By Reggie Jarrett
Editor Jax Air News
In 1917, Woodrow Wilson was President. America had 48 states. John F. Kennedy was born. William "Buffalo Bill" Cody died. The Navy base at Norfolk, Virginia, was commissioned. Only 52 years had passed since the end of the Civil War.
The grounds of what is now Naval Air Station (NAS) Jacksonville was also much different. Instead of concrete and brick, buildings were made of wood. Instead of cars and trucks rolling down paved roads, there were horses on dirt roads. Instead of P-8A Poseidon airplanes and MH-60 Romeo helicopters taking off and landing, there were biplanes flying overhead.
Yet 100 years ago, before NAS Jacksonville existed those things made up Camp Joseph E. Johnston, a U.S. Army quartermaster training camp that opened during World War I.
Named after Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, Camp Johnston was commissioned Oct. 15, 1917 on the grounds of a Florida National Guard Camp at Black Point on the St. Johns River.
"Camp Johnston was about half the size of NAS Jacksonville today," said Ron Williamson, NAS Jacksonville safety manager and unofficial base historian.
The site was chosen because of the available lumber for the construction of buildings, the proximity of the river and artesian wells that provided clean drinking water.
There were negative aspects of the site that almost derailed the camp, including most of the land was low-lying swampy terrain, malarial mosquitos and alligators of which one person said, "I remember alligators in and around the camp as thick as fleas." Snakes were also numerous and problematic.
Despite the drawbacks, construction began on the camp Oct. 1, 1917. At the peak of construction almost 9,000 workers toiled on the base and the entire camp of 547 buildings was completed in less than four months.
Transporting construction workers from Jacksonville to the camp and back, proved to be a difficult problem to overcome.
"They brought workers in by boat," Williamson said. "They came from what is now the Bolles School area."
A pier more than 257-feet long was built and steamboats would ferry men to and from the camp. A shuttle train was also built to bring in workers.
The problem of the swampy ground was solved by man-power and ingenuity.
"They had to bring in tons of dirt to fill in low areas and to get everything out of the swamp," Williamson said.
"Also, almost all of the buildings were built on stilts to rise them above the wet ground."
The population of Camp Johnston peaked at 27,000 men, most of whom saw service in Europe when their training was completed.
Horse barns were built on the west side of U.S. 17, where Tillie Fowler Park is today. The barns held almost 4,000 horses and mules.
"There was also an aviation camp at Camp Johnston," Williamson said.
"They trained pilots here for World War I. They flew Curtiss JN-4 "Jenny" Hydroplanes. The landing area is near where Building 1 sits today."
Since most of the Soldiers were going to see service in Europe, Williamson said the camp had a novel way to prepare them.
"In the wooded area on the west-side of the base, they built roads and they put signs up with French town names to teach the Soldiers how to navigate unfamiliar road signs."
Even though it was wartime, the men did have amenities to relax. Camp Johnston had two theaters that showed the latest movies and also had live entertainment for the troops. The camp also had five Knights of Columbus Halls that featured entertainment for the men, as well as a library and a bowling alley.
The Hostess House, also known as the dance pavilion, was where Sunday afternoon dinners would be held. Officers would wear their dress uniforms and they would invite wives or girlfriends to dine with them.
The people of Jacksonville also opened their homes to the men. "Invite a Soldier to dinner" was a common slogan.
Plans were in the works to increase the size Camp Johnston to 50,000 men, but the project was canceled when the war ended in November 1918.
By February 1919, the camp was nearly deserted. Only a few Soldiers were left to guard the site.
Camp Johnston was officially closed May 16, 1919.
"When they closed the camp, they let people of Jacksonville come in to take wood from the buildings for free," Williamson said. "They just about disassembled this place."
As Camp Johnston was closing, Jacksonville was becoming a motion picture capital.
In an effort to attract more studios to the city, plans were announced in 1921 to build the world's largest movie production center at Camp Johnston. The center would have film studios, movie sets and warehouses.
The center produced one movie and then the project folded.
"The movie folks were causing problems for the city of Jacksonville," Williamson said.
"If they were filming a movie and they needed a fire truck in a scene, they would just call in a false alarm and the fire truck would come out and they would film it for free."
In the following years, sections of the camp were cut up into subdivisions, a campground and a state park.
Camp Johnston lasted less than two years, but it set the stage for NAS Jacksonville, which was established in 1940 and is now the third largest Navy base in the United States.
100 years gone by . . .
By Reggie Jarrett