News of Japan’s surrender reached Florida just after 7:00 p.m. on August 14, 1945. Virtually the entire state erupted into a frenzy of celebration unlike anything in the history of Florida. Automobiles, horses, carts and vehicles of every description jammed the streets in informal parades, with drivers honking their horns and shouting. In Key West, 10 long horn blasts signaled the news to dwellers of the Florida Keys for miles around. At Port Everglades, all the ships in the harbor celebrated by sounding their mighty whistles at once in a deafening roar. The war was over.
The thrill of victory was tempered somewhat by the sobering reality of its cost. Over 418,000 American citizens – soldiers and civilians – lost their lives as a result of World War II. Many more received injuries that affected them for the remainder of their lives. Official reports from 1946 list a total of 3,540 Floridian casualties in the Army and Army Air Forces and 2,314 total Floridian casualties among Navy, Coast Guard and Marine personnel. Finding suitable ways to honor the sacrifices of these Floridians became a critical component of the recovery process for communities across the state.
Florida’s servicemen and their families were eager for the return to normalcy, but in some ways Florida would never be the same. The federal government had invested heavily in Florida as a valuable region for military outposts, a pattern which continued and even expanded after the war. This produced something of a ripple effect, whereby Florida communities grew quickly as industries and services developed to meet the needs of the people who came to work and serve in these military establishments.
Florida’s population grew by 46 percent during the 1940s, due mainly to the war and its effects. Servicemen often commented on how much they enjoyed their time in Florida and how nice it would be to return there after the war was over. When Virginia soldier Dan Moody arrived in Miami to complete his training in January 1944, he wrote back to his parents, “Mother, this is the most beautiful place that I have ever seen. … I really think when the war is over, I’ll move down here.” Many of Moody’s compatriots chose to do just that.
These were encouraging signs for Florida’s leaders, but a larger population and increasing industrial growth also created new problems for state officials to tackle. The state’s educational institutions were, for example, wholly inadequate to handle the number of young servicemen who returned eager to get a degree and begin their careers. The GI bill afforded veterans the opportunity to get a college education, but the University of Florida lacked the capacity to serve them all. The Legislature effected a temporary solution by authorizing the establishment of a temporary branch of the university that would operate in Tallahassee, using some of the resources of the Florida State College for Women. In 1947, the Legislature made FSCW co-educational, converting it into the Florida State University that exists today.
Decades have passed since the end of World War II, but the conflict still looms large in the historical consciousness of Floridians and Americans from across the nation. Memorials and educational programs aim to impress upon each successive generation just how dramatically the war impacted the world in which we live. They also serve to honor the sacrifices Floridians selflessly made alongside their fellow citizens and international allies, all in defense of the freedoms we continue to enjoy today.