Residents of this coastal military community hoped it was their last big sendoff when the USS Nebraska, with its nuclear arsenal and $16 million crew payroll, left the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base over the summer for its new home port on the West Coast.
The Nebraska was the third nuke-bearing submarine to leave Kings Bay since 2002, part of the Navy's efforts to balance its Atlantic and Pacific fleets while older subs are converted to carry conventional arms.
And it will not be the last sub to leave.
Less than a month after the Nebraska shipped out, the Navy announced Sept. 14 that two more submarines stationed at Kings Bay -- the USS Maine and USS Louisiana -- will be reassigned in October 2005 to Naval Submarine Base Bangor near Bremerton, Wash.
That is half of Kings Bay's initial fleet of 10 Trident nuclear subs gone within three years, a move unexpected by even a former base commander.
"The caveat was always that there could be more. I think we were caught by surprise at the number," said retired Capt. Walter Yourstone, Kings Bay's commanding officer from 2000 to 2002. "Five out of the 10, I don't know we expected that many."
With each submarine accounting for 330 sailors, $16 million in Navy payroll and hundreds more family members, such steep losses would devastate many military communities.
But St. Marys and surrounding Camden County, located along the Florida state line, have proven surprisingly resilient despite also losing the area's largest private employer, the Durango-Georgia Paper Co., around the same time the submarines started leaving.
Mayor Deborah Hase said St. Marys has largely cushioned its military losses with an influx of retirees and commuters with jobs in nearby Jacksonville, Fla. They accounted for a 45 percent population jump in Camden County, to 43,664 residents, between 1990 and 2000.
Small-business owners back Hase's assertion, saying their home values are rising while new subdivisions keep popping up.
They see the August opening of a large call center by Express Scripts, a Missouri-based pharmacy benefits manager, as a sign that Camden County is weaning itself from total dependence on military paychecks.
"The military, that's still the bread and butter," said Bridgette S. Jones, co-owner of Dick's Wings and Grill, an eatery popular with Navy sailors. "But the base doesn't run this town anymore. Before, if the base shut down, the town would close. Now, if it does, we'll find something else."
The Navy's east-to-west shuffling of its nuclear-armed submarines resulted from decisions to beef up the nation's undersea arsenal in the Pacific Theater -- which includes the Persian Gulf and the Korean Peninsula -- while sticking to arms reduction agreements.
To help satisfy the START II treaty with Russia, the Department of Defense is converting four of its nuclear-armed submarines to carry conventional weapons, leaving 14 Trident missile subs in the Navy's fleet.
"The military's going to distribute the subs as they see the threat," said Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), whose district includes Kings Bay. "And they're concerned the Pacific might have a bigger need than the Atlantic right now."
The good news, Kingston said, is the Navy has only one nuclear submarine base on each coast -- Kings Bay in the Atlantic and Bangor in the Pacific. That makes Kings Bay an unlikely target for the upcoming round of military base closures.
Kings Bay has been promised the first of the converted subs, the USS Florida, slated to arrive in 2006.
Besides being armed with Tomahawk guided missiles -- arms used in Afghanistan and Iraq -- the 560-foot stealth submarine will be outfitted to carry teams of as many as 60 special operations troops such as Navy SEALs.
Kings Bay boosters are lobbying hard with the help of the base's former commander to win a second converted sub, the USS Georgia, in 2007. They say the new submarines will bring a key opportunity to expand.
Besides serving as a nuclear deterrent, the base will have submarines capable of engaging in front-line warfare.
"One of the issues with Kings Bay has been it's a single-mission installation," Yourstone said. "This adds depth to the base -- more missions, with . . . an opportunity to have joint special operations forces training and perhaps operating on the base."
Even with outside growth, military expansion would be welcome here.
Express Scripts, which opened in an abandoned Wal-Mart in St. Marys, plans to have 650 employees on the payroll in December. The call center is now Camden County's largest private employer, but its estimated $14.2 million payroll does not cover half the wages lost from the paper mill.
"If we get below five boats, I think it's going to be tough," said Carla Carper, former director of the local Chamber of Commerce, who now works for Express Scripts. "It's going to hurt bad."