Key West and the Military

Navy Fighter that I got to see close up at the last air show held at NAS Key West.
Navy Fighter that I got to see close up at the last air show held at NAS Key West.

The US military has an illustrious history in Key West which started back in the early 1800’s. And we can thank former resident and businessman John Simonton, who in 1821 lobbied the US government to establish a naval base on the island to help bring law and order to the town while taking advantage of the island’s strategic location. In 1822 Naval officer Matthew Perry sailed to Key West on the schooner Shark, and shortly thereafter a naval base was finally established.

As one can probably guess, piracy in the area in the 1800’s was out of control. So in 1822 President Monroe established an anti-piracy squadron. Navy Captain David Porter was appointed commander of the squadron which was referred to as the Mosquito Fleet because the vessels were very shallow minded allowing for quick and easy maneuvering. The Mosquito Fleet protected many merchant ships coming in to the area from piracy as well as rescued many slaves coming over on slave ships. And they, along with the US Coast Guard, were so effective that piracy was pretty much put to an end in this area.

In 1824 the US Coast Guard’s 63 foot Schooner Florida sailed to Key West, establishing a permanent station on the island. The Florida and its crew collected maritime tariffs and rescued distressed sailors while helping the US Navy to chase pirates and prevent smuggling.

When the Civil War started, dozens of Coast Guard and Navy ships stationed in Key West patrolled the area waters to prevent the Confederates from importing any goods. Possibly due to the military presence, Key West was the only port in the South that did not come into Confederate control during the war.

During the Spanish American War, the Navy’s presence in Key West was further increased. At this time, the entire Atlantic Fleet moved to Key West. But afterwards, the Navy was withdrawn from the Keys entirely until WWI.

The great weather that Key West experiences year round made the island home to a Navy submarine base where training could be ongoing. And the Navy’s new aviation branch would also benefit from the weather by being able to train more often. Naval Air Station (NAS) Key West was thusly established in 1917.

NAS Key West base logs show that the very first naval flight ever made from Key West was a Curtis N9 seaplane flown by Lt. Stanley Parker of the US Coast Guard on September 22, 1917. Parker was later tapped as the first commanding officer of NAS Key West.

US Coast Guard and Navy pilots stationed at NAS Key West flew blimps and seaplanes around the Florida Keys in search of German submarines. More than 500 pilots trained at NAS Key West during the years of WWI, making it the premier training facility for Navy pilots. But after WWI the base was once again closed, leaving only a small contingent to remain and maintain a wireless radio station. The area was also used on occasion for seaplane training.

In 1939 the US Coast Guard grew even larger when the Lighthouse Service was merged with the Coast Guard, establishing what is now known as the Captain of the Port Key West.

In the late 1930’s operations at NAS Key West began to increase due to German subs being found in nearby waters. And in 1940 the base was reopened. The Navy also established a sonar school on base. By the end of WWII Key West was home port for many aircraft squadrons as well as subs and destroyers.

NAS Key West remained a training facility after WWII, and it provided a strategic location for the US Armed Forces when the Cuban Missile Crisis surfaced in 1962. JFK actually visited NAS Key West to thanks the services men and women for their efforts when it was over.

In the 1970’s the Navy’s presence was once again diminished from Key West. But the island’s year round good weather and the strategic location remained a draw, so eventually the Key West base was permanently opened. Today, NAS Key West  is a state of the art training facility for air to air combat fighters in all branches of the US military. We have one of only two air craft landing practice strips in the USA.

And Coast Guard Sector Key West is today a unified command consisting of two patrol boats, eight dual crews, three small boat stations, an Aids to Navigation Team and three staff departments.  Sector Key West has a unique area of responsibility which includes 55,000 square miles that borders the territorial seas of Cuba and the Bahamas. That’s a lot of area, and they do a great job patrolling it!

You can learn more about the history of the Coast Guard by visiting the Key West Coast Guard maritime Museum while in Key West. It is located at the Truman Waterfront (the foot of Southard Street).

Residents and visitors can watch and hear the US service pilots training in the skies above Key West almost daily. And as funny as it seems, watching the pilots training on my way to and from work is one of my favorite things about living down here. It is awe inspiring to watch and really makes me feel very patriotic and proud to live in an area with such a rich US military history.


Be sure to keep up with my blog for information about Key West. From its long history to what is happening right now!

Before deciding where you are going to eat while visiting Key West, be sure to read my other restaurant reviews; check out our restaurant review section of this blog as well as our previous restaurant reviews.

And to see what is happening on the island during your visit, check out our Key West Events Calendar to see other upcoming special events. For more information about the fun side of Key West… things to do and see in our island city, go to our Key West Web Site.

Feel free to Email Me if you have any questions about Key West!!

Island Genn
Key West Concierge



About the author: Island Genn

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