Honor & Duty: A Look at the History of the Military in Jacksonville, Florida

Military History in Jacksonville, Florida, EUJax, EU Jacksonville, Tim Gilmore

Heading south in a 1972 Monte Carlo bought with his last $500, Bill Spann caught a glimpse of the Jacksonville skyline as he made his way down I-95 to his new home at Naval Station Mayport. “I thought, ‘How did I never know about this before?’ I fell in love with the city that day,” says Spann.

When Spann received his duty orders, people asked if he had an admiral in his family or someone to pull the strings for such a desirable station. “I just got lucky. Jacksonville has long been the most requested duty station in the Navy,” says Spann, who also fell in love with his wife after meeting at Ragtime Tavern in Atlantic Beach.

U.S. NAVY Soldiers on USS Iwo Jima, U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Dary M Patten
Soldiers assigned to 1186th Deployment and Distribution Support Battalion observe Naval Station Mayport harbor from vultures row aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima (LHD 7). Iwo Jima is conducting a scheduled continued maintenance availability. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Dary M. Patten/Released)

As the wife of a career military man, she followed him across the globe for 20 years. Spann’s final duty station was as the director of communications for the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Spann serves as the Director of Military Affairs and Veterans Department for the City of Jacksonville. He retired from the United States Navy in May of 2003 having earned the rank of commander. “I’ve been stationed all over the world. We lived in Japan, Italy, Monterey, California, Annapolis, but when I retired she said she wanted a little yellow house at the beach,” he says. “We’re very much enjoying life right now.”

“Jacksonville just opens its arms and really welcomes the military. The fabric of the community is very tightly interwoven with the military.”

U.S. NAVY Line-handling on USS Hue City, US Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Timothy Schumaker
Sailors assigned to the Ticonderoga class-guided-missile cruiser USS Hue City (CG 66) perform line-handling duties during the arrival of the amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima (LHD 7) in Naval Station Mayport. Iwo Jima returns from Haiti after having conducted humanitarian assistance and disaster relief as part of Joint Task Force (JTF) Matthew in the wake of Hurricane Matthew. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Timothy Schumaker/Released)

In a city the size of Jacksonville, the fact that one out of every five people has a connection with someone in the armed services speaks to the city’s rich military heritage and pride in the armed forces. Over 50,000 active-duty members, government civilians, and contractors call the city home. Add to that the number of retired military personnel in Jacksonville and that figure grows to approximately 150,000. “Jacksonville is a wonderful place. It really is. When people retire, they stay here. It’s got something very special,” comments Spann. “It’s hard to put your finger on exactly what that is, but everyone knows about it.”

The crew of the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Carney (DDG 64) mans the rails as the ship returns to Naval Station Mayport after a deployment. Carney deployed in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility supporting maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Salt Cebe/Released)

Jacksonville is home to Naval Air Station Jacksonville (NAS Jax), Naval Station Mayport, Kings Bay Naval Base, Camp Blanding Joint Training Center, Naval Aviation Depot of Jacksonville, and the Marine Corps Blount Island Command. Spann attributes the city’s tax and legal structure, warm climate, beaches, and the riverfront among the city’s many draws. But its biggest seller is the welcoming attitude toward the military and appreciation for those in the armed forces. “Jacksonville just opens its arms and really welcomes the military. The fabric of the community is very tightly interwoven with the military,” he says.

The First Coast salutes its military in a big way with the annual Week of Valor celebrations from Florida’s largest Veterans Day Parade in Downtown Jacksonville. This patriotic display features senior military officials, active duty and retired military units, veteran groups, local high school marching bands, and ornamental floats. The strong military presence in Northeast Florida has a great economic impact on the city and also creates a diverse population. According to Spann, the military contributes a staggering $14.5 billion to the region’s economy. “That’s billion with a B,” says Spann. “One of our primary missions here at the city is to continue to fortify, strengthen, and grow the military presence in Jacksonville because of the enormous economic impact that it has.”

Military installations like NAS Jacksonville and Naval Station Mayport have long served to bolster the regional economy and national defense. “The city itself couldn’t be what it is without the military and vice versa,” Spann says. “It’s extremely part and parcel to who we are.” Pride in the city’s military heritage demonstrates a commitment to all of the men and women stationed throughout the city.

About Liza Mitchell