Camp Blanding; Florida Star in Peace and War by W. Stanford Smith. Research Triangle Publishing. 1998, paper.
Camp Blanding was one of the largest World War II training bases in the country. Its construction began in November 1939. It received its first division of the Florida National Guard in the spring of 1941, while the construction crews from the Civilian Conservation Corp were still working on the vast camp. The U.S. had not yet entered the war. But military preparedness was now an essential part of our national defense. German U-boats were menacing the east coast of Florida, and the Japanese navy would soon strike Pearl Harbor.
The earlier Florida National Guard’s Camp Foster, near Jacksonville, had been closed and land for Camp Blanding purchased near the town of Starke. Kingsley Lake was part of the terrain and proved to be useful in training for the amphibious warfare in both theaters. Stanford Smith tells us that one of the boasts of those promoting the Starke location for Camp Blanding was that it was “free of mosquitoes.”
The first two infantry divisions to be assembled and trained at Blanding – the 31st and the 43rd – arrived in the spring of 1941. The 31st was largely made up of National Guard units from Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, the 43rd from the New England States. This was the first time that most of these northerners had come up against the South’s Jim Crow and it took some adjusting. The two divisions were divided by a parade ground which they called “the Mason-Dixon Line.”
The army was still segregated in World War II. There were detachments of “coloreds” on the base but they were mostly support staff. African-Americans also became “engineers,” that is they built military roads and bridges in Africa, India, and Burma (Myanmar). Their officers were all white. All facilities at Blanding were segregated except for the hospital.
There were bad feelings between draftees and those regulars drawn mostly from the various state National Guards. The latter had had some basic training and were already introduced to the trials of camp life. Later, by the fall of 1943, Camp Blanding was mostly training “replacements,” men who would undergo basic training similar to any enlistee but then be sent abroad as replacements to fill the ranks of depleted infantry divisions. Their training lacked the camaraderie that developed when whole divisions were trained together.
As the base grew so did the surrounding towns, particularly Starke. Smith suggests a good measure of the changes in the town: the Coca-Cola bottling plant upped its capacity from 24,000 bottles a day to 112,000. There was bus service available to several towns with United Service Organizations (USO) Clubs that held dances and provided free meals for the trainees. Gainesville’s USO is still around, now functioning as a senior citizen’s center (Thelma Boltin Center). Movie theaters in surrounding towns were packed on the weekends. Movies were also shown on the base. Many entertainers gave live performances at Camp Blanding.
After some exhausting days of training, the soldiers wanted to “relax.” A “honky-tonk community” (Smith’s term), sprang up just outside the Camp’s gates on the road to Starke.
At its height as a training camp, Blanding employed 4,000 civilians. It is difficult to ascertain the number of soldiers who received all or part of their training at Camp Blanding, but perhaps as many as 800,000 if you include all of the replacements and others who received the specialist training that went on at Blanding. Some trained for as long as two years; others for a week or two. We fielded a well-trained army.
Blanding also served as a War Department Personnel Center for soldiers returning from the European theater after the German surrender in May 1945 to be processed before they were shipped off to the Southeast Asia Theater. Fortunately for these weary warriors that mostly didn’t happen. Instead they were sent to bases closer to their homes and demobilized from those locations.
In the last years of the War, Blanding served as a Prisoner of War Camp; nearly 4,700 POWs passed through its gates. The earliest to arrive were German naval prisoners, from U-boat crews. They were an elite amongst the millions of Germans that served in Adolf Hitler’s military and generally fervent Nazis. Later came more ordinary Germans, many in their teens, conscripted into the army in the nation’s final months of agony. These two groups of German POWs did not get along. After beatings and death threats, the diehard Nazis were moved on to another camp.
Perhaps most interesting of the informative Appendices in Smith’s Camp Blanding are the “campaign credits” listed for each of the nine divisions that were trained there. Soldiers that trained at Camp Blanding saw military service around the globe, participants in a world at war.
After the War many of the 10,000 structures at Camp Blanding were torn down or moved to nearby towns including Gainesville. Once again these barracks housed G.I.s, now taking advantage of a free education. A number of the structures still survive tucked away in a small community just north of the Campus.