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.

Florida’s Junior Scrap Army During World War II

During World War II, the enormous demand for steel, aluminum, and other metals led the War Production Board to launch a nationwide campaign to salvage scrap. Everyone from state and local Defense Councils to the Boy Scouts combed local communities for sources of scrap metal that could be melted down and re-purposed for ships, guns, vehicles, and other war materiel.

Part of a poster encouraging housewives to save tin cans for scrap metal. From the papers of the State Defense Council, circa 1940s.

Part of a poster encouraging housewives to save tin cans for scrap metal. From the papers of the State Defense Council, circa 1940s.

As part of this national effort, Florida’s State Defense Council and Department of Education teamed up to develop the Junior Scrap Army program in 1942. State School Superintendent Colin English challenged every pupil in the Sunshine State to collect as much scrap metal as possible and turn it in at their local schools, where it would be weighed. The program was competitive; the schools and individuals collecting the most scrap would be entitled to a prize.

Results from a scrap metal and rubber drive in Pensacola (circa 1942).

Results from a scrap metal and rubber drive in Pensacola (circa 1942).

The enthusiasm exhibited by Florida’s school children in this competition was incredible. One student reportedly was out until nearly midnight on the very last night before the contest deadline with her grandfather’s truck, collecting as much metal as possible to add to her total. In Perry, pupils from a physical education class dug up ice manufacturing equipment that had been discarded and buried nearly twenty years earlier. At least four students collected over a thousand pounds of scrap each, and Polk County reported collecting 375 pounds of old keys alone for re-purposing. The heat of the competition reached even into the highest levels of state government, as Governor Spessard Holland accepted a challenge from California Governor Culbert L. Olson to see which state could collect the most metal on a per capita basis.

Individual top scrappers and representatives from the top scrapping schools visit with former governor Fred P. Cone in Lake City. L to R: Albert W. Thompson, Betty Lou Smith, Gov. Fred P. Cone, Gwendolyn Willcocks, Joseph Thibodeaux, and Allen Shelton, with Dale Maxwell in front (December 1942).

Individual top scrappers and representatives from the top scrapping schools visit with former governor Fred P. Cone in Lake City. L to R: Albert W. Thompson, Betty Lou Smith, Gov. Fred P. Cone, Gwendolyn Willcocks, Joseph Thibodeaux, and Allen Shelton, with Dale Maxwell in front (December 1942).

When the dust settled after a month of scrapping, Green Acres and Loxahatchee schools of Palm Beach County and Cape Florida School of Dade County emerged as the top collecting schools. Each won the right to send a delegate to participate in the dedication and launching of the Liberty Ship Colin P. Kelly, Jr., named after  the Madison County, Florida airman who was among the first to perish in combat after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. The top three individual collectors also earned the right to attend and represent the state. Gwendolyn Willcocks, 15, from Palm Beach High School, personally collected 101,116 pounds of scrap metal. Joining her was Betty Lou Smith, 10, of Coral Gables Elementary School, who collected 156,160 pounds, and Dale Maxwell, 9, of Pahokee, who collected a whopping 202,650 pounds of scrap metal for the drive.

Florida's top scrappers viewing the gold star for fallen hero Colin Kelly, Jr. at his family's church in Madison. L to R: Gwendolyn Willcocks, Betty Lou Smith, Joseph Thibodeaux, Albert W. Thompson, Allen Shelton, and Dale Maxwell (December 1942).

Florida’s top scrappers viewing the gold star for fallen hero Colin Kelly, Jr. at his family’s church in Madison. L to R: Gwendolyn Willcocks, Betty Lou Smith, Joseph Thibodeaux, Albert W. Thompson, Allen Shelton, and Dale Maxwell (December 1942).

The six met in Jacksonville for a tour that included stops in Lake City, Madison, and Tallahassee before moving on to Mobile for the dedication and launch of the U.S. Liberty Ship Colin P. Kelly, Jr. Gwendolyn Willcocks broke the traditional bottle of champagne against the hull while Mary Lou Smith used a hatchet to cut the ship loose and allow it to enter the water for service. Dale Maxwell, whose enormous contribution to the drive made him both the state and national scrap collecting champion, said a few words to the crowd. In describing his triumph, he said, “I didn’t set out to be top collector. I wanted to do my part for the war effort. And I haven’t stopped by any means. I shall continue to collect scrap as long as this war lasts.”

As part of their trip, Florida's top scrappers were treated to a stay at the Governor's Mansion, where they were the guests of Governor and Mrs. Spessard Holland. Here they are pictured gathered around the Governor's desk. L to R: Betty Lou Smith, Albert W. Thompson, Allen Shelton, Joseph Thibodeaux, and Dale Maxwell, with Gwendolyn Willcocks seated (December 1942).

As part of their trip, Florida’s top scrappers were treated to a stay at the Governor’s Mansion, where they were the guests of Governor and Mrs. Spessard Holland. Here they are pictured gathered around the Governor’s desk. L to R: Betty Lou Smith, Albert W. Thompson, Allen Shelton, Joseph Thibodeaux, and Dale Maxwell, with Gwendolyn Willcocks seated (December 1942).

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 (?).

Florida’s 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 (?).

Allen Shelton is the center of attention during a visit of Florida's top scrappers to the Florida State College for Women (December 1942).

Allen Shelton is the center of attention during a visit of Florida’s top scrappers to the Florida State College for Women (December 1942).

The family of Colin Kelly, Jr. standing in front of the ship to be dedicated to his memory in Mobile, Alabama. From L to R: Emy Kelly (Colin, Jr.'s sister), Mrs. and Mr. Colin Kelly, Sr. (December 1942).

The family of Colin Kelly, Jr. standing in front of the ship to be dedicated to his memory in Mobile, Alabama. From L to R: Emy Kelly (Colin, Jr.’s sister), Mrs. and Mr. Colin Kelly, Sr. (December 1942).

Dale Maxwell, the youngest member of Florida's top scrapper delegation, gives a speech at the launch of the U.S. Liberty Ship Colin P. Kelly, Jr. in Mobile, Alabama (December 1942).

Dale Maxwell, the youngest member of Florida’s top scrapper delegation, gives a speech at the launch of the U.S. Liberty Ship Colin P. Kelly, Jr. in Mobile, Alabama (December 1942).

Gwendolyn Willcocks holding flowers and a bottle of champagne to break against the hull of the U.S. Liberty Ship Colin P. Kelly during its dedication ceremony at Mobile, Alabama (December 1942).

Gwendolyn Willcocks holding flowers and a bottle of champagne to break against the hull of the U.S. Liberty Ship Colin P. Kelly during its dedication ceremony at Mobile, Alabama (December 1942).

This is just one of the many stories of courageous homefront contributions by Floridians during World War II. Search the Florida Photographic Collection for more images relating to the war effort in Florida, and check out our learning unit on the subject.

Most of the photos in this post are from the subject files of the State Defense Council of Florida, an agency charged with preparing Florida and Floridians for the challenges of World War II. The collection (Series 419) is available to researchers at the State Archives in Tallahassee.