Pensacola is not just a city with beautiful beaches and a happening downtown. Although the recent discovery of De Luna’s settlement has put Pensacola on the map of historic cities, often there are overlooked stories to Pensacola’s greatness. In celebration of Memorial Day, let’s take a look at five military heroes that have left a mark on Pensacola’s past.
Rosamond Johnson – Rosamond Johnson was an African-American who was only 15 years old when he joined the Army to fight in the Korean War. After rescuing two wounded soldiers from battle, Pvt. Johnson was gunned down on July 26, 1950 while attempting to drag a third comrade to safety. Johnson was the first soldier from the Pensacola area to die in the war, at age 17. At the time of his death, the South was still plunged in the depths of Jim Crow and the beaches of Pensacola were racially segregated. Johnson was awarded the Purple Heart for his heroism, and a stretch of the coastline along Perdido Key was named in his honor. Still, it would be several years before Jim Crow was fully dismantled and Johnson’s family and all black Americans were free to patronize whatever beach they chose. Rosamond Johnson Beach became part of the Gulf Island National Seashore in 1973 and a monument was erected in his honor in 1996.
General Daniel “Chappie” James Jr. – Chappie was a Washington High graduate who was one of America’s first black military airmen and went on to become the first African American four star general in our nation’s history. After graduating high school, Chappie attended the Tuskegee Institute and rose through the ranks of the Air Force, flying approximately 180 combat missions in his career. In 1975 he was promoted to General and assigned as Commander in Chief of the North American Defense Command and Aerospace Defense Command — having responsibility for all facets of air defense in the U.S. and Canada. Today, the Gen. Chappie James Jr. Museum and Youth Flight Academy is located in James’ historic Pensacola home –1608 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. — built by his father in 1909.
Lewis Warrington – Warrington joined the Navy in 1800 at the age of 18 as a midshipman aboard the frigate Chesapeake at the end of the Quasi-War with the French. In 1802, he served on the frigate President to fight in the first Barbary War. By the time the War of 1812 came around, Warrington was promoted to master commandant and put in charge of the sloop Peacock. He encountered an enemy ship off the coast of Cape Canaveral and after a forty-five minute exchange of fire came out victorious and received a Congressional Gold Medal. For the next ten years he commanded numerous ships and in 1826, Warrington was appointed to a panel to decide where to establish a new Navy Yard. Pensacola was chosen as the site and Warrington was in charge of the construction. A new village for the workers was established as Warrington Village. When the Navy Yard transitioned to the Naval Air Station, the residents were relocated to the neighborhood we know today as Warrington.
Richard Caswell Saufley – In 1914, during the inception of naval aviation, Lt. j.g. Saufley was chosen as one of nine men to move to Pensacola and set up the first Naval aeronautical station in the country. His career was already impressive — he broke light records for altitude and endurance, he became the first pilot to fly into enemy territory, and was the first to draw a map of foreign territory from the air. His young career was tragically cut short in 1916 as his plane crashed on Pensacola Beach during an attempt to break his own endurance record, having flown for 8 hours and 51 minutes. In the early 1940s, the Navy commissioned an auxiliary airfield of NAS Pensacola and named it after Saufley. In 1968, it was redesignated as Naval Air Station Saufley Field.
Martin “Trader Jon” Weissman – Honorably discharged from the Army for an ankle injury suffered on his last training jump before being sent off as a paratrooper in World War II, Weissman maintained his love for the military for the rest of his life. Weissman and his wife Jackii moved to Pensacola in 1953 and opened a bar named Trader Jon’s. The bar quickly became popular among Navy and Marine Corps officers, as Weissman often would exchange drinks for bits of Navy memorabilia – hence his moniker, “Trader Jon.” For nearly 50 years, until his death in 2000, Trader Jon acquired an extensive collection of military paraphernalia from the graduates of the Pensacola Naval Air Station flight school, including pilots John Glenn and John McCain. Celebrities who frequented the bar included John Wayne, Bob Hope and Elizabeth Taylor. You can revisit the charm of Trader Jon’s at the T.T. Wentworth Jr. Florida State Museum exhibit in Downtown Pensacola.