By Jon Wilson
A serious student of American military history could plan an entire vacation visiting Florida’s many museums devoted to our nation’s wars, the equipment used in them and the men and women who took part. More than two dozen, large and small, stretch literally from Pensacola to Key West. But North Florida is a good place to start.
Military History in North Florida
Several entrancing museums offer more modern perspectives. Visitors can, for example, take off in Pensacola’s National Naval Aviation Museum flight simulators, which are capable of stunt flying and aerial dogfights.
They can marvel at such vintage vehicles as an anti-aircraft tank at the Military Museum of North Florida in Green Cove Springs.
Or they can imagine life in a refurbished World War II barracks at the Camp Blanding Museum and Memorial Park in Starke.
Four Iconic Florida Forts
The National Naval Aviation Museum
The National Naval Aviation Museum, part of the Department of the Navy’s museum system, is a stunning center sprawling over 37 acres. It offers 350,000 square feet of exhibit space. It is billed as the world’s largest naval aviation showcase and is considered one of Florida’s most frequently visited museums.
Its Pensacola home is naval aviation’s birthplace, with roots dating to 1913 when a special survey board recommended the city as a training site for the new combat arm.
Admission is free, but some attractions, such as the flight simulators, 3D ride and movies in the IMAX theater, carry a fee. Discounts and packages are available.
More than 10 times larger than a typical movie screen, the museum’s IMAX screen is Florida’s largest – and one of the largest in the world.
The Navy’s famed Blue Angels flight team practices over museum skies most Tuesday and Wednesday mornings, weather permitting. Practices are free to watch.
At the museum’s heart is its 150 restored aircraft: an array of gallant fighters like the Hellcat, which smashed the Japanese Zero squadrons in World War II; hardy workhorses such as the C-130 Hercules, known as Fat Albert; and the daring (and lifesaving) rescue aircraft like the Coast Guard’s Albatross.
The Military Museum of North Florida
The Military Museum of North Florida proudly honors the citizen men and women who have served. Its Green Cove Springs home is appropriate because hundreds of decommissioned naval ships were stored during the 1960s on the adjacent St. Johns River. The city also had a naval air station where thousands of marines and sailors were based during World War II.
Among its exhibits are vintage uniforms, vehicles including a 100-ton amphibian, framed newspaper front pages and enemy weapons from World War II, Korea and Iraq.
An engaging feature is a military reference library with about 900 books, plus magazines and journals. The museum also is developing a “living history” oral history resource, videotaping veterans to preserve their stories.
The Museum is host to an Armed Forces Day car and motorcycle show on May 17. Among the events will be an aircraft fly-in.
Camp Blanding Museum and Memorial Park
The Camp Blanding Museum and Memorial Park, in addition to the barracks model, showcases weapons, uniforms and photo exhibits. They tell Camp Blanding’s story and that of the units that trained there, including nine Army infantry divisions, among them the famed Big Red One (First Division), Old Hickory (30th) and Blood and Fire (63rd). The 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment’s history also is recognized.
Monuments honor Congressional Medal of Honor and Purple Heart recipients. Also honored are former prisoners of war.
A visitor easily could spend a day at any one of these museums.
When you go…
National Naval Aviation Museum
1750 Radford Blvd., Pensacola
Military Museum of North Florida
1 Bunker Ave. & State Rd. 16 E, Green Cove Springs
Camp Blanding Museum and Memorial Park
5629 SR 16 W, Building 3040, Starke
For more information about Florida’s military history, visit vivaflorida.org/Explore/Victory-Florida