Iraq.
“[Speicher] just had a way about him to make people feel comfortable and not threatened,” Harris said. “He did his job and didn’t shirk his duties. If you needed something, he’d be there in a heartbeat.”
Organizers at Cecil Field are working to establish a POW-MIA Memorial. Cecil Field is one of the few installations that listed its MIAs and a museum is opening soon. The Chapel of the Hi-Speed Pass, where Speicher was married and had his memorial service, was recently refurbished.
“These families deserve this, and we plan on telling their stories,” Harris said.
Clay’s military might doesn’t stop with bases, it’s the veterans. There are more than 20,000 veterans in the county. Efforts over the last few years from Rep. Ted Yoho led to the announcement of a VA Clinic in Middleburg.
Voting for the name of the building includes Speicher, and Middleburg-born and “Father of the Marine Air Corp” Gen. Roy Geiger of WWI and WWII distinction. Geiger, 1885-1947, led Marines in the Pacific Theater and was on board the USS Missouri when Japan surrendered.
U.S. Air Force Col. Williams Byrns who flew numerous missions during Vietnam and Desert Storm, was captured and sent to the infamous “Hanoi Hilton.” Byrns is the namesake of the local Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter. It’s hard to attend a veteran’s event without running into the chapter’s president David Treffinger and Gary Newman, who was named to the state Veterans Hall of Fame last year. Both served in Vietnam and repeatedly advocate honoring veterans.
Orange Park resident William Phillips, 100, was drafted into the U.S. Navy during WWII. In the South Pacific, Phillips was 19 when he arrived in the Philippines as a supply and logistics officer.
Phillips said the secret to a long life was a strong family and a lack of cigarettes and alcohol. After living in Georgia and New York, Phillips and his wife, Elizabeth, arrived in Orange Park because they wanted someplace warm. They welcomed the new VA Clinic and said the area was excellent for veterans.
“We really liked the area,” William Phillips said.
So did the military.