Floridians Who Served Over There
Over 42,000 Floridians served in the Army, Marine Corps, Navy and Coast Guard during WWI. Though U.S. foreign policy mandated a neutral position during the first three years of the conflict, the country reacted to the specter of war with caution, steadily strengthening its defenses.
The Curtiss airplanes stationed by hangars at Pensacola Naval Air Station, 1917. State Archives of Florida.Soon after the Great War erupted in Europe during the summer of 1914, both the Florida Naval Militia and Florida National Guard saw enrollment increases. That same year, the United States Navy opened the nation’s first aeronautic training center, Naval Air Station Pensacola, where over 6,000 officers and enlistees would complete training by the war’s end in November 1918.
Members of the Koreshan Unity Edward and Julius Koester at Camp Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina, ca. 1918. Florida MemoryDespite moderate efforts at military preparedness, average civilians in Florida thought war was a distant possibility. However, rising German hostilities in early 1917 – aggressive submarine warfare and the publication of the Zimmerman telegram – signaled the increasing likelihood of war and propelled President Wilson to adopt a policy of armed neutrality. Floridians weighed in, and the majority of the state’s leading newspapers endorsed President Wilson’s move towards military engagement. Of the president’s actions, the St. Petersburg Daily Times pledged “the undivided loyalty of the American public.” The Miami Herald further concluded that “there [were] worse things for a nation than … armed conflict.” Other publications offered more measured responses. The Gainesville Daily Sun supported Wilson’s actions but held out hope that the country could “avert an open rupture with Germany.” The Madison Enterprise-Recorder further scrutinized U.S. diplomatic relations, observing that “we have been neutral in letter but not in spirit.” And in Estero, Florida, the Koreshan Unity, a utopian religious community, entirely rejected the prospect of becoming involved in the war. “Who will … show the way to a higher and nobler life, when this world war has completed its work of devastation and destruction?” cautioned the pacifist sect.
By April 1917, as unrestricted German submarine warfare continued to escalate, war seemed imminent.As a result, public opinion in Florida converged in support of full-fledged military action. On April 6, 1917, the overwhelming majority of the U.S. Congress, including Florida’s two senators and four representatives, voted to approve President Wilson’s request for a declaration of war. When the announcement was made to the American public, the Florida Times-Union echoed the nationalist sentiments sweeping the country, imploring “every American worthy of the name [to] bend his energies to ending the war through victory.” Just two days later, the Florida Naval Militia deployed from training bases in Sarasota, Key West and Jacksonville and reported for duty in Charleston, South Carolina. Soon after, an additional 2,000 Florida National Guardsmen mobilized for service. But aiding the Allied war effort in Europe would require more than reserve forces.
In May 1917, Congress passed the Selective Service Act, requiring all men between the ages of 21 and 31 to register for the draft. The law set Florida’s initial draftee quota at 6,325 enlistees. Beginning in July 1917, the first round of recruits went out of state to train at either Camp Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina, or Camp Wheeler near Macon, Georgia. An additional 36,000 more men and women would come from all over Florida to join the military during the war. In total, 35,829 joined the Army, 5,963 joined the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard and 238 joined the Marine Corps.
Portrait of Private Mitchell Evans of the 151st Depot Brigade. State Archives of Florida.African-American soldiers made up 36 percent of the total number of Army enlistees from Florida, but they were subjected to the armed services’ strict racial segregation policies. Neither the Navy nor the Marine Corps accepted African-Americans at all. The Army accepted a total of 13,024 African-American enlistees and 7 officers from Florida. With some exceptions, racial barriers prevented African-Americans from enjoying the same career advancement opportunities available to white soldiers. In keeping with Jim Crow custom, African-Americans were more likely to be drafted and assigned to labor battalions, performing menial tasks like cooking and cleaning, and less likely to see combat or receive special recognition for their service.
Unidentified regiment of African-American soldiers in Florida, ca. 1917. State Archives of Florida.
WWI service card of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, 1917. State Archives of Florida.Several thousand Florida women also joined the military during the war. Women enlisted as Yeoman Class (secretaries) in the Navy and as nurses in both the Army and Navy. Famed Florida author and environmentalist Marjory Stoneman Douglas served in the Navy and the Red Cross. Future Florida Congresswoman Ruth Bryan Owen, who was living in Germany with her husband, Major General Owen, when war broke out, also joined the Allied fight. Owen served in England as secretary-treasurer of the American Woman's War Relief Fund. She later worked in Cairo, Egypt, as a Voluntary Aid Detachment war nurse during Britain's Egypt-Palestine campaign.
Brothers Algy and Arthur Bevins aboard the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Tampa, ca. 1917. State Archives of Florida.
Three of the state’s future governors, Spessard Holland, David Sholtz and Millard Caldwell, took up active duty during the war. Sitting Governor Sidney Catts’ son, 2nd Lieutenant Sidney Catts Jr., served with the 28th Infantry Regiment in France. Former Governor George Franklin Drew’s grandsons, Herbert J. Drew and George F. Drew, also deployed to France.
A total of 1,134 Floridians ultimately gave their lives during the Great War, including several men aboard the ill-fated U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Tampa, which was sunk by a German submarine on September 26, 1918. According to the U.S. Coast Guard, this incident marked the largest single loss of life by any Naval unit during the war.
Military Training and Intelligence Facilities
Camp Joseph E. Johnston, Jacksonville, 1918. Florida Memory.The Sunshine State’s subtropical coastlines and wide-open inlands became the site of numerous military training and intelligence facilities during WWI. The largest installment was U.S. Army Camp Joseph E. Johnston in Jacksonville, which opened in November 1917. The camp grew to include over 600 buildings and at one time held a population of just under 27,000. Additionally, five of the nation’s 35 flying schools operated in Florida: Naval Air Station Pensacola, Curtiss Field and Chapman Field in Miami, and Carlstrom Field and Dorr Field in Arcadia. Inventors Charles Kettering and Lawrence Sperry used the open spaces in Arcadia, or “Aviation City,” as it became known during the war, to test guided missiles. Their project did not succeed. Key West’s balmy winters also made it an ideal site for Thomas A. Edison, who chaired the Naval Consulting Board during the war, to conduct experiments for the development of depth bombs. President Wilson designated Key West, Tampa and Pensacola as defensive sea areas. Men stationed in those locations utilized an array of flying machines and sea vessels to defend the coasts against enemy attack. Thankfully, no such assault occurred.
Inspection of troops on Flagler Field at Key West Naval Air Station, ca. 1917. State Archives of Florida.
After Germany’s final defeat on November 11, 1918, Florida’s troops in Europe began returning home. Six months later, in June 1919, President Wilson signed the Treaty of Versailles, which outlined the terms for post-WWI peace. For some, the heavy physical and emotional burdens of modern warfare lingered. Troops were shell-shocked by their experiences in the trenches and their exposure to chemical warfare long after their return home. Nonetheless, the war brought Floridians – many of whom would not have otherwise ventured far from their hometowns – into contact with people from other states and created perhaps the first shared national experience of the 20th century. In his first post-war address to the Florida Legislature in 1919, Governor Sidney Catts reflected on the importance of the state’s contributions to the war and described the war as an effective catalyst for “cementing our own people, as a nation, in the bonds of friendship, unity and strength.”
Floridians Who Served Over Here
Red Cross volunteers roll bandages, ca. 1917. State Archives of Florida.While tens of thousands of Floridians committed to military service during the Great War, 900,000 additional civilians made a variety of important contributions on the homefront. The war injected a renewed patriotism into Floridians’ hearts and minds. They bought liberty loans and war savings stamps, produced and conserved food, built ships, raised county militias and volunteered with service organizations like the Red Cross. Schools emphasized military training and American traditions. The 1917 Florida Legislature passed the “Flag Law” mandating that “the flag of the United States be displayed daily” in every state government and public school building. State health officials warned that “not only a future military army, but future industrial army” depended on raising healthy children.
Out of this heightened nationalism came a closer relationship between the operations of the state and federal government, but it also brought about some domestic shifts. Anti-German sentiment swept many pockets of the country, and African-Americans, searching for better job opportunities and racial tolerance, flocked en masse to northern factories. Women suffragists leveraged President Wilson’s appeal for global democracy to expose American democracy’s own shortcomings.
Future first lady of Florida Mary Call Darby Collins with her mother, Jane Brevard Darby, “knitting their bit” for the Red Cross in Tallahassee, ca. 1917. Courtesy of The Grove Museum.Between 1917 and 1918, the material and intangible sacrifices of Florida’s civilian army aided in securing Allied victory in Europe. After the armistice, the Sunshine State’s economy simultaneously benefited from increased civilian buying power brought on by post-war deflation and Florida’s new image as an untapped source of high-return real estate investments.
Eager to do their part for the future of global democracy, Floridians readily answered Washington’s national homefront directives – mostly through purchasing liberty loans and increasing food production. When Secretary of the Treasury William G. McAdoo introduced the liberty bond campaign as a way to involve all Americans in the war effort, Floridians, ambitious to show their support, went above and beyond in subscribing to liberty and victory bonds. The State Board of Education bought $50,000 worth of liberty bonds in 1918, but many others invested their money in the more inexpensive war savings stamps to support the Allies. May Mann Jennings, a former first lady of Florida, chaired the Women’s Florida Liberty Loan Committee, through which she oversaw and helped organize local war bond drives.
"Food Will Win the War"
Food became Florida’s most important contribution to the war. When the director of the U.S. Food Administration, Herbert Hoover, decreed that “food will win the war,” Floridians responded by ramping up food production in the state. Exactly one month after the U.S. entered the Great War, Governor Catts issued the “National Crisis Day” Proclamation, imploring all Floridians to make “every practical effort ... toward the increasing of food supplies in this state and in the United States.” Amid an economy saddled with inflated wartime prices of food, clothing and farm equipment, Floridians volunteered to limit their use of meat, sugar, oil, soap and gas.
All-American Sugar League broadside, ca. 1918. State Library of Florida. Florida MemoryJust as the availability of open land in Florida supported the installation of several new military bases and airfields during the war, the state’s large tracts of resource-rich terrain supported the homefront. Officials from the Florida Department of Agriculture encouraged people to fulfill their “patriotic duty” by raising their own livestock and growing beans, corn, onions and wheat for both personal consumption and exportation. Governor Catts appointed Eartha M. M. White, a social worker and businesswoman from Jacksonville, to the Farm and Food Conservation Committee. The committee urged Americans to preserve their crops via canning. Further, the University of Florida’s Agricultural Experiment Station dispatched agents to organize home demonstrations on food preservation in each county. “The real test of your work came when war was declared,” said the director of the program, Peter H. Rolfs, to his staff. Scientists also researched pest control and fertilizers in hopes of increasing food production. In order to maximize the efficient transportation of these and other supplies, U.S. Congress passed the Railway Administration Act of 1918, temporarily federalizing all railroads. This allowed for planting of crops along the railroad routes in Florida. For instance, the Seaboard Airline Railway contracted with U.S. Signal Corps to plant 10,000 acres of castor beans, which yielded oil used in the production of essential wartime products.
A sugar shortage during the war spurred the onset of large-scale sugar production in the Florida Everglades, though some of the biggest investors would not come until after the war. In 1915, the Southern States Land and Timber Company bought acreage near Lake Okeechobee, where they first experimented with sugarcane production. The company emerged as the primary sugar corporation in Florida during the war. In 1918, C. Lyman Spencer, president of the All-American Sugar League, declared that “Florida must become a sugar-producing state,” calling on Florida investors to stop importing sugar from Cuba and Europe and “convert Southern Sunshine into foodstuffs for American and European tables!”
Florida lumber helped build massive defense vessels. At a shipyard in Jacksonville, laborers set to sea 23 steamships and two concrete tankers. Shipyards in Tampa turned out 24 steel ships and four wooden ships. The Millville shipyard in Bay County produced one barge. After the Germans sunk numerous steel ships, the U.S. government called on lumber mill owners to cull north Florida’s abundant pine forests for the manufacturing of wooden ships, but many of those ships eventually fell victim to enemy destruction as well.Wooden ship construction at the Morey & Thomas shipyard- Jacksonville, Florida. 1918. Florida Memory.
Anti-German Sentiment on the Homefront
Undercurrents of social discord swelled during WWI. Fearful of German espionage, Congress passed the Trading With the Enemy Act in 1917, giving the president enormous power over foreign commerce and communications. That same year, the state legislature passed a law requiring all “aliens” to register with local police.
The profitable German-American Lumber Company in Pensacola became a target of these WWI era policies. After company president and suspected “enemy alien” H. G. Kulenkampff was arrested by authorities, his business came under control of the federal custodian of alien property, future U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. Palmer’s agency renamed the business American Lumber Company and sold its assets after the war. German American Lumber Company engine 7 at Millview, Florida. 1915. Florida Memory.In Tallahassee, the chairman of the State Board of Control called for an investigation of Florida State College for Women President Dr. Edward Conradi because of his German parentage. Hamburgers became “liberty sandwiches.” Sauerkraut became “liberty cabbage.” Teaching the German language, playing German music and even speaking in German were banned in some areas. Unsubstantiated rumors of German infiltration circulated through the state. One anonymous Florida poet vowed “not [to] trade with a German ship that lives by German law.”
Racial Inequality During the War
Whereas anti-German sentiment came and went with the war, racism in Florida persisted. Though African-Americans were permitted to donate money at war bond drives, segregation still excluded them from social events. For example, a Jacksonville militia officer prevented a group of African-Americans from participating in a 1918 rally because a white speaker was giving an address. In 1919, a lynch mob in Pace, Florida, accused African-American war veteran Bud Johnson of raping a white woman. After they burned Johnson alive at the stake, a local African-American minister opined that he would have preferred to die in Germany “rather than come back here and die by hands of the people [he] was protecting.”
Workers construct a building at the Merrill-Stevens shipyard in Jacksonville, 1917. State Archives of Florida.
For African-Americans long subjected to the economic inequality and racial violence of the Jim Crow South, increased labor needs during WWI presented new opportunities elsewhere. As early as 1916, companies like the Pennsylvania Railroad and New York Central started recruiting African-American labor in Florida. Between 1916 and 1920, over 40,000 African-Americans left Florida’s northern region, where black populations were the highest in the state. They sought higher wages and fairer treatment in northern and western industrial cities. A faction of local African-American leaders protested the migration, staying in Florida to organize for fair labor and voting rights in the South.
Guarding the Homefront
As the war carried on, tens of thousands of Floridians left the state for military service, and the charge of maintaining public safety fell on those remaining at home. After 2,000 members of the Florida National Guard federalized in early 1917, the legislature authorized each county to establish their own County, or “Home,” Guard units as temporary reserve forces.
Portrait of the Bartow Home Guards, 1918. State Archives of Florida. The law stipulated that individual county governments, not the state, held authority over the militias. An additional caveat allowed only white males between the ages of 16 and 25 to join. Four hundred eighty-four men were commissioned for duty. Except for a few incidences in Hillsborough, Suwanee and Polk counties, the guards saw little action during the war and disbanded shortly thereafter. The University of Florida, the only publicly funded higher education institution for white males in the state, offered a Reserve Officer Military Training Program for the 1918-1919 school year. State lawmakers also temporarily added basic military training classes to the high school curriculum.
Women on the Homefront
Portrait of Mary McLeod Bethune in Daytona Beach, Florida, ca. 1915. Bethune organized the Daytona Beach Chapter of the Circle of Negro War Relief that sought to encourage the work of African-American women in the war effort. State Archives of Florida.While Home Guard units limited participation to white men, Florida women of all races and social strata worked and volunteered on the homefront. Though it had a little over 100 local chapters nationwide in 1916, Red Cross membership significantly expanded to meet the demands of war, and dozens of new chapters opened in Florida by 1920. Members trained as nurses, organized liberty bond drives, knitted socks and sweaters for soldiers, rolled bandages, made comfort bags and disseminated public health information. The Junior Red Cross opened numerous branches at grammar schools in Florida, giving children the opportunity to do their part in the war as well.
Every Monday, the Jacksonville chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union delivered flowers, cans and prohibition literature to soldiers in training at Camp Johnston. They did the same for the families of fallen veterans and even went so far as to provide books and other resources in support of “trench war orphan[s].” The Young Women’s Christian Association established 50 “hostess houses” at training camps throughout the country, including one at Camp Johnston and one at Carlstrom Airfield. Hostesses created a homey yet structured environment for soldiers to meet with their “sweethearts” and other family members.Y.W.C.A. Hostess House at Camp Johnston in Jacksonville, Florida, ca. 1918. State Archives of Florida.
The women’s club movement in Florida also organized in support of the war. Their contributions mirrored much of the Red Cross’ initiatives, though they focused less on medical training and more on social action. May Mann Jennings headed the Florida Federation of Women’s Clubs during the war.
In Tallahassee, the Florida State College for Women hired the school’s first dietician to address food shortages and develop strategies Portrait of Jacksonville educator, philanthropist, and businesswoman Eartha White with her mother, Clara White, ca. 1910. State Archives of Florida.for conservation. New courses in canning, nursing and knitting were added to the curriculum, and all students participated in on-campus liberty loan drives.
Mary McLeod Bethune presided over the segregated Florida Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs from 1917-1924. Eartha White chaired this state club organization and also worked with the War Camp Community Service, which provided recreation and other services to soldiers. At a meeting of the Council on National Defense at the White House, Eartha White was the only African-American in attendance. Though met with lukewarm response, African-American women like White and Bethune organized efforts to integrate black nurses into white Red Cross units.
Prior to the war, men dominated factory and retail jobs, but with a significant portion of them deployed, women took those traditionally male positions. During this period, Florida organizers Bethune and White recognized the particular vulnerabilities of African-American women doing the “unfamiliar work of elevator girls, bell girls in hotels, and chauffeurs.” The pair established the Mutual Protection League for Working Girls to advocate for the labor interests of young African-American working women during the war. Cited as a direct “byproduct of war,” the Florida-based program was so successful that one observer suggested it become a model for “every city and hamlet in the country.”
Fighting for Suffrage
Whether they were working for wages or mobilizing volunteers, women in Florida experienced an increased level of public visibility due to their homefront efforts during WWI. Since 1913, the Florida Equal Suffrage Association had repeatedly, but unsuccessfully, lobbied the state legislature for the vote. In the summer of 1917, 10 members of the National Woman’s Party, including Mary Nolan of Jacksonville, picketed in front of the White House. Playing into President Wilson’s WWI rhetoric of global democracy, their signs asked, “How long must women wait for liberty?” When police arrested Nolan and the other protesters, the Florida suffragist confessed, “I am guilty if there is any guilt in demanding freedom.” Women from all over the country continued to agitate and organize for suffrage. In 1920, the 19th amendment became law and granted voting rights to white women – poll taxes, literacy tests and voter intimidation would effectively disenfranchise the majority of Florida’s African-American population until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.