The Navy’s Mothball Fleet at Green Cove Springs

September 27, 2023
4 mins read

By Ted Hunt


In 1940, WWII raged in Europe. Here in the states, President Franklin Roosevelt believed that the United States’ best chance to stay out of the war was to help the Allies. Training Allied troops and sending American tanks, ships and planes to Europe, hopefully, would prevent the need to send American soldiers.

As the threat of war increased, the United States took steps to prepare. In 1940, Congress and President Roosevelt approved the first-ever peacetime draft. Men between the ages of 21 and 45 had to register for military service. Also, the Navy began building naval ships and naval air stations throughout the U.S. On Sept. 11, 1940, the U.S. Navy opened Naval Air Station Lee Field in Green Cove Springs, renamed Naval Air Station Green Cove Springs in 1943. Lee Field was designed to train Navy and Marine pilots.  

On Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Germany chose this moment to declare war against the United States. America was now at war in both Europe and Asia. Lee Field was now training thousands of pilots in support of the war effort — Ed McMahon, Johnny Carson’s sidekick, trained here as a pilot and became one of their flight instructors.


Aye, Aye Captain: Set Sail for Home  

After unthinkable destruction and millions of casualties, World War II ended in 1945. The U.S. Navy was faced with a massive surplus of warships and a lack of storage space for the ships being deactivated. They needed ports where these now-obsolete ships could be berthed and held in reserve, in case they were needed later. Many ships were in good shape and the Navy didn’t want to scrap them when the fears of another war against the Soviet Union loomed large.

The solution was to find suitable ports and keep the ships outfitted and in reserve until needed. Green Cove, located on the St. Johns River was selected because of its freshwater, warm climate, deep-water access, hurricane protection and its width and depth. Also, it’s 32 miles upriver from the sea, so there’s no chance of storm surge. The Navy had to consider the draft of the ships (the distance from the waterline to the bottom of the ship) in determining what ships could be “mothballed” here. Green Cove became known as the Atlantic Reserve Fleet, Green Cove Springs Group.


Ahoy Green Cove

From September to December 1945, the Navy brought 350 warships into Green Cove, still fully manned. At the end of 1945, Green Cove Springs became one of the most populated cities in the state of Florida and the largest Navy base in the country. No piers were built then, so the manned ships nested in pods in the middle of the St. Johns River. (Nesting is where they take about 12 ships and put them bow to stern, and use steel beams and run cables through them to hold the ships.)

Since there were no barracks for the sailors at that time, they lived on the ships and kept them ready to return to service within 30 days if necessary. Many war-weary sailors had already lived on their ships for over two years. Navy tender ships would often ferry the sailors to the mainland for a little R&R.  

In 1947, 13 concrete piers were built on the St. Johns River to accommodate the ships. They were 1,800 feet long by 30 feet wide — and are still there today. The ships were again nested but attached to the piers. Barracks, mess halls and family housing were also constructed to make life easier for the enlisted personnel. At its height, over 600 vessels, including destroyers, destroyer escorts, fleet auxiliaries, troop ships, minesweepers, amphibious landing ships and tank landing ships were stationed at Green Cove. Tank landing ships were the famous marine crafts in WWII, used in D-Day, which could carry tanks and troops. Over the course of a few years about 63,000 soldiers were stationed at Lee Field.   


Naval Fleet Parade

Bringing the ships from the Atlantic Ocean to Green Cove was a unique navigational challenge for the Navy. The ships entered the river at Mayport, east of Jacksonville, and had to maneuver the 32-mile journey around shallow and shifting sandbars. Also, the ships differed in length, width and draft, adding to the difficulty of ensuring a safe passage to their final destination. As they entered the river by the hundreds, the St. Johns, normally a serene waterway, became a bustling procession of Navy vessels.

Communities along the river’s edge would gather to witness this maritime spectacle. People lined the shores, their eyes fixed on the majestic ships, paying their respects to the valiant service rendered during the war. Children waved small flags, and many saluted as the ships glided past.

Green Cove with a population of 5,000, at the time, experienced a remarkable transformation as it became the temporary home for the Atlantic Fleet. This small riverside town buzzed with activity, as sailors and their families breathed new life into the community. The town became a hub of social interaction with dances, parties and community events organized to foster friendship among the military personnel and the townspeople. The impact on the local economy was significant. Businesses flourished as military residents and their families’ patronized shops, restaurants and other establishments — and having 42 bars helped keep things lively. 


Anchors Aweigh

When North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950, the United Nations Security Council authorized its members to send forces to repel the hostile invasion. The U.S. not only sent thousands of troops to support the effort but also recommissioned (i.e., reactivated) and sent over 150 of the ships stationed at Green Cove. Many ships were also recommissioned and deployed when the U.S. became involved in the Vietnam conflict. Being mothballed in ready-to- go condition, enabled the ships to be equipped and depart quickly. 

The Navy began to consolidate its reserve fleets in the 1960s to just three locations. Green Cove was not selected and was decommissioned in 1961. Most ships were mothballed elsewhere and sold for scrap or used as targets for live fire exercises, while others were sold to friendly foreign countries.

As the Atlantic Fleet moved on to new assignments, Green Cove Springs returned to its tranquil state, forever marked by the memories and impact of its time as a naval hub. The town retained its charm and natural allure, a hidden gem nestled along the banks of the St. Johns River. Today, remnants of that era can still be found, serving as a reminder of the vibrant and unique chapter in the town’s history when it played host to the Atlantic Fleet.

Thank you, Green Cove, for your service!


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