The sky darkened with what appeared to be hundreds of Japanese aircraft as the first bombs fell on the unsuspecting U.S. Navy fleet at Pearl Harbor early Sunday morning, December 7, 1941. A frantic voice over a loudspeaker yelled, “Air raid! Air raid! This is not a drill,” as bombs rained down on dozens of ships and thousands of people just beginning their day.
While the United States staunchly refused to engage in the war in Europe, this unprovoked attack by the Japanese turned the tide.
One day later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared war on Japan. Three days later, on December 11, the United States also declared war on Germany and Italy.
Across the country, people mobilized, enlisting in the Army, Navy and Marines. Nearly a quarter-million Floridians entered the service, and thousands more supported war initiatives domestically.Training bases sprang up across the country, including in Florida.
On December 7, 1941, 2,000 troops reported to what was then Tyndall Field east of Panama City. Opened in January 1941, the facility was built to train Army Air Corps soldiers who would fly in bombers as waist gunners, tail gunners and ball turret gunners. Their role was to protect the bombers and their crews from attack during raids. The flexible gunnery school at Tyndall was among the first built in the U.S.
“This type of training was new for the Army Air Corps,” says Pipes Coffman, base historian at Tyndall Air Force Base. “Many of the graduates from the first class became the instructors.
“With each class, further refinements were made, including creating early simulators and setting up a Jeep on a triangular track where the gunners could practice. It was the rudimentary beginnings of flexible gunnery training.”
Hollywood star Clark Gable trained there as a lieutenant between late 1942 and early 1943.
Flexible gunnery training continued as the main purpose at Tyndall until the 1950s. Today, Tyndall Air Force Base is home to the 325th Fighter Wing of the Air Combat Command.
Farther west, the Valparaiso airport was converted to the Valparaiso Bombing and Gunnery Range in 1935 by the Army Air Corps. It expanded as war tensions rose, eventually becoming Eglin Air Force Base. It is known as the main training site for the Doolittle Raid on Japan.
Valparaiso Air Force Armament Museum is adjacent to the base. Founded in 1985, the facility’s mission is to exhibit and interpret Eglin’s military history and the armed forces.
World War II-related exhibits displayed on 15 acres outdoors and in a 28,000-square-foot museum building include a P-51 Mustang, B-17 Flying Fortress, B-25 Mitchell, P-47 Thunderbolt and a V-1 “Buzz Bomb” replica. Because of coronavirus precautions, interior exhibitions are closed to the public.
Beginnings of a Major Facility
By 1942, Camp Blanding—near Starke in Clay County—had become the fourth-largest town in the state because of the rapid influx of construction workers followed by soldiers.
“Camp Blanding actually began as a training site in 1939 for the Florida National Guard and other states, but when World War II began, it was used by the U.S. Army to train the infantry,” says Greg Parsons, curator of Camp Blanding Museum and Memorial Park. “It became a city, training nine infantry divisions and the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, as well as replacement soldiers in field artillery and cavalry who were deployed around the world.”
With nearly 800,000 soldiers coming through Camp Blanding during World War II, the original 30,000-acre facility built in the scrub-oak and sandhill area of north-central Florida grew to 180,000 acres. Today, Camp Blanding Joint Training Center encompasses 73,000 acres as the training base for Florida’s National Guard, reserve units and some active military.
“Many people were not aware that toward the end of the war, Camp Blanding maintained a German soldier prisoner-of-war compound,” Greg says. “Some of these prisoners were paid to work area farms and did KP duty for the mess halls as more soldiers were sent overseas.”
Camp Blanding Museum and Memorial Park showcases the site’s role in World War II with vehicles, aircraft, weapons, uniforms and photographs from the 1940s.
Chronicling Clay County’s War History
In Green Cove Springs, Military Museum of North Florida preserves the history of the state’s role in conflicts from the 1770s through World War II, showcasing uniforms, weapons, maps, tanks, amphibious craft and aircraft in a combination of outdoor and indoor displays.
“During World War II, Clay County had more military bases than any other county in Florida,” says Robert Dews, historian at The Military Museum of North Florida, housed at the former Naval Air Station Lee Field. “Some of the famed soldiers and units of WWII that passed through here include Black Sheep Squadron pilots; JFK’s older brother, Joe Kennedy; and entertainer Ed McMahon.”
With four 5,000-foot runways, NAS Lee Field provided training for Stearman planes, F4F Wildcats, F6F Hellcats and F4U Corsairs.
Following the war, the facility was attached to NAS Jacksonville as a naval auxiliary air station. Thirteen piers at the base became home to the U.S. Navy Mothball Fleet of nearly 500 vessels.
Flight Programs Take Off During World War II
Built as a shipyard for the U.S. Navy during the presidency of John Quincy Adams, what is now NAS Pensacola was created when Congress passed the Naval Appropriation Act in 1911-12.
Two years later, the station was training pilots for air combat during World War I in the Florida Panhandle. When the Great War ended, NAS Pensacola’s programs slowed. By 1935, however, flight programs accelerated beyond the base’s capacity.
That led to establishment of NAS Jacksonville and a Texas counterpart in Corpus Christi. Two more bases were added in 1940 and 1941 at Pensacola, making it an aviation training hub for the remainder of World War II and beyond.
National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola showcases more than 150 restored aircraft, a flight simulator and an Imax theater. The museum covers development of naval aviation and includes aircraft, artifacts and displays related to World War II.
“World War II was such a turning point in aviation,” says Hill Goodspeed, historian with National Naval Aviation Museum. “Aircraft carriers played a pivotal role in sea power, and this period saw a coming of age in combat aviation.”
One of the showpieces of the nearly 300,000-square-foot museum is an SBD-2 Dauntless aircraft that survived the attack on Pearl Harbor and fought in the Battle of Midway.
“This particular aircraft is the only remaining Dauntless to have participated in the Battle of Midway in June 1942,” Hill says. “Upon close examination, some of the patches that covered more than 200 bullet holes it received are still visible.”
Although COVID-19 protocols have restricted visitation to the museum—housed on the NAS Pensacola base—museum staff has created virtual programming. Videos that incorporate historic documentary footage and commentary by experts can be viewed through the museum’s Facebook page or YouTube channel.
Hill says he sees a resurgence of interest in World War II.
“Now, more than ever, people are seeking to reconnect with the history and stories of World War II because so many of the people involved are no longer living,” he says. “If you look at the realities of the generations alive today, the majority of them had relatives that were part of the war. Part of our role here at the National Naval Aviation Museum is to continue to explain the importance of World War II and how it helped shape the country and the way the Navy is today.”