It was the winter of 1939, and Fort Lauderdale’s merchants and hoteliers had high hopes for the tourist season just getting started.
The events of December 3 put the first obstacle in their way. A German freighter pulled into Port Everglades to escape from a British cruiser called the Orion. The war in Europe was three months old. The German vessel and crew remained in the harbor – then as a neutral. But the Orion hovered offshore, waiting.
Soon the war, which so many believed should stay “over there,” was right off our shores, as German subs began attacking freighters.
The United States eventually removed the 56-man crew of the German ship to Coast Guard Base Six in Fort Lauderdale. They were taken to the Broward County jail for a week, after which they were shipped off for incarceration at Ellis Island in New York.
On another December day, this one Dec. 7, 1941, we woke up to Japan’s devastating surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.
The Fort Lauderdale Daily News and Evening Sentinel immediately featured a front page editorial by owner-publisher Robert H. Gore with the headline “Japan will regret yesterday.” All over the city men and women volunteered to serve, including veterans of World War I.
Merle Fogg Field became Naval Air Station Fort Lauderdale. Soon thousands of soldiers and would-be bomber pilots like George H.W. Bush were training here, filling newly constructed airport billets and even being housed in beach hotels. Coast Guard Base 6 expanded at Bahia Mar and Port Everglades, bringing in more personnel.
“Though far from actual hostilities, Fort Lauderdale was on a firm war footing because of its proximity to the sea and enemy vessels,” a Sun-Sentinel reporter later wrote. “Artillery was mounted along the shoreline. Coast Guard units patrolled the beach on horseback. Hotels were turned into military training centers, and it was common to see Navy fliers or members of the Women’s Army Corps marching in crisp parade dress down city streets.”
Lights were dimmed at night. Any cars that had to be on the road at night had the top half of their headlights covered with black tape. Gas was rationed, and you had to go to city hall to get permission to buy it. Even rubber tires were restricted: According to one citizen, you couldn’t get a new tire anywhere in town.
In spite of all this, schools and churches maintained a normal schedule. And ever-hopeful tourism flacks proclaimed “beaches are free as ever for your use during daytime hours.”
We owe much of the story from the account of Dr. Paul S. George and his extensive research for the Historic Broward County Preservation Board.
With so many men abroad or headed there as draftees, women took on major roles. Female pilots supplemented Coast Guard patrols over ocean waters, flying private planes. Under the banner of the Civil Air Patrol, the planes were not armed but were invaluable as spotters.
Local business efforts also now depended to one degree or another on female workers to replace the men who had worked in factories. Dooley’s Basin and Dry Dock expanded its plant to produce mine sweepers, sub chasers and air rescue boats. The H.A.K. Corporation produced more than 1.6 million artillery shells. Daily flights ferried the company’s products to Ohio to be sent on to points abroad. Women provided the majority of labor for the Rex Bassett Plant, which built two-way radios, quartz crystals and other electronics. The Goodwin Awning Company produced 250,000 pup tents.
In addition, the war brought a shortage of nurses. Local women volunteers known as Gray Ladies because of the color of their uniforms aided hospitals and the Red Cross as drivers. Many more women volunteers offered a variety of services from classes in math and other subjects to mending clothes they had laundered at the newly created Fort Lauderdale Service Men’s Center. The center had a library, lunch counter, space for special events and even a dancefloor. Some of the women served as partners at Saturday night dances, which could attract upwards of 3,000 servicemen.
During its three years of operation, an estimated two to three million men and women of the armed forces used the facility.