Two hundred forty-eight thousand Floridians served in the armed forces in World War II. Tampa and Jacksonville shipyards made a significant contribution to the production of cargo ships, 35,000 worked in the yards in Jacksonville. But Florida’s most significant contribution was the training bases for the army and navy personnel and particularly various National Guard Units from the Southern States in preparation for their departure overseas: Camp Blanding for the army and Camp Gordon Johnston for amphibious warfare. The U.S. was looking beyond immediate needs to the beach landings in Normandy, Okinawa, and other islands in the South Pacific. Not a major industrial state, we, nevertheless, made and/or assembled many smaller parts and components for war materiel produced elsewhere.
Florida had advantages over most states in situating military bases. It was not heavily forested, enjoyed year-round good weather, and relatively good railroad service. The almost 200 military bases in Florida needed infrastructure and that was a big job, mostly finished by mid-war, although as much as possible the U.S. used housing built by the WPA during the depression.
Perhaps the most notable early achievement of the fliers trained in Florida at Eglin Field was their involvement in the Doolittle air raid on Japanese cities in April 1942. Kept a secret, the authors, Nick Wynne and Richard Moorhead claim that it was a big morale booster for the U.S. as well as proving to the Japanese that their homeland and its cities were vulnerable.
A good portion of those army men trained at Camp Blanding were “replacements.” Its official name was the Infantry Replacement Training Center. While the trainees saw a lot of each other, their units were not kept together for the duration of the war or even for all of their training.
Speaking of replacements, part of the production of cargo ships was to replace merchant ships sunk by German submarines off Florida’s coastal waters. There were wooden watchtowers erected so that civilian volunteers could spot German shipping and aircraft. (See Operation Drumbeat; The Dramatic True Story of Germany’s First U-Boat Attacks along the American Coast by Michael Gannon.) So the story goes, German spies and saboteurs buried explosives and money on Florida beaches with the idea of arousing opposition to our entry into WWII. Most of them were eventually caught and executed. The authors give more credence to these stories than did Gannon’s book.
Florida became an important training base for amphibious warfare, and particularly, looking ahead to Normandy, Italy, Okinawa, and other islands in the South Pacific. The landings involved a close integration of all forces under a unified command, especially the Higgins landing craft with a hinged front and used in amphibious landings along the Normandy Coast.
The buildings at Camp Blanding these days are few, but at one time there were literally thousands of barracks and tent-like structures called hutments, which housed six soldiers and their equipment while they were in training. Days off and little to do hanging around the Camp, many of the trainees headed to near-by towns, particularly Starke. And on that road from Blanding to Starke there was a variety of less than “wholesome” entertainments; gambling establishments, bordellos, and “independent” prostitutes.
There were USO (United Service Organization) canteens in Starke and Gainesville that brought GIs and local women together to dance and flirt. The building is still around. It was purchased by the City of Gainesville in 1942 and renamed the Thelma Boltin Center, after the employee that scheduled a variety of entertainments but particularly free movies.
The city of Gainesville purchased the building in December 1942 and eventually it became known as the Thelma Boltin Center. While a USO canteen, it welcomed at least 25,000 soldiers from Blanding. There are also a couple of barracks moved from Blanding to Gainesville that are still around, now being used to house young males attending the University, rather than young men training for war.
Camp Blanding, Camp Gordon Johnston, and their sub camps had one final use in World War II. They were used to house German and Italian prisoners of war. The POWs began arriving in September 1942; the earliest were sailors rescued from sunken German U-boats. By 1943 they were mostly prisoners from Rommel’s Afrika Corps. The transfer to sunny, peaceful Florida was certainly better than the fate of most Germans – civilian and military in the last years of the War. Amongst the POWs from the Afrika Corps were those who wished to keep up the good fight. And the two sets of POWs did not get along, so the camp commanders found that they had to keep them separated.
In 1960 I made my first trip to Germany. Dealing with a malfunctioning motor bike, I had time and opportunity to visit with men working in the equivalent of our road-side repair shops. Several that I talked with had been POWs in the U.S. and they had no trouble deciding which was preferable. We Floridians were hospitable and their backs were soaking up that Florida sunshine.