Florida’s First Lady at War

World War II was an all-encompassing event for Floridians who lived through it. Between calls for military service, blackouts, food and fuel rationing, and the retooling of industries to feed supplies and equipment to soldiers on the front, no man, woman or child was left unaffected. That extended to Florida’s first family as well. Governor Spessard Lindsey Holland was only about a year into his administration when the U.S. entered World War II, and naturally it became a defining feature of his tenure as the state’s chief executive. But Governor Holland wasn’t the only member of his household who went all out to support the war effort. His wife, Mary Agnes Groover Holland, played a vital role as well.

First Lady Mary Groover Holland breaks a bottle of champagne against the hull of the USS Shasta, built by the Tampa Shipbuilding Company (July 9, 1941).

First Lady Mary Groover Holland breaks a bottle of champagne against the hull of the USS Shasta, an ammunition ship built by the Tampa Shipbuilding Company (July 9, 1941).

Even before the United States officially entered the war, Mrs. Holland supported the Allies through humanitarian efforts such as the Bundles for Britain program. This arm of the British War Relief Society gathered donations of medical supplies, clothing, food and other essentials and sent them to Britain, which was at that time bearing the brunt of Hitler’s assault on Western Europe. In March 1941, Mrs. Holland visited the headquarters of the Bundles chapter at the Florida State College for Women to inspect the work being done there by the students and faculty. When she learned that some of the young women had not yet learned how to knit, she took a seat and put on a demonstration.

First Lady Mary Holland shows Norma Pennoyer of Coconut Grove how to knit (1941).

First Lady Mary Holland shows Norma Pennoyer of Coconut Grove how to knit (1941).

Once the United States was officially in the war and the federal government ramped up its efforts to mobilize the home front, Mary Holland used her position as Florida’s first lady to give civilian defense efforts a little extra publicity. When the State Defense Council organized drives to collect scrap metal for recycling into war materiel, she searched high and low in the Governor’s Mansion for items to contribute. She also hosted a very important delegation of Floridians connected with the scrapping effort – schoolchildren who had won a statewide contest to collect the most scrap metal. Six children were selected at the end of that contest to take part in the christening of a Liberty ship in Mobile named for Colin P. Kelly Jr. of Madison, who had been one of the first U.S. airmen to perish in combat after the attack on Pearl Harbor. While en route to Mobile, the children stopped off in Tallahassee and visited the Governor’s Mansion, where they had the opportunity to explore the governor’s desk and play Chinese checkers and darts with Mrs. Holland.

Florida's First Lady, Mary Holland, playing Chinese checkers with her house guests at the Governor's Mansion in Tasllahassee (December 1942). Seated around the table are Gwendolyn Willcocks, Allen Shelton, Mrs. Holland, and Albert W. Thompson (?).

First Lady Mary Holland playing Chinese checkers with her house guests at the Governor’s Mansion in Tallahassee (December 1942). Seated around the table are Gwendolyn Willcocks, Allen Shelton, Mrs. Holland, and Albert W. Thompson (?).

Mrs. Holland’s efforts to recruit women for the Women’s Army Corps (WACs) were perhaps her most important contribution. In September 1943, Governor Holland appointed his wife chairman of the All-States WAC Recruiting Campaign for Florida, challenging her to enlist 1,000 women into the program. Mrs. Holland worked closely with the State Defense Council to appoint recruiters in each county and regularly attended WAC events to encourage the enlistees. “This is our war job – the task that we women can undertake in support of our fighting men,” she wrote in a letter to recruiters. “We cannot let them down.”

First Lady Mary Holland participates in the unveiling of a memorial to Colin P. Kelly, Jr. in Madison (June 16, 1944).

First Lady Mary Holland participates in the unveiling of a memorial to Colin P. Kelly Jr. in Madison (June 16, 1944).

Mary Holland’s contributions are just one example of the patriotic service to community and country that Florida women rendered during World War II. Check out our World War II in Florida exhibit, as well as the Florida World War II Heritage Trail, established by the Florida Department of State.

 

Eyes on the Skies

Over a quarter million Floridian men and women of all races joined the military during World War II, but civilians had a role to play in national defense as well. With over a thousand miles of coastline, Florida was particularly vulnerable to enemy air attacks. Recently developed long-range bombers had the ability to carry large quantities of explosives far from their base, and radar detection was still in an early phase. Thousands of Floridian civilians helped meet this threat by signing up for duty as ground observers for the Aircraft Warning Service.

An observation tower in Madison County used by the Aircraft Warning Service during World War II (ca. 1940s).

An observation tower in Madison County used by the Aircraft Warning Service during World War II (ca. 1940s).

The Aircraft Warning Service was administrated by the United States Army Air Corps, but keeping a constant watch on every patch of sky over the coastal states required far more manpower than the Army could spare. That’s where civilians came into play. Once Army planners decided where the observation posts needed to be, they relied on local county and city defense councils to appoint local civilians to operate them.

Ground observers came from all walks of life. Retirees, students, housewives, laborers, and professionals alike volunteered their time to learn the shapes and markings of various aircraft and keep an eye on the skies. Teams of fifteen to twenty observers were assigned to staff each observation post in shifts. Each post was located near the center of a watch area consisting of about 36 square miles. The Aircraft Warning Service was originally organized in late June 1941; by mid-September eager civilians had already organized over 500 of the 880 posts planned for Florida.

Map of Aircraft Warning Service observation posts in Florida as of September 20, 1941 – Box 35, folder 7, State Defense Council Subject Files (Series 419), State Archives of Florida.

With war looming in late 1941, the Army had neither the time nor the money to build new civilian observation posts or supply them with sophisticated communications equipment. Instead, the Aircraft Warning Service used existing fire towers and other elevated structures, and trained volunteers to communicate their observations quickly using existing telephone lines. When observers sighted an aircraft, they were instructed to immediately contact their local telephone operator, who would connect them directly with a regional “filter center” set up to process aircraft sightings. The observers were given a specific form to use in reporting what they saw. In theory, if an enemy airplane was to enter United States airspace, the Army would be able to use data received from multiple observation posts to tracks its movements.

One of the centers where U.S. Army personnel compiled information from ground observers to track the movement of aircraft over U.S. airspace - Box 48, folder 7, State Defense Council Subject Files (Series 419), State Archives of Florida.

One of the centers where U.S. Army personnel compiled information from ground observers to track the movement of aircraft over U.S. airspace – Box 48, folder 7, State Defense Council Subject Files (Series 419), State Archives of Florida.

 

Flash message form used by Aircraft Warning Service ground observers (ca. 1940s) – Box 35, folder 7, State Defense Council Subject Files (Series 419), State Archives of Florida.

The system received its most dramatic test in December 1943 when aircraft spotters at an observation post in West Palm Beach reported an actual German plane flying over the Florida coast. The spotters, Mr. and Mrs. Merrill Smith and Mrs. Herbert Weiss, performed their duty exactly as they had been trained. They sent a “flash message” to the United States Army Air Corps by telephone, correctly identifying the aircraft as a German JU-88 and giving its location and bearing.

Luckily, although the plane was indeed German, the pilot at the controls was an American. According to contemporary newspaper reports, a disgruntled German pilot had voluntarily turned the aircraft over to Allied personnel in almost mint condition. The plane was subsequently flown back to the United States, where it was given a thorough examination by Army aviation experts. Allied aerial squadrons had been notified of the enemy plane’s planned voyage, but so far as the civilians ground observers knew, it could have been the start of a real attack!

The Aircraft Warning Service is just one of many ways Floridian civilians aided the Allied war effort during World War II. Visit our Florida in World War II exhibit for more information. Also, if you’re interested in learning how your Florida community responded to civilian defense challenges during this conflict, consider visiting the State Library & Archives to check out the subject files of the Florida State Defense Council (Record Series 419). Get started by reading our recent blog describing these records.

Researching the Homefront

Today’s post is part of the Florida Department of State’s Victory Florida campaign to commemorate the contributions of Floridian men and women to winning World War II. Help us get the word out by sharing this and other related posts on social media using the hashtag #VictoryFL.

Americans nationwide are preparing to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. The weekend of August 14-16 will mark the 70th anniversary of Japan’s announcement that it would surrender, while September 2nd will be the anniversary of the formal ending of hostilities.

Bird's eye view of the Victory Club of the Florida State College for Women in Tallahassee, standing in a

Bird’s eye view of the Victory Club of the Florida State College for Women in Tallahassee, standing in a “V for Victory” formation (1942).

Over 248,000 Floridians, including more than 50,000 African Americans, served in the military during the war, while the state itself served as a year-round training center with over 170 military installations. Florida’s population grew by leaps and bounds during and after the war, as many former military personnel decided to make the Sunshine State their permanent home.

It goes without saying that Florida’s military contributions to the war were vital, but Floridians on the homefront also played an essential role in achieving victory. Citizens from all walks of life – men and women, whites and African Americans, city dwellers and rural folks – poured countless hours into civilian defense programs designed to keep Florida safe and prepared for any possibility. They took stock of food, water, and medicine supplies, organized carpools and child care services for working mothers, planned recreational activities for the men and women in uniform, and even helped watch the skies and seas for signs of the enemy.

Scrap metal collection was a vital homefront program. Seen here are several Floridians in Pensacola with a large collection of scrap metal and rubber (circa 1943).

Scrap metal collection was a vital homefront program. Seen here are several Floridians in Pensacola with a large collection of scrap metal and rubber (circa 1943).

This organizational chart demonstrates the breadth of the projects undertaken by the State Defense Council and its local branches. Shown here are the various state committees, along with the organizations with which they cooperated (Box 14, Series 419 - State Defense Council Records, State Archives of Florida).

This organizational chart demonstrates the breadth of the projects undertaken by the State Defense Council and its local branches. Shown here are the various state committees, along with the organizations with which they cooperated (Box 14, Series 419 – State Defense Council Records, State Archives of Florida). Click to enlarge.

Many of these programs were administrated by Florida’s State Defense Council, a state-level counterpart of the national Office of Civilian Defense. Each county had its own defense council, with committees assigned to take on various tasks associated with civilian defense. Because these entities answered to the State Defense Council, many of their records have been preserved at the State Library and Archives in Tallahassee in Record Series 419. For the local historian working on a history of a particular Florida community or county, these records can be invaluable for understanding how local leaders helped meet the serious challenges of World War II. Genealogists may also find it interesting to learn how various relatives participated in civilian defense work. Here are some examples of the kinds of records available:

 

Personnel Lists & Organizational Charts

Each county and many cities had their own defense councils, administrated by community leaders and supported by hundreds of local volunteers. Many of the committee chairpersons were required to submit oaths of allegiance before their appointments to local leadership positions would be confirmed by the state and made official by the Governor. The local council also had to notify the state if there were any changes in personnel as the war progressed. All of this activity was documented through correspondence and lists of essential defense council leaders. Local and family historians can use this information to determine who was in charge of each area of civilian defense work during the war in a given community.

A leadership roster from the Dixie County Defense Council, showing who was in charge of the various committees. This sort of roster is available for most counties in Florida (Box 16, Series 419 - State Defense Council Records, State Archives of Florida).

A leadership roster from the Dixie County Defense Council, showing who was in charge of the various committees. This sort of roster is available for most counties in Florida (Box 16, Series 419 – State Defense Council Records, State Archives of Florida).

Chart suggesting a method for organizing civilian defense volunteers. Note that the chart provides alternative arrangements for areas with varying population density (Box 14. State Defense Council Records - Series 419, State Archives of Florida).

Chart suggesting a method for organizing civilian defense volunteers. Note that the chart provides alternative arrangements for areas with varying population density (Box 14. State Defense Council Records – Series 419, State Archives of Florida).

 

Local Programs & Advertisements

Local defense councils, especially those in Florida’s larger cities, designed intricate programs to handle basic needs like child care for working mothers, transportation, and spreading information about air raid drills, blackouts, and other safety measures. Many of the child care centers, supply distribution points, and other agencies created during the war disappeared quickly after victory, leaving little trace of their existence. The records in Series 419 can help local historians piece together what these entities were doing, where they were doing it, and who was in charge.

Example: Leaflet describing wartime child care services in Duval County established by the local school board and the Duval County Defense Council (Box 16, Series 419 – State Defense Council Records, State Archives of Florida.

 

Another example:

Flyer produced by the Dade County Defense Council encouraging citizens to volunteer (Box 12, State Defense Council Records - Series 419, State Archives of Florida).

Flyer produced by the Dade County Defense Council encouraging citizens to volunteer (Box 12, Series 419 – State Defense Council Records, State Archives of Florida).

 

Correspondence

While much of the correspondence between the State Defense Council and the local defense councils consists of routine business, some of the letters contain excellent descriptions of the work being done, and of the challenges local leaders faced in getting the supplies they needed, the information they wanted, and so on. These letters are a must for anyone working on the history of civilian defense work in a Florida community. Here is an example of one such letter to the State Defense Council from Mrs. C.C. Codrington of Lake City, who had volunteered to chair a local campaign to recruit women into the Women’s Army Corps. She describes speaking to local civic clubs about her work, working with local theater managers to show informative films, and starting work in the local high school library. Mrs. Codrington’s oath of allegiance was enclosed with the letter.

Source: Box 12, Series 419 – State Defense Council Records, State Archives of Florida.
These are only a few examples of the many gems to be found in the records of the State Defense Council at the State Archives of Florida. If you or someone you know is working on a history of your Florida community during World War II, visit us and have a look. More information on Series 419 may be obtained from the Archives Online Catalog, or you may contact the State Archives directly by email at Archives@dos.myflorida.com or by phone at (850)-245-6719.

Also, don’t forget to share this post with friends or family who may be interested in learning more about Florida’s World War II contributions. Use the hashtag #VictoryFL to help more people find this and other related posts!