U.S. Navy in Florida

The presence of the U.S. Navy in Florida officially began with the transfer of the peninsula by Spain to the U.S. in 1821, and the subsequent establishment of Florida as a U.S. Territory. Two of the earliest American military vessels which sank in Florida waters were actually American privateers captured by Britain's Royal Navy during the American Revolution, and which later sank while in Royal Navy service. The captured American privateer Who's Afraid was placed into the Royal Navy and renamed HMS Mentor. The captured American privateer Independence was placed into the Royal Navy and renamed HMS Racer. HMS Mentor was burned by the British at Pensacola in 1781 to prevent her capture by invading Spanish forces. HMS Racer foundered in a gale in the Gulf of Mexico in 1814. The first commissioned Navy ship lost in Florida waters was USS Alligator, which wrecked in the Florida Keys in 1822, while assigned to combat piracy. Many naval, and other military craft have been sunk in Florida waters since 1821, through military action, foundering, grounding, fire and explosion, deliberate sinking to create artificial reefs, and other causes. Such shipwrecks are the major focus of the Florida Navy Legacy Shipwreck Project.

During its long history in Florida, the U.S. Navy has established a number of naval bases and stations. The most strategically significant of these have been at Pensacola, Key West, and Jacksonville. There has been a U.S. Navy presence at Pensacola since 1825, at Key West since 1822, and more recently at Jacksonville since the Second World War. There have been several military conflicts in Florida since 1821 in which the U.S. Navy has played an important role. These were the First Seminole War (1816-1818), the Second Seminole War (1835-1842), the Third Seminole War (1855-1858), the Civil War (1861-1865), the Spanish American War (1898), the First World War (1917-1918), the Second World War (1941-45), and events such as the Cuban Missile Crisis (1963).

During the Seminole Wars, the Spanish American War, and First and Second World Wars, there were a number of smaller Naval stations established along Florida's vast coastline. During the Seminole Wars, these stations were often operated as supply depots, intended for the joint Army-Navy operations being conducted. One example is the Naval Depot established on Key Biscayne in 1836, which lasted until 1926. During the First and Second World Wars, with new developments in aviation technology, these coastal naval stations were outfitted to serve as stations for lighter than air craft (dirigibles), conventional aircraft, and smaller surface craft, used to patrol Florida's coastline and offshore waters. Between the spring of 1942, and the fall of 1943, German submarines attacked and sank large numbers of ships on Florida's Atlantic and Gulf coasts. The Navy's system of coastal defense was ultimately one of the major factors which turned the tide against the U-Boats and caused Germany's Naval Command to redirect its effort to other locations where targets were easier to attack.

Since the Second World War, the U.S. Navy has continued to maintain a significant presence in Florida. The Key West Naval Station became a major staging area for the Navy during the Cuban Missile Crisis, for example. Recognizing the on-going strategic significance of the Key West Naval Station, the Navy invested large amounts of money in the early 1980s to upgrade its facilities. Since the stationing of the Navy's first aircraft carrier at Pensacola in 1925, Pensacola has become the focus for naval aviation activities and training. A Naval Training Center was in operation at Orlando from 1968 to 1994. Today in Florida, there are naval facilities at Pensacola, Panama City, Key West, Homestead, Mayport and Jacksonville, as well as some other smaller stations.

The U.S. Navy's history in Florida spans 175 years, from the earliest days of U.S. territorial expansion to the Space and Nuclear Age. Although much valuable work has already been done, much of this interesting chapter of U.S. Naval history remains to be studied and written by future historians.