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.

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.

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!