Greater Miami and World War II, Part I

Paul S. George, Ph.D

It would be difficult to imagine a more interesting era in the rich history of Greater Miami than that of World War II.  Attracted by the area’s flat terrain, broad waters and mild weather, the military descended on Greater Miami en masse, with the Army and Navy establishing large training bases here.

Miami Beach became an important center for members of the Army Air Corps, who lived in hundreds of the hotels and apartments now comprising the famed Art Deco District. Many took technical training in these facilities, while others trained on the city’s golf course or in other areas. The Port of Miami, then located on the site of today’s Maurice Ferre Park, became the preserve of the Navy as well as a Submarine Chaser Training School, known affectionately as the “Donald Duck Navy” because of the diminutive vessels employed in training.  A wartime visitor to the school was Naval officer John F. Kennedy, while one of the trainees was Pierre Salinger, later President Kennedy’s press secretary.

A few blocks south of the site of the training school stands Bayfront Park, which served as a recreational area for Naval personnel, whose ranks included not only American enlistees, but also sailors from China and the Soviet Union, both wartime allies of the U.S., who trained alongside American servicemen. Two blocks west of Bayfront Park stands the Alfred I. DuPont Building, a Depression-Moderne jewel housing the Navy’s Gulf Sea Frontier, which charted the movement of German submarines in the nearby waters and beyond. 

Dubbed the “U.S.S. Neversink,” for its role here, the DuPont building offered a prime viewing area for the patriotic parades streaming past it each Saturday during the conflict.  Designed to raise patriotic fervor and sell war bonds, these events consisted of uniformed men and women marching east to Bayfront Park from a starting point in front of the towering Dade County Courthouse.  Accompanying them were often military vehicles. Spectators gathered on the sidewalks flanking Flagler Street, or looked out from stores and office buildings, to cheer on the parade marchers.

Pan American Field, also known as the 36th Street Airport, became the Miami Air Depot Headquarters, an aviation facility for thousands of soldiers.  Nearby, the Army Air Corp’s Air Transport established a base, delivering passengers and cargo to the Southern Hemisphere and anti-tank ammunition to hard-pressed British forces in North Africa.

In southern Dade, the federal government erected the Richmond Naval Air Station to house the giant blimps patrolling for German U-boats in the Gulf Stream and the Atlantic Ocean.  The three hangars comprising the complex represented the largest aircraft shelters in the world—reaching such heights, the story goes, that rain clouds formed inside of them. The facility could be seen from the top floors of the distant Dade County Courthouse.  The Navy converted the picturesque Pan American Air Terminal at Dinner Key to an air station and established another air base in Opa Locka.

Like the nearby Miami Air Depot Headquarters, the Miami River, a working stream, was busier than ever as thousands of workers in boatyards built military vessels and retrofitted private boats for wartime use.  Thousands of workers in the venerable Merrill-Stevens shipyard, which stands near the N.W. Twelfth Avenue bridge, oversaw the conversion of hundreds of pleasure crafts into a fleet of naval support vessels. Farther down river, near the S.W. Second Avenue Bridge, workers in the Miami Shipbuilding Corporation built swift, agile PT Boats (patrol torpedo boats) later employed in the rescue of downed pilots.  Sometimes these vessels moved east in a convoy from the boatyard into the turquoise waters of Biscayne Bay on practice runs, which represented another colorful element of wartime Miami.  This shipyard repaired military vessels. The most notable of the ships in this category was PT 109, skippered by Lieutenant John F. Kennedy in the Pacific theater of the war.

In our next installment of this column, we will discuss other elements of greater Miami and World War II, including the story of two Miamians who were instrumental in bringing the war to a successful conclusion in August 1945.

Paul S. George, Ph.D., serves as Resident Historian, HistoryMiami Museum.  He conducts history tours throughout the County and even beyond for HistoryMiami. Additionally, he teaches classes in Miami/S. Florida and Florida history for the Museum. Dr. George has also led, since 2002, tours of Little Havana as part of Viernes Culturales, a monthly celebration, every third Friday, of the culture and history of that quarter.

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