Traveling Tuesday: The Sunshine State Does its Bit
Like all other U.S. states, Florida sent its sons and daughters into war zones. More than a quarter of a million Floridians served in uniform, approximately 3,000 of whom gave their lives. The state also participated on the home front in many ways.
Because of Florida’s warm climate and an extensive amount of vacant land, it was an excellent choice for housing and training soldiers, sailors, and airmen. In 1940, there were eight military installations. Just three years later, there were over 170, ranging from extremely large to relatively small camps. Two of the larger complexes were Camp Blanding, near Starke, and the Jacksonville Naval Air Station.
Blanding became Florida’s fourth largest city during the war, growing to 180,000 acres and housing 55,000 soldiers and several thousand POWs. Construction entailed the use of over 22,000 civilians. Unfortunately the pace of construction created severe housing problems, forcing some workers to sleep in their cars or pitch tents for lack of lodging facilities.
Flat lands and beaches offered training opportunities for myriad campaigns including the landing at Normandy. Military facilities became so overcrowded that the government turned to the hotel industry. Some billeted troops while others were converted to makeshift hospitals for personnel returning from overseas.
The shipbuilding industry exploded, and many began to refer to Florida as the Steel State. Wainwright in Panama City built 108 vessels with 15,000 workers. Another 9,000 employees worked in Tampa, and even landlocked Orlando produced 9,000 assault boats using in amphibious landing operations.
One of Florida’s largest contributions to the war effort was their agricultural industry. For the first time, the state surpassed California’s production of citrus. In 1942, Florida growers patented a process to make frozen concentrated orange juice. Much of this such was a result of importing more than 75,000 Bahamians and Jamaicans to work in the fields, taking the place of citizens who had left for the armed forces.
War arrived in Florida in the shape of German U-boats who managed to sink over twenty-four ships off both coasts. One of the most famous of these incidents occurred near the Jacksonville Pier. The Gulfamerica, an 8,000 ton steam tanker, was on its maiden voyage. One scholar commented about the “chivalrous” actions of the German commander: rather than finishing off the tanker by shooting toward the pier crowded with civilians, he surfaced the sub between the pier and the ailing ship and shot toward the open ocean.
As a result of these attacks, patrols were formed to defend the coastlines. Mr. Guy Allen of Tampa is credited with establishing an unofficial motorcycle corps which later became part of the State Defense Council and escorted military convoys.