Military History of Key West

The story of the Little White House, Key West and the US military are forever linked. In 1823 the residents of Key West requested the US Navy secure the shipping lanes and protect them from pirates. Nearly 2000 brethren of the coast were attacking the ships of the United States, Spain and England as they sailed the Caribbean island or used the Gulf Stream to sail to Europe. Commodore David Porter was successful and the city of Key West incorporated in 1828.

Key West was declared the finest port south of Charleston, SC. Business was brisk in this small seafaring town and it rapidly became the largest city in the State of Florida.

During the American Civil war, Key West, due to the presence of the US Navy and US Army, remained in Union hands and became the headquarters of the Gulf blockade of the Confederacy. 199 ships were captured by the blockade. Many historians create this action with shortening the war by a couple of years. The 1870s saw growing unrest between Spain and Cuba and the Atlantic Fleet was stationed in Key West to protect US interest in Cuba. The sinking of the US Maine in 1898 brought national attention to Key West and many of the sailors and supplies were dispatched from either Key West or Tampa.

The 1900s saw the Key West Naval station grow in importance as the headquarters of the Seventh Naval District encompassing all the State of Florida. A very early submarine base was established here as well as one of the first Naval Air Stations equipped with blimps and seaplanes. Inventor Thomas Edison resided in the house for six months in 1918 while perfecting 41 weapons for the US war effort.

During World War II a number of German U Boats sank cargo and military ships in the Gulf Stream and especially around Key West. The Naval Station became the home of the Fleet Sonar School, Underwater weapons Development and Underwater Swimmer’s School (later called Scuba). Following World War II, President Truman needed rest and a warm climate
to recover from a cold. Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz recommended the Key West Naval Station. Truman rested and relaxed in November 1946 returning for a total of 11 working vacations lasting 175 days until March 1952. Details of these trips are found in the presidential logs. Key West was an integral part of anti submarine warfare throughout the Cold War period from 1946 to 1974 with numerous American and Allied sailors trained here.

Presidents Eisenhower and John F Kennedy used the Key West Naval Station for important summits during their term in office. In 1974, changing technology impacted the base as the newer larger nuclear submarines could not use our harbor and the Naval Station was disestablished.

The 1980s saw Key West re-developed as a tourist destination and former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton relaxed at the Little White House. Old Town Trolley was established to provide sightseeing tours along with their sister company the Conch Tour Train. Cruise ships began to make regular visits and today Key West is recognized as a global tourist destination. In 2001, Secretary of State Colin Powell led international peace talks between the presidents of Azerbaijan and Armenia. The US Naval Station, due to the mild climate, has become a major training center for pilots.


What role did Key West play during the Spanish-American War?

Key West served as a crucial naval base during the Spanish-American War, providing support for U.S. naval operations in the Caribbean and playing a significant role in the events leading up to the war’s outcome.

How did Key West contribute to the defense efforts during World War II?

During World War II, Key West played a vital role in defending the Florida Straits and supporting anti-submarine warfare operations, hosting military installations and naval facilities that bolstered the nation’s defense strategy.

Can visitors explore historic military sites in Key West today?

Visitors can delve into Key West’s military history by visiting sites like the Truman Little White House, Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park, and Fort Jefferson in Dry Tortugas National Park, offering insights into the island’s strategic importance and military heritage.

What exhibits or artifacts related to military history are on display in Key West?

Key West showcases a wealth of military history exhibits and artifacts at museums like the Truman Little White House, highlighting key moments in the island’s military past, including artifacts, documents, and interactive displays that bring this history to life for visitors.

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