The United States’ efforts during World War II drew heavily on both the people and resources of the state of Florida.
Over 250,000 Floridians volunteered or were drafted into the armed forces. Dozens of military bases were established or expanded in the state, and personnel flooded into Florida by the thousands. Many soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen, and nurses who trained or served in Florida later returned to the state as retirees and helped fuel the postwar economic boom.
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Agriculture was Florida’s primary economic contribution to the war effort. Prices for agricultural goods generally increased during the war years. The price of cotton, for example, doubled during the war. Citrus production in Florida surpassed that of California for the first time in 1942-43 with 80 million boxes produced.
Scientists also developed DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) during the war to act as a pesticide and mosquito repellant. Only later did the impact of DDT on wildlife become apparent and the use of the dangerous pesticide banned.
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A shortage of agricultural laborers necessitated the importation of approximately 75,000 Bahamians and Jamaicans to work in Florida. These temporary workers from the British West Indies suffered through difficult conditions as they toiled in sugar fields south of Lake Okeechobee.
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Several Florida industries experienced growth during World War II.
Shipbuilding became the principal manufacturing contribution of Florida to the war effort. Wainwright Shipbuilding in Panama City built 108 vessels during the war and employed 15,000 workers. Over 9,000 employees worked in shipbuilding in the Tampa Bay area. Even landlocked Orlando produced 9,000 assault boats used in amphibious landing operations, such as the D-Day invasion of Normandy, France in June 1944.
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Wages improved and jobs became plentiful due to the large number of men in the armed services. Women, African-Americans, and other ethnic minorities made small but significant inroads into professions previously dominated by white males.
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An Act of Congress during World War II allowed women to enlist for noncombat duties in the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC), the Women Appointed for Voluntary Emergency Service (WAVES), Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS), and Semper Paratus Always Ready Service (SPARS), the Women’s Reserve of the Marine Corp.
World War II served as the catalyst for Florida’s explosive postwar economic and demographic growth. These changes were reflected in the state’s population, which grew 46.1% during the decade of the 1940s and expanded at an even more rapid pace in the 1950s.
Favorable weather and ample land made Florida one of the primary areas selected for military base construction during World War II. Between 1941 and 1945, more than 200 military installations were built or expanded in Florida, which required 1.2 million acres of land and cost $306 million.
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Testing the beach wire net as a barrage balloon and its winch are unloaded from a Higgins-type LCM.
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Native of Miami, Alice “Martha” Dorn (later Timanus) attended Ponce de Leon High School and the University of Miami.
She was the first female officer candidate in the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve in the 3rd Naval District. Ms. Dorn made company Commander then Battalion Commander and worked in the Women’s Recruiting Depot.
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Large military bases such as Camp Blanding, near Starke, attracted not only thousands of servicemen and their families, but also brought numerous workers to the state in search of employment. At its peak, during construction, Camp Blanding employed more than 22,000 civilian workers.
The pace of construction at sites like Camp Blanding created severe housing problems in nearby communities. While building barracks that later housed troops, workers slept in their cars, on the floors of local businesses and restaurants, and pitched tents in nearby forests. Cramped living conditions also led to food shortages and health concerns.
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Local merchants and other businesses that catered to workers and soldiers benefited economically from large military bases. However, some community members protested when the visitors overwhelmed local infrastructure, or engaged in undesirable activities.
When finished, Camp Blanding was so massive that the personnel housed there comprised the fourth largest city in Florida during World War II at 55,000 inhabitants. Also housed at the base were approximately 4,000 German prisoners of war (POWs).
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Defense employers often refused to hire African-American workers in the early days of the war. Eventually, as the demands of the war increased, African-Americans obtained greater access to defense-related jobs and enlisted in the military in substantial numbers.
The persistence of discrimination and Jim Crow-era segregation laws fueled the desire among many African-Americans to use the war as a means of achieving victory over both fascism abroad and racism at home, referred to as the “Double V” campaign.
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The massive influx of military personnel impacted Florida communities in different ways. In Miami, hotel operators initially witnessed a sharp decline in business. Not only was the nation mobilized for war, and therefore not spending time and money on pleasure travel, but blackout orders forced hotels and other tourism industry businesses along the coast to dim their lights each evening. This was done to prevent silhouetting ships at sea against bright coastal lights, which made them easier targets for German U-boats operating in Florida waters.
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The Gulfland was one of nearly 40 vessels sunken off the coast of Florida by German U-boats during World War II.
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The British ship was torpeoed three miles off Cocoa Beach, Florida. A WWI converted destroyer, owned by Lovett's food chain and used to transport bananas, scared off the submarine and rescued the crew.
Hotel proprietors in south Florida and the U.S. military eventually reached an agreement to quarter troops at the empty resorts. By the fall of 1942, more than 78,000 troops were housed in 300 hotels in Miami and Miami Beach alone. This arrangement helped hotels get through the early war doldrums. By 1943, tourists returned and operators saw a 20% increase in visitors over the previous year.
Florida promoted itself as a vacation getaway for hard working, and now highly paid, civilian workers. “Like a soldier YOU need a civilian furlough,” advertised the Daytona Chamber of Commerce.
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Luxurious resorts, such as the Miami Biltmore and the Breakers in Palm Beach, housed U.S. troops during World War II.
Citizens on the homefront volunteered in record numbers to aid the war effort. They planted victory gardens, joined civil defense organizations, and participated in various rationing efforts.
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United behind the war effort like never before, Floridians participated in both voluntary and mandatory efforts to conserve strategic war materials. Drives to collect rubber, scrap metal, rags, paper, and grease became popular, as did “meatless” days to stretch the nation’s food resources. Every man, woman, and child in the state received a ration book limiting what could be purchased.
In early 1942, rubber became the first rationed item. Gasoline soon followed. In 1943, gasoline rationing became even more severe with all forms of “pleasure driving” deemed illegal.
Sugar was rationed beginning in April 1942, followed by coffee, meats, butter, canned goods, dried peas and beans, and a variety of other products. In addition to food, other consumer products such as shoes and clothing were rationed or restricted. Many items, including alcohol, were not rationed but were in chronically short supply.
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Several communities witnessed explosive population growth during World War II – a trend that continued in some areas after the war. Miami’s population jumped from 172,000 in 1940 to 250,000 by 1950. The population of Key West doubled from 15,000 to 35,000 in a single year, 1943. Panama City, a shipbuilding center in the Florida panhandle, increased from a small town of 11,000 in 1941 to a city of 50,000 by 1943.
The long-term impacts of World War II continued for several decades after the war ended in 1945. Florida’s growth mirrored conditions in other parts of the country, particularly the region dubbed the Sunbelt.
Military personnel vacationed and retired in the Sunshine State in large numbers. New defense-related industries, such as the space program, grew throughout the Cold War. The Interstate Highway System brought record numbers of tourists to the state and created boomtowns seemingly overnight.
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August 15, 1945.
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Postwar population growth shifted Florida’s demographic center away from the rural panhandle and towards the booming peninsula. Political reapportionment followed the new residents and slowly broke up the dominance of the so-called “Pork Chop Gang” that represented primarily the interests of the northern portion of the state.
The effects of World War II are still being felt in Florida today. Much like their parents, the “baby boomer” generation, a product of postwar American prosperity, is retiring in Florida. The baby boomers help fuel the service and healthcare sectors which form the economic foundation of many Florida communities.