Greater Miami and World War II

Paul S. George, Ph.D

Greater Miami’s role in the nation’s war effort included a large, varied element of civilian support.  The day following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor found civilian enlistees swamping military recruiting offices. This trend continued for much of the war.  As late as June 1944, while Allied soldiers were storming the beaches of Normandy, members of Miami Senior High School’s Class of ’44 enlisted in large numbers the day after graduation, which dovetailed with that storied invasion of Fortress Europe.  At the same time, Greater Miami’s women flooded the workplace, many for the first time. They labored as clerks, hotel operators, milkmaids, FPL pole painters, lumberjills (sic), truck drivers, freight handlers and aircraft workers. 

The Orange Bowl festival parades, a New Year’s Eve delight for residents and visitors, continued during the conflict, but their messages changed to pro-war themes.  United Service Organizations (USO) popped up seemingly everywhere, but especially in downtown Miami and on South Beach, offering a broad array of activities, including dances. In the war’s early going, with German submarines in nearby waters, pleasure boaters sometimes rescued American sailors from burning ships.

Centered around the FEC Railway tracks in downtown Miami, countywide scrap iron drives, accompanied by the mantra, “Slap the Japs with Your Scrap,” brought hundreds of contributions from residents, who scoured their homes and businesses for metal, including pots and pans, and metal toys; even bumpers and fenders from their cars were scavenged for the war cause.  By war’s end, Greater Miamians had purchased more than $300 million in war bonds, an average of about $1,000 per resident. In fact, residents oversubscribed on each of the eight war bond drives.  Residents of the area were also highly supportive of charitable organizations like the War Chest and the American Red Cross.

As historian Gary Mormino has noted, “Tourism remained vital to a war-charged economy.” The Miami Herald insisted, “Come wars, booms, or depressions, there will always be a Greater Miami tourist crop, and a pretty lusty one.”  Such was the case in the conflict’s final years, as   tourism soared and some Miami Beach hotels, now decommissioned after years of hosting military personnel, again accommodated visitors. But there was pushback, as the Beach and other resorts in the Sunshine State drew a rebuke from Life magazine, a leading weekly, which opined, “It’s not entirely Florida’s fault that it seems to fiddle while the rest of the world burns.”  Author, contrarian, and Miami resident Philip Wylie angrily wrote in a New Republic essay, “Only the very ill and war-connected had a right to drive here from the rest of the U.S.A. …It is a disgraceful panorama of selfishness –of wishful, witless self-indulgence—of the failure not merely of a city but a great cross-section of the American people to understand even vaguely the meaning of these days.”

But the area’s war contributions continued alongside of its slide toward a civilian economy.  The towering Biltmore Hotel in the city of Coral Gables became an Army Air Force hospital in 1942.  Through the efforts of visiting First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, a dormant South Beach hospital reopened as a U.S. Navy care facility. In the meantime, the area became host to German prisoner of war camps (POW).  A former Civilian Conservation Corps camp in the piney woods of South Dade opened in 1944, hosting scores of Germans taken in the North African campaign.  Today, that site sits across Dadeland Boulevard from the fabled Dadeland Mall.  Not to be outdone, in the northeast sector of the county, another German POW camp opened on the site of today’s posh Bal Harbour Shops.

Two Miamians had a hand in the war’s most incendiary and consequential moments.  On August 6, 1945, Paul Tibbetts, who lived in Miami’s Riverside neighborhood before moving to nearby Shenandoah, piloted the Enola Gay, a B-29 Superfortress named for his mother, from the Pacific Island of Tinian in the Marianas, with “Little Boy,” an atomic bomb in its bay. On that day, the Enola Gay dropped the bomb over the Japanese city of Hiroshima, ushering in the final phase of the protracted conflict along with the nuclear age.  Charles Donald “Don” Albury flew a support plane on that mission.  Three days later, on August 9, Albury, who lived at one time near today’s downtown home of the Miami Police Department, was the co-pilot aboard the B-29 Bockscar, which dispatched “Fat Man,” another atomic bomb, over Nagasaki, just 185 miles away from the first bomb blast.  (Albury piloted the plane part of the way on that long mission.)

Five days later, on August 14, 1945, President Harry Truman announced the Japanese surrender, marking the end of World War II.  Following the announcement, Americans took to the streets in celebration.  Like other cities, Miami’s VJ celebration took place along downtown’s main street, E. Flagler.  The revelry continued into the night, a celebration led by many naval personnel who trained on the bayfront and lived in nearby hotels on Biscayne Boulevard.

Ahead of them and other celebrants was a new era, one that would radically transform Greater Miami and other parts of Florida through a sharp climb in population, growing affluence, a rising suburbia, and the growing “internationalization” of the Magic City.

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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