The presence of the US Navy in Key West dates back to 1822, when Lt. Commander Matthew C. Perry sailed the Navy schooner Shark into Key West Harbor and claimed the island for the United States. Only about 100 people lived here at that time. Although Florida had become a US territory a year earlier, there were still some questions about the ownership of the Keys. Keep in mind that even after the 13 American colonies had declared independence from British rule in 1776, the newly-formed United States of America did not include Florida. Spain owned Florida until 1821, when it was ceded to the US. But even then, Spain considered the Keys as “North Havana.” Cuba was still Spanish territory at that time. And as recently as 1815, the Spanish governor of Cuba had deeded the island of Key West to one of the officers of the Royal Spanish Navy. So when Perry “claimed” Key West for the US, he was not at all sure what Spain’s reaction might be. When there was no reaction from Spain, US ownership of the Florida Keys was presumed.
ANTI-PIRACY CAMPAIGN. During this period in history, the fragile economy of the new nation was becoming increasingly dependent on commerce with Europe. Accordingly, America’s shipping industry was expanding by leaps and bounds and the Caribbean and American shipping lanes were increasingly filled with more and more ships filled with increasingly valuable cargoes. But there was a problem: Piracy. In our modern world, pirates and piracy have been somewhat romanticized in books and movies, but they were not at all romantic in the early 1800s. During this period, hundreds of American vessels were attacked and plundered– and often, the crews were brutally murdered and tossed overboard. Infamous pirates like Blackbeard and Capt. William Kidd reportedly used the Florida Keys as a base to prey on the nearby shipping lanes.
As the losses of American ships increased, President James Monroe authorized the establishment of an anti-piracy fleet to be based at Key West– a logical decision, since the island is centrally located adjacent to the “pirate waters” in the Florida Straits, between Florida and Cuba. The stated mission of the West Indies Squadron was to suppress piracy and the slave trade as well as to protect the commerce and citizens of the United States. Command of the squadron went to Commodore David Porter. At 42, he was already a famous American war hero. Porter’s 16-vessel squadron was nicknamed the “Mosquito Fleet” because most of the vessels were relatively small with shallow draft. But the nickname could have had extra meaning for the sailors since, in the summer months, the insects carried yellow fever and malaria, and the navel hospital overflowed with fever patients. Of course, at that time, no one knew that those diseases were carried by mosquitoes. (NOTE: You may want to see the article in our recent February 26 issue on how mosquito control has improved the quality of life here.)
Despite the mosquitoes, Porter’s approach to his mission may have been the Nineteenth Century equivalent of modern day “shock and awe.” Launching operations in 1823, his ships scoured the Caribbean, the Bahamas and the Gulf of Mexico, hitting pirate bases in Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Florida Keys. His fleet also escorted many American ships to safety. At the height of anti-piracy campaign here, Key West was the busiest navy base in the United States. And by 1825, with dozens of pirate ships captured or sunk and hundreds of pirates captured or killed, piracy had virtually ceased to exist in American and Caribbean waters. However, with the piracy threat eliminated, the Navy moved the Mosquito Fleet to Pensacola, leaving only a coal and supply base behind. And for the first time, but not the last, Key Westers experienced the impact of Navy downsizing here.
THE CIVIL WAR. The military again became an important presence in Key West with the beginning of construction of Fort Taylor in 1845. Key West was also the support base for the construction of Fort Jefferson. Work on Fort Jefferson, out on Garden Key in the Dry Tortugas, began in 1846. Both forts were part of an extensive coastal defense system being developed by the US government. Construction of both forts continued for years and, at the outset of the Civil War, Fort Taylor was nearing completion. On January 10, 1861, Florida became the third state to secede from the Union. But three days later, a small military force based at Fort Taylor “captured” Key West in the middle of the night– and the city remained “Union” throughout the war. The commander of the Union garrison at Fort Taylor, expecting a retaliatory raid by Confederate forces from the mainland, quickly expanded fortifications. But such a raid never happened.
The US Navy maintained a significant presence in Key West during the Civil War, since the island was at the center of the Union’s blockading forces. As many as 40 Union warships were based in Key West and this fleet intercepted more than 200 would-be blockade runners attempting to get supplies to the Confederates. Captured ships were anchored in Key West Harbor and captured crews were jailed at Fort Taylor. Financially, Key West benefited significantly during the war. In fact, during this period, Key West became the largest and wealthiest city in the state. Keep in mind, of course, that all of the rest of the state, with the exception of St. Augustine, was under wartime occupation– real or virtual– by the Confederates. Many Florida residents were having trouble even finding enough to eat. Sidebar note: During the Civil War, Fort Jefferson housed an infamous prisoner– Dr. Samuel Mudd. Dr. Mudd was prosecuted and jailed after he set the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth, the man who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln.
SPANISH-AMERICAN WAR. Thirty years later, the military build-up in Key West prior to and during the Spanish-American war also contributed to the island’s prosperity. The entire Atlantic fleet was moved to Key West, including the USS Maine, one of America’s first battleships. On January 24, 1898, the Maine sailed out of Key West Harbor on the way to Cuba, presumably to protect American interests after the beginning of a Cuban rebellion to achieve independence from Spain. Anchored in Havana Harbor on the evening of February 15, 1898, the Maine suddenly exploded, killing 260 of the nearly 400 American crew members on board. Many of those who died were buried here in the Key West Cemetery. An official Navy court of inquiry– conducted in the Customs House here– speculated that the ship was blown up by a mine, but did not directly place the blame on Spain. No matter. Much of Congress, the American public and the press did blame Spain and called for a declaration of war. The famous rallying cry was “Remember the Maine!” War was declared on April 25, 1898. Before, during and after the war, many millions of dollars were spent in Key West by thousands of soldiers, sailors and construction workers– and the military spent millions more on permanent construction here.
The Spanish-American War was not much of a war, as wars go. It only lasted 10 weeks. But it marked a major turning point in world history. Keep in mind that, beginning way back in 1492, when Columbus sailed the ocean blue, Spain had owned the majority of the New World– and continued to own and exploit it for several hundred years. By the middle of the Nineteenth Century, however, much of the Spanish Empire had fallen into other hands and by 1898, all that remained was Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Guam and a few other Pacific islands. As far as most Americans were concerned, the major reason for the war with Spain was to help the Cubans achieve independence. But the war was not only fought in the Caribbean, it was also fought in the Pacific. And the American forces were overwhelming, both on land and at sea. As a result, Spain’s run as a world power was over. Cuba was an independent nation. And with Spain ceding ownership of Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Guam and the several other Pacific islands to the United States, America had its first overseas possessions.
WORLD WAR I. Less than 20 years after the end of the Spanish-American War, the footprint of the Navy in Key West expanded bigtime with the entry of the United States into World War I in 1917. A submarine base was established at what is now Truman Annex and the Naval Air Station was established at what is now Trumbo Point for the training of pilots for the Navy’s fledgling aviation force. Navy pilots flew seaplanes to search for German submarines in nearby waters. Blimps were also used. Anti-submarine warfare was born here. Sidebar note: During 1918, the famous inventor Thomas Edison resided in Key West in what is now Truman’s Little White House while developing secret weapons for the war effort.
THE NAVY BASE CLOSED. The end of WWI brought bad news for Key West. Both the navy base and the air base were decommissioned. Most of the buildings at Trumbo Point were demolished or dismantled and moved to other locations. And the submarines left. What facilities that remained were occasionally used for seaplane training. The financial impact on the Key West community was devastating. The late Wilhelmina Harvey, longtime Monroe County Commissioner, recalled, “Many people here lived on grunts and grits.” And the Great Depression didn’t help. The island lost all of its industry, most of its jobs and a third of its population.
WORLD WAR II. Although World War II started in Europe in 1939, the United States remained technically neutral until the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. But that didn’t mean that the US was not preparing for the possibility of war well before Pearl Harbor. In fact, just weeks after Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, the Navy reactivated the base in Key West. Of course, announcing that the base was reopening and actually using it were two different things. The base had been operating on “bare maintenance” status for years. But the restoration process began almost immediately– and that was good news for Key West. The government would spend millions on defense projects here. Soldiers, sailors and defense workers flooded the island by the thousands– and they spent lots of money. The harbor was as busy as it had ever been. The Naval Air Station hosted a squadron of long-range bombers. When the first three submarines arrived back at the base here, Key Westers celebrated with a parade. By 1941, more than 1000 military personnel were on active duty at the Navy base here– and the Navy was also hiring a large number of civilians.
With the pre-war buildup, however, the Navy faced a serious problem: Water. For years, the source of most fresh water in Key West was rain water collected by residents in cisterns. Obviously, that was not going to be a practical solution to sustain a growing military population in Key West, as well as a growing civilian population. So in March 1941, the Navy announced plans to build a 130-mile pipeline to bring fresh water from the mainland to Key West. And they didn’t mess around. The pipeline was completed in only 18 months! So, just in case you didn’t know, that is how and why we have an adequate supply of fresh water in Key West today.
The news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor may have been somewhat unnerving for some residents here because Key West was also the home of a frontier naval base. In fact, the Navy did try to impose mandatory blackouts here and marines were stationed at critical points along the Overseas Highway. And, of course, a large American defense force, both in the air and on the sea, was maintaining a vigil over coastal waters from Canada to the Caribbean. And the threat was real. German submarines were actually sinking ships in the Florida Straits. Sidebar note: It was reported that Ernest Hemingway often patrolled the waters between the Florida Keys and Cuba in his fishing boat, Pilar, looking for German submarines. Reportedly, Hemingway was armed only with a couple of machine guns, a few grenades, and an inordinate amount of chutzpah.
The big Navy airfield on Boca Chica was developed during this period. But in the pre-war years, Boca Chica was owned by Monroe County and, in fact, construction of a new Key West International Airport had begun on Boca Chica to replace the already-too-small Meacham Field on the south side of the island. But military officials (and patriotism) convinced County officials to turn Boca Chica over to the Navy for the construction of a military airfield– with the promise that, after the war, Boca Chica would be returned to the County with all improvements. Actually, this was a common practice following World War II. This is how many communities across America got their airports. So, when the war was over, County officials asked about when they might get their airport back– but Navy officials replied, in essence, something like, “You gotta be kidding!” Boca Chica was far too valuable, they said, and the Navy needed it for pilot training. But you promised, County officials said. Yeah, but that was then, said the Navy. And now is now. In later years, County officials explored the idea of joint use of Boca Chica for both civilian and military use– again, a common practice across America. For awhile, it looked like local Navy officials might be leaning toward joint use. But then, some big wig in the Navy Department killed the idea with a single stroke of his pen.
During the years following World War II, the Navy presence here went through several periods of downsizing and then upsizing and then downsizing again. During the early 1990s, there was even talk that the Key West Naval Air Station might be closed as part of the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process. But the same reasoning that resulted in Monroe County not getting Boca Chica back after WWII, saved the Naval Air Station here. It is just too valuable. NAS Key West is a state-of-the-art training facility for air-to-air combat fighter aircraft of all military services, with favorable flying conditions year round and unparalleled aerial ranges that offer aircrew training within minutes after takeoff. Enough said.