Florida became the center for naval aviation training during the late 1930s. The warm climate, miles of sandy beaches, and rugged land became ideal training grounds for troops.
On September 11, 1940, the U.S. Navy opened Naval Air Station Lee Field in northeast Florida. The Air Station was named in honor of Ensign Benjamin Lee, who died during World War I. By March 1941, the U.S. Navy had spent $1.8 million on the base; which consisted of 4 runways, aircraft maintenance services, and housing for military personnel.
NAS Lee Field was primarily used to train pilots for aircraft carrier landing operations during World War II. In August 1943, the facility was renamed Naval Air Station Green Cove Springs. At the end of the war the Naval base was downgraded in status to a Naval Auxiliary Air Station (NAAS) and transferred to NAS Jacksonville for limited training purposes. Its proximity to the St. Johns River made the facility an excellent location to securely store the U.S. Naval Atlantic Reserve or “Mothball Fleet” of WWII U.S. Navy ships.
President Lyndon B. Johnson decommissioned the naval base in 1960 under his first executive order. He relocated the “Mothball Fleet” to his home state of Texas. The city of Green Cove Springs annexed the abandoned naval base, and sold it to Reynolds Metal Company for redevelopment. Reynolds Industrial Park was established in 1965, which included 1,700 acres served by rail, highway, water and private airport.
The private airfield portion of Reynolds Industrial Park was known as Reynolds Airpark. The single 5,000-foot runway is in very poor condition, but is listed as currently operational with the FAA. The original air traffic control tower is still attached to the former Navy aircraft hangar.
By 2000, a majority of Reynolds Industrial Park had fallen into decline. Military relics still littered the landscape. World War II infrastructure and buildings sat in a dilapidated state. Over the next few years, several of the Navy hangars and the former power plant were sold to private companies.
The 154-foot long, 75,000 pound external fuel tank from NASA’s Space Shuttle Program was one of the original test articles. Loaded by barge and moved down the inland waterways, the tank was headed to its new home at Wings of Dreams Aviation Museum in Starke, Florida. Unfortunately, after it was unloaded in Green Cove Springs the fuel tank proved to be impossible to haul the 55-mile route by truck due to low hanging power lines. Today the fuel tank remains in the exact spot it was unloaded.
Atlas Hovercrafts envisioned a river transport system by hovercraft. After two years of building, the company closed in May 2008 due to a lack of funding. The hovercraft shell sits in a state of decay on the tarmac after the owner decided to abandon the project.
In 2012, a redevelopment plan was adopted that focused on transforming Reynolds Industrial Park. The project focused on adapting the former naval base into a multi-use activity center. A portion of the unused runways at Reynolds Airpark was leased to a car dealership as temporary storage.