James Van Fleet and the Normandy Invasion

Early on June 6, 1944, a force of about 175,000 Allied troops began making their way ashore along the beaches of Normandy in Nazi-occupied France. This invasion, generally called the D-Day invasion or Operation Overlord, involved the coordinated efforts of 12 nations under the leadership of U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower. The goal was to establish an Allied foothold in Adolf Hitler’s so-called “Fortress Europe” and roll the Axis forces eastward while Soviet troops closed in from the opposite side. Many Floridians participated in this daunting maneuver, including a man who had grown up in Bartow in Polk County and had been a classmate of General Eisenhower–Colonel James Van Fleet.

James A. Van Fleet (1953).

James A. Van Fleet (1953).

James Alward Van Fleet was born in 1892 in Coytesville, New Jersey, but almost immediately moved with his family to Bartow, where his father invested in phosphate mining. The Van Fleet phosphate venture didn’t pan out, but James’ father, William, supported his family by running a newsstand in the Bartow post office building. In his earliest years at school, James Van Fleet was close friends with the man who would be governor of Florida during most of World War II, Spessard Holland. He later recalled the two of them being dressed by their mothers for their first day of kindergarten–both wearing suits and bowties, but barefoot. Van Fleet began attending the Summerlin Institute in 1907, although he confessed he found it difficult to concentrate on his studies. Even at a young age, he was an avid outdoorsman and worked at a local grocery and as a mail carrier, which occupied much of his time. He also played for the Summerlin football and baseball teams until a back injury kept him on the bench.

James Van Fleet (left) and Spessard Holland (right) in Bartow, Florida (ca. 1910).

James Van Fleet (left) and Spessard Holland (right) in Bartow, Florida (ca. 1910).

The Summerlin Institute's 1909 baseball team. James Van Fleet is pictured in the middle row on the far right.

The Summerlin Institute’s 1909 baseball team. James Van Fleet is pictured in the middle row on the far right.

In 1911, Van Fleet received a congressional appointment from U.S. Representative Stephen M. Sparkman to the United States Military Academy at West Point. His cohort, the Class of 1915, was later nicknamed the “class the stars fell on” because so many of the members became generals. Both Dwight Eisenhower and Omar Bradley were among them.

After graduating 25th in his class at West Point with the rank of Second Lieutenant, Van Fleet chose to become an infantry officer. “Infantry is the heart of the United States Army,” he later said. “Armor and artillery are powerful allies, but it is the infantry that seizes territory and holds it.” His first assignment was with the 3rd Infantry Regiment in New York, where he helped train civilian volunteers for potential service in the event of U.S. involvement in World War I. In 1916, the 3rd Infantry moved to Camp Eagle Pass on the U.S.-Mexican border to help contain unstable conditions stemming from the Mexican Revolution. Van Fleet also served as an instructor at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and overseas with the 6th Division during World War I.

After the war, Van Fleet became an ROTC instructor at Kansas State Agricultural College, the first of several ROTC posts he would hold in the interwar era. In 1921, he was transferred to the University of Florida, where he commanded the ROTC cadets and served as head coach of the football team. He almost left the Army to accept a lengthy contract as head coach, but he eventually decided to stay in the military. Over the next few years, he served in a variety of roles–commanding troops in Panama, coaching the Army’s football team, serving another stint at the University of Florida, and supervising several camps of the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression.

James Van Fleet as commander of the ROTC cadets at the University of Florida. Taken from UF's yearbook, The Seminole (1922).

James Van Fleet as commander of the ROTC cadets at the University of Florida. Taken from UF’s yearbook, The Seminole (1922).

Van Fleet was in the process of transferring to Fort Benning, Georgia, for duty when Hitler’s army invaded Poland in 1939. After two years training the troops at Benning, he was elevated to the rank of colonel and given command of the 8th Infantry, 4th Division. When the 4th was retooled as a motorized division–designed to handle tanks, trucks, half-tracks and the like–he led his regiment through a lengthy series of maneuvers to train for combat. Colonel Van Fleet’s men were passed up for participation in the Allied invasion of North Africa, as was the entire 4th Division, but they didn’t have to wait much longer to join the fighting. In late fall 1943, the 4th was ordered to prepare to ship overseas. Their destination would be the heavily fortified western coast of Europe.

Although the plans for the invasion of Europe were under tight wraps, Van Fleet and his men had some idea of what to expect because of their extensive training. Some of that training took place in Florida at Camp Gordon Johnston, located in the Panhandle near Carrabelle. Here the soldiers practiced the best ways to launch an amphibious invasion, including the use of new amphibious vehicles like the DUKW (commonly called a “duck”) and LCVP (commonly called a “Higgins boat”). By the end of December 1943, the 4th Division had finished up its Florida training and was en route to England to prepare for D-Day.

Soldiers training for amphibious warfare at Camp Gordon Johnston near Carrabelle, Florida (ca. 1943).

Soldiers training for amphibious warfare at Camp Gordon Johnston near Carrabelle, Florida (ca. 1943).

Operation Overlord, as the invasion was code-named, called for five main invasion zones–Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword. United States forces concentrated on Utah and Omaha beaches. Colonel Van Fleet’s regiment was assigned to Utah Beach and scheduled to land at 6:30 a.m. local time, the H-Hour of D-Day. As the transport ships chugged across the churning waves of the English Channel, soldiers battled seasickness and feverish anticipation for the fight to come.  As daylight began to break, Allied gunboats unleashed punishing artillery fire on the German beach defenses, providing cover for the invading troops. The initial deployment of men and equipment didn’t go off without a hitch–a few of the ships hit mines, some drifted away from their targets in the swift currents and many of the smaller boats stopped well short of the shoreline, forcing the troops to wade ashore just as the Germans were beginning to return fire. Colonel Van Fleet’s 8th Regiment ended up landing south of its assigned beachhead but were determined to make the most of their situation. By mid-morning, they had neutralized several German pillboxes (small concrete forts) and threaded their way through minefields, opening up an exit from the beach for the troops that would follow them.

For his leadership of the 8th Regiment during the Normandy invasion, Colonel Van Fleet was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. He was also promoted to Brigadier General on August 1, 1944, and reassigned to assist in commanding the 2nd Division. In less than a year, he replaced General John Millikin as commander of the 3rd Corps in General George S. Patton’s 3rd Army.

General Van Fleet continued to lead a distinguished military career after World War II. He served in Greece and Korea, commanding the 2nd and later the 8th armies as the United States fought on multiple fronts to contain the spread of Communism during the Cold War. He retired from active duty in 1953, arriving home in Florida to a triumphant welcome.

General James Van Fleet (right) with Loyal Frisbie (left), chairman of Polk County's

General James Van Fleet (right) with Loyal Frisbie (left), chairman of Polk County’s “Welcome Home” celebration in honor of the general’s return to Florida (1953).

General Van Fleet turned down several opportunities to run for public office, but did write and make  public appearances in support of various causes. He also operated a ranch and citrus groves near his home in Polk County. He passed away peacefully on September 23, 1992, six months after celebrating his 100th birthday.

For more information on the life and military career of General James A. Van Fleet, we recommend Paul F. Braim, The Will to Win: The Life of General James A. Van Fleet (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2001).

Preparing for D-Day: Camp Gordon Johnston near Carrabelle

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the 1944 D-Day invasion, in which over 100,000 Allied troops stormed the beaches along the coast of Normandy, France, making it the largest seaborne invasion in history. Some of the troops  arrived by parachute, but the vast majority waded ashore after being transported in specially constructed vehicles. The Army and Navy had been planning for amphibious invasions like the one at Normandy for some time, and Camp Gordon Johnston near Carrabelle, Florida was one of the sites selected for training troops to do the job.

Map of the Florida Panhandle showing Carrabelle and nearby cities.

Map of the Florida Panhandle showing Carrabelle and nearby cities.

Carrabelle, a small town southwest of Tallahassee in Franklin County, was little more than a small fishing village when military leaders decided to use the terrain around it as an amphibious training base. A small military installation called Camp Carrabelle was already located here, but it would require major expansion to suit the Army’s needs. Once the site was selected, the federal government quickly bought up 10,000 acres of land and leased an additional 155,000 acres, forming a base with nearly twenty miles of frontage on the Gulf coast between St. George Island and Alligator Point, including Dog Island and the beaches near Carrabelle. In a few weeks contractors were already at work on the thousands of buildings and other structures needed to complete the training center. The new installation was named for Gordon Johnston, an Alabama native who served in the Spanish-American War and World War I and received the Medal of Honor in 1910.

An aerial view of Camp Gordon Johnston, with the Gulf of Mexico on the south (left). Photo 1943.

An aerial view of Camp Gordon Johnston, with the Gulf of Mexico on the south (left). Photo 1943.

Camp Gordon Johnston quickly developed a reputation for its tough conditions. For many of the camp’s first inhabitants, few of whom were actually from Florida, the contrast between the Florida of postcards and travel literature and the Florida they experienced was incredible. Because they had been thrown together in such short order to accommodate the troops, the barracks lacked dependable heating and in most cases had no floors. At first, the camp had no mess halls, and soldiers were obliged to eat their meals outdoors using their mess kits.

Barracks at Camp Gordon Johnston. Notice that the walls are little more than tar paper on a wooden frame (circa 1943).

Barracks at Camp Gordon Johnston. Notice that the walls are little more than tar paper on a wooden frame (circa 1943).

A wash-up shed at Camp Gordon Johnston (circa 1943).

A wash-up shed at Camp Gordon Johnston (circa 1943).

Soldiers wait in a chow line with mess kits in hand at Camp Gordon Johnston (circa 1943).

Soldiers wait in line with mess kits in hand at Camp Gordon Johnston (circa 1943).

Camp residents wash their mess kits in a pot of boiling water after a meal at Camp Gordon Johnston (circa 1943).

Camp residents wash their mess kits in a pot of boiling water after a meal at Camp Gordon Johnston (circa 1943).

The challenges of the terrain were no cakewalk, either. Sure, there was a beach, but as residents of the camp explained, there were also insects, snakes, lizards, mud, drenching rain, and stifling heat. Sergeant Bill Roth captured the feelings of the men toward Camp Gordon Johnston’s steamy conditions in a poem that appeared in one of the first issues of the camp’s newspaper, The Amphibian.

The rattlesnake bites you, the horsefly stings,
The mosquito delights you with his buzzin wings.
Sand burrs cause you to jig and dance
And those who sit down get ants in their pants.

The heat in the summer is one hundred and ten
Too hot for the Devil, too hot for the men.
Come see for yourself and you can tell
It’s a helluva place, this Carrabelle.

Living conditions nothwithstanding, soldiers at Camp Gordon Johnston found plenty of ways to entertain themselves during their stay. Carrabelle itself might not have been the most active metropolis, but GI’s could have a pleasant time reading in the camp’s library, fishing from one of the nearby piers, attending a USO-sponsored dance, or catching the latest movie at the camp’s theater. By the end of the war, the post featured five theaters, three service clubs for enlisted men, clubs for both commissioned and non-commissioned officers, baseball, baketball, and boxing leagues, and six chapels to minister to the spiritual needs of the camp residents. Tallahassee was the nearest city of any size, but it was already crowded with GI’s stationed at Dale Mabry Field. Soldiers reported difficulties even finding a room at the local hotels, but that didn’t stop them from trying. The Lee Bus Line and later a special passenger railroad carried residents of Camp Gordon Johnston to and from Tallahassee regularly.

Soldiers and visitors dance to music from a live band at one of Camp Gordon Johnston's dance halls (circa 1944).

Soldiers and visitors dance to music from a live band at one of Camp Gordon Johnston’s dance halls (circa 1944).

Training for amphibious warfare was the initial purpose of Camp Gordon Johnston, but as the war continued the Army began shifting more responsibility for this kind of tactic to the Navy. In 1943 the base was re-purposed as an Army Service Force Training Center, where small companies could be trained to operate boats and amphibious trucks for the Army’s “island-hopping” campaign in the Pacific. Engineers charged with constructing, repairing, and maintaining ports also trained at the center, and starting in 1944 small numbers of German and Italian prisoners of war were sent there.

Soldiers jumping obstacles during training at Camp Gordon Johnston (circa 1943).

Soldiers jumping obstacles during training at Camp Gordon Johnston (circa 1943).

Practicing maneuvers on the beach near Carrabelle (1943).

Practicing maneuvers on the beach near Carrabelle (1943).

A GM manufactured amphibious vehicle called a DUKW, located at Camp Gordon Johnston. DUKW was a code describing the specifications of the vehicle.

A GM manufactured amphibious vehicle called a DUKW, located at Camp Gordon Johnston. DUKW was a code describing the specifications of the vehicle. “D” stood for date (1942), “U” stood for amphibian, “K” indicated the vehicle was all-wheel drive, and “W” meant the vehicle had dual rear axles. Photo 1944.

Company photo of the 1057th Engineer Port Construction and Repair unit at Camp Gordon Johnston (circa 1944).

Company photo of the 1057th Engineer Port Construction and Repair unit at Camp Gordon Johnston (circa 1944).

A number of African-American troops resided at Camp Gordon Johnston during its tenure. For these men, many of whom were from the Northern U.S., entering the segregated world of the Florida Panhandle in the 1940s was a difficult transition. While white residents enjoyed the use of the camp’s guest house, library, and service clubs, black soldiers were not permitted to enter these facilities, nor was a segregated alternative provided until much later in the war. Moreover, Carrabelle and other nearby small towns were still in the grip of Jim Crow segregation laws, and tensions between the races at times broke out into violence.

African-American soldiers in front of barracks at Camp Gordon Johnston (circa 1943).

African-American soldiers in front of barracks at Camp Gordon Johnston (circa 1943).

When news of the Japanese surrender reached Camp Gordon Johnston in 1945, the effect was said to have rivaled the power of the atomic bomb. Concerts and parades marked the occasion, and the demand for beer was so high that bartenders reportedly were forced to serve it before it had even had time to chill. With the war over, the camp’s life came to a close as well. The base officially shut down in early 1946, and by 1947 the federal government had disposed of its land in the region.

A barricade marked

A barricade marked “Government Property – Keep Off” blocks the driveway to the barracks of Camp Gordon Johnston after it closed in 1946.

Little remains of Camp Gordon Johnston, but local citizens and former camp residents still gather from time to time to reminisce about what it was like to train in the sun, sand, and heat around Carrabelle. The Camp Gordon Johnston Association organizes these reunions in cooperation with the American Legion Post at Lanark Village and other community partners.

Learn more about the World War II era in Florida by searching the Florida Photographic Collection. Teachers and students, you’ll find useful resources on the subject in our learning unit.