July 30, 2014

Homefront Heroes

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and Southwest Florida found itself at war. In no time, local boys volunteered or were drafted. From Everglades City, Naples, Fort Myers and the Seminole reservation, young men made their way to the Atlantic Coast Line railway station. There, they tearfully said goodbye. Most would return, but some would never again see their homes or families

While sons and brothers were away at war, local citizens did everything they could to support the armed forces. Despite deprivation caused by the Great Depression and a hurricane, men, women and children gave freely. They gathered not only tin cans and aluminum foil in scrap-metal drives, but also treasured antiques. They rolled bandages, made care packages, donated money, time and blood.

In March, the Army Air Corps established a flexible gunnery school in Buckingham, an area in northeast Fort Myers. Later that year an unused airstrip south of downtown Fort Myers became the Air Corps headquarters at Page Field. And in December of 1943, a Naples golf course became Naples Army Air Field.

Between 1942 and the end of the war, to more than 20,000 men learned how to shoot down enemy aircraft here. The invasion of incoming soldiers far exceeded the populations of Lee and Collier counties combined. Most citizens embraced the young strangers. They couldn't provide support and comfort to their own sons overseas, but they could help the young men heading to the war front.

Fort Myers resident Bernese Davis remembers how "members of the Methodist church would invite soldiers to their homes after Sunday services.. "We always had at least two or three over for dinner. All of us had company for Christmas and holidays, too. We did all that we could to help them to enjoy their stay and forget what was going on."

Mina Miller Edison, widow of the famed inventor, frequently invited enlisted soldiers to her home on McGregor Boulevard in Fort Myers. In 1943, she met a private named Leon Teger at the downtown Walgreens. Teger's unpublished memoir describes how she introduced herself: "I love you young people and I'm very interested in the lives of you soldiers, even more so since you've come into my town."

Teger was touched by her concern. He wrote that she asked him, "Do you miss home? Are you lonely? How are you doing in the service? Are they taking care of you? How is the town treating you, and do you have enough to eat?" Teger replied that he was being well cared for, and offered to show her. On April 11, she personally toured Page Field. The next day the Fort Myers News-Press ran a banner headline reading: "Mrs. Edison Visits Camp, Has Dinner with Soldiers." Teger enjoyed the attention of someone so famous, but her best gift was for his mother. Edison personally wrote her a note describing their meeting and declaring, "I'm sure you can be proud of him."

While the attentions of Edison, visits with local families, and home-cooked meals did much to comfort the soldiers, they were young men who craved excitement. In the spring of 1943, the enlisted men got their own dance hall when Fort Myers moved an auditorium from a disintegrating pleasure pier to a waterfront park. Soon big-band music flowed from the well-attended USO dances at the building, later called the Hall of Fifty States.

Because Page Field's facilities were limited, the enlisted men would go to the homes of Fort Myers residents on Friday nights. They'd take a quick bath or shower and then dress in their best uniforms. Once at the dance hall they queued up for a twirl with the local girls, who found themselves pleasantly outnumbered. Theresa Kellum recalls, "Fort Myers was a small town. Everybody knew everybody. Then the soldiers came. There were so many men and so little time!" She later married an officer from Page Field.

For those who preferred jazz to big-band music, McCullum Hall on Anderson Avenue (now Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard) was the place to be. The soldiers would check in at the USO station downstairs and then go up to the dance hall. Famous names like Count Basie and the all-girl group the Harlem Playgirls kept the boys on their feet. Although the dances were supposed to be racially segregated, Fort Myers resident Glada Green remembers: "At one time things were blocked off with a rope, but when people started dancing, it never held. We were all dancing together." Her friend Dorothy Hamilton concurs: "Everybody was happy and we got along nicely."

Off Fort Myers Beach, soldiers trained for sea operations. Pilots practiced flying low over targets and rescued downed aircraft with crash boats. When they were off duty, the beach was a natural draw for soldiers. The challenge was getting there. With gas rationed, the young men took a bus or carpooled. Buckingham Field veteran Oscar Corbin remembers: "A whole group of us got together and rented a cottage on the beach. We went swimming, had picnics and had a great time."

Sometimes it was too much of a good time. Robley "Doc" Newton, owner of the Fort Myers Beach Hotel, was constantly removing catfish fins and fishhooks from servicemen's feet. Sunburn was a more serious problem. His granddaughter and namesake Robley Geddes Greilick recalls: "Once he wouldn't let the young man go back to base. He called the commander and reported the he was under his care, and too severely burned to leave. We fixed a room on the second floor of the hotel to be his `hospital' room, and my grandparents looked after him there for a couple of days."

Soldiers accustomed to fishing in streams back home in Nebraska, Maine and Ohio took eagerly to Gulf fishing. A newsletter from the Naples base describes how one of the soldiers "borrowed a rod from one of the Naples natives and in 30 minutes had caught 14 fish, all snook, averaging about 12 pounds apiece." Ray Knapp, a Naples veteran who now lives in New York state, remembers: "There was one fisherman who would take us out. He was a bit of a lush. He'd get drunk and let us run the boat. I can't tell you how many times we got lost or snagged a reef. He'd straighten us out and we'd be on our way again. Sometimes the fishermen would give us `T-stamps,' which were for rationed gas. They were all like that. The people of Naples took care of us."

Often enlisted men wanted to experience something that reminded them of home. Greilick's father owned a print shop on Main Street in Fort Myers. "The boys used to gravitate to a business they were familiar with back home," he remembers. "He always had fellows in there who just wanted to talk or smell the printer's ink." He'd often take them home for dinner with the family. The soldiers were quick to express their thanks. "Daddy loved chocolates and he smoked Lucky Strike cigarettes. Neither was readily available anywhere but at a PX. But one drawer in Daddy's dresser had the most wonderful smell of both! It seems that the servicemen would give him some in return for friendship, which flowed from us to all `the boys.'"

After the war was over, many of the young men who had been stationed here decided to return to Southwest Florida. Warmed by memories of the kindnesses they had experienced and the sunny, seaside setting, they bought homes, started families and helped fuel the growth that accelerated in the '50s and '60s. Fort Myers' Dr. Jim Goodyear, who had trained at Page Field, was among many who returned to settle. It helped that his wife's family was local, but that wasn't the deciding factor. "I just liked it here," he says. " I liked the climate. I liked the town. They were good people." 

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