Around Florida – Pensacola’s Military and Naval History

The strategic position of Pensacola harbor as a naval base and its nearness to large supplies of important ship building timber led the United States Army and Navy to take early steps to fortify the approaches to the harbor. The Federal Navy Yard was established. It is still technically the United States Navy Yard, but ship-building operations were suspended long ago. No attempt was made to restore the ruins of Fort San Carlos, but the newer fort, named by the Spanish Barrancas, was enlarged and its garrison and armament strengthened. Guarding the entrance to the harbor, the United States built Fort Pickens, at the westerly tip of Santa Rosa Island, where the Spaniards had once attempted to establish their settlement, and Fort McRae, directly opposite at the end of the peninsula east of Gulf Beach.

The first actual fighting on Florida soil during the war between the states took place here when, two days after the secession of Florida, a hastily organized volunteer force of secessionists seized the Navy Yard, Fort Barrancas and Fort McRae. They did not succeed in seizing Fort Pickens, which has the distinction of being the only Federal military post in the South over which the Stars and Stripes flew continuously from 1861 to 1865. The mainland shore from the Navy Yard to Fort McRae was further fortified by the Confederate forces with nineteen batteries of artillery, which bombarded Fort Pickens unsuccessfully. Early in 1862 the Confederates surrendered the fortifications to a Federal Army which approached from the land side, after first burning the Navy Yard and the saw mills. The Federal forces remained in possession of Pensacola to the end of the war.

The history of Pensacola is one of the most turbulent and colorful chapters in the American saga. Few mementos remain of those earliest troublous times, except the four ancient can nons which stand at the four corners of Lee Square, in the center of the city on the site of old Fort George, which the Spanish renamed Fort Michael. Two of the guns are Spanish, one of them bearing the arms of King Charles II; another is French and the fourth bears the arms of King George I of England.

Pensaeola is proud of its military and naval history, and proudest of all of its Naval Air Station. Established in 1914, this school for Navy fliers has trained nearly 5,000 of the most efficient aviators in the world. The station is almost a city in itself, occupying, with its landing fields, nearly 10,000 acres centered around the old Navy Yard. It is a beautifully laid out, miraculously neat community, in which more than 3,000 Navy officers with their families, cadets in training, and enlisted men of the Navy are housed in modern, attractive quarters and upto-date barracks. Here 700 flying students are constantly in training. Some of them come from the Naval Academy at Annapolis. An Ensign who has served two years with the Fleet may, at his own request, be sent to Pensacola as a student. Nearly all of the rest are University graduates who have served in the Reserve Officers Training Corps while in college and who want to take up flying. The personnel under training includes also officers in the Marine Corps and the Coast Guard as well as the Navy, and enlisted men of all three services.

The majority of the aviators who man the flying clippers of the Pacific and Pan-American services, the men who are pioneering the new trans-Atlantic routes, got their training here at Pensacola. They are reserve officers of the United States Navy, who can be called back into service whenever their country needs them. Among them, these graduates of Pensacola constitute the nation’s first line of defense in case of a foreign war. They are the pick of the young men of America. No flying cadet is accepted unless he can pass the most rigid tests of scholarship and come clean under the most searching investigation of his moral character and integrity. He must be 100% perfect physically, and he must demonstrate an aptitude as well as an inclination for aviation before he can be enrolled as a student aviator.

The accepted cadet who has passed all these tests is sent to the Navy air base at Miami for a month of elimination flight training. If he comes through that satisfactorily, he comes to Pensacola for a year’s course which includes experience in training landplanes and seaplanes, scouts, fighters, patrol boats, and torpedo planes. The phases of training include primary and precision work, formation, cross country, acrobatics, blind flying, radio, catapulting, gunnery, camera gunnery and bombing. In addition the ground school covers a broad scope of subjects including navigation, engines, aircraft construction and overhaul, instruments, military and naval science and radio.

While undergoing this training at Pensacola the Cadet is paid $105 per month and is supplied with uniforms, quarters and books. He is covered by a $10,000 life insurance policy which is paid for by the government during his active duty. Many opportunities for recreation are offered such as football, baseball, handball, basketball, bowling, swimming, tennis, fishing, hunting, library, boxing, boating, motion pictures, dramatic and musical societies.

Upon graduation from Pensacola, the Aviation Cadet is sent to flight duty in the status of a junior Naval Officer with an aviation unit of the United States Fleet for three years, dur ing which time he is paid $155 per month. During this time he will do duty aboard the large airplane carriers and other aviation units and will take extended cruises with the United States Fleet. At the end of his period he receives as a cash bonus $1,500, and a commission as Ensign in the United States Naval Reserve. He is then released to inactive duty. He is eligible to continue flying activities at the Naval Reserve Aviation Base nearest his home with subsequent promotion to higher rank. He is paid a retainer pay for maintaining his proficiency.

When it is considered that several thousand young men of such caliber and qualities have spent a year each in Pensacola it is not surprising that the city has acquired the sobriquet of “Mother-in-law of the Navy.” Indeed, an actual shortage of eligible young women is reported. When a boy in his early twenties has finally got his wings and the assurance of something like a permanent livelihood, the first thing he usually wants to do is to get married. Many of them, to be sure, marry the sweethearts of their college days, girls from all parts of the nation; but a high percentage of them marry girls they have met in Pensacola.

The air transport lines keep a close eye on the students at Pensacola, and the demand for their services is frequently greater than the supply; for no young man comes through this course unless he knows and has proved that he knows everything there is to know about aviation. When he comes out he has had 300 hours in the air in land planes, sea planes, flying boats, and heavy bombers. He is a master of navigation. He can fly blind by instruments and follow a radio beam. He can receive and send in Morse code. He can take a plane and its engine and equipment apart down to the last screw and put them together again. He knows what to do in any emergency. He can lead or follow a flight in squadron formation. Whatever the most rigid qualifications for an aviator may be as of the date of his graduation, he has them. And, in addition, he has proved himself a man of character and courage.

In addition to training pilots, the Navy Air Station at Pensacola trains enlisted men for the necessary ground work without which airplanes could not fly. These, too, are picked men, skilled young mechanics who are taught a11 that there is to know about the servicing and repairing of planes and engines. Most of these are absorbed into the Navy and Marine Corps as warrant or non-commissioned officers, but like the cadets themselves, these Navy-trained men are in demand by builders and operators of commercial aircraft.

The sight of squadrons of brightly colored planes flying in formation over Pensacola and its adjacent waters is one not to be forgotten. There are few casualities among the student flyers. When a ship gets out of control it usually manages to come down in the water, where swift Navy patrol boats are always on the watch to rush to the rescue. As essential part of the training is, of course, parachute descents, and here the watchfulness of the boat patrol is especially necessary.

Grounded in shoal water a mile or so off the entrance to Pensacola harbor is the wreck of the old battleship Massachusetts, its rusting steel turrets standing high above the water as a forlorn monument to the international naval disarmament program agreed upon by the nations of the world at President Harding’s Peace Conference of 1921. The United States, almost alone among those who participated in the conference and signed the agreement to sink some of their capital ships, kept its promise. The Massachusetts was one of the victims. It was anchhored off Pensacola to serve as a target and was sunk by high explosive shells from long-range rifled guns of the railroad artillery, which the Army had been itching to try, but had had no real chance in the World War. Around the hulk the winds and waves have piled up the sand into a shoal that is almost an island, and which somehow is such an attractive lure for fish that Pensacola sportsmen agree that Battleship Shoal is the best fishing ;round for miles around.

Pensacola is a pleasant city to live in. In the older section, especially along the highways skirting the bay to the southward, many of the homes are built in the true old Spanish style, around a patio or open courtyard, and the hospitality of the hidalgos of old Spain is dispensed within their walls. To the northward an interesting new residential section has been developed by the construction of the Beach Scenic Highway, extending several miles along the crest of the high banks of Escambia Bay, enabling the householder not only to have a broad, inspiring view across the water but to maintain his own private boat landing or fishing pier at the foot of the bluff.

With the extensive safe waters of the three bays at its door, one of Pensacola’s most popular sports is yachting. Both sailing craft and motor boat regattas which attract entries from all parts of the seaboard are held here at seasonal intervals. Visitors are attracted to Pensacola the year around because of its “air-conditioned” climate. Surrounded by salt water, its temperatures run 6 to 10 degrees cooler in Summer and 4 to 8 degrees warmer in Winter than only a few miles inland.