Famous Figures in Florida’s World War II Heritage

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Alexander Ramsey Nininger Jr.

1918-1942

"Sandy" Nininger earned, posthumously, the first Medal of Honor awarded to an American serviceman in World War II. Born in Atlanta in 1918, Nininger graduated from Fort Lauderdale’s Central High School in 1937 and entered the United States Military Academy at West Point. After graduation, he was posted to the 57th U. S. Infantry Regiment, Philippine Scouts. When the war began, Nininger joined a company of General MacArthur’s defensive force in the Philippines. When troops became isolated on the Bataan peninsula, he took command of a detachment sent to clear out Japanese troops who had infiltrated the American lines. Nininger and his soldiers attacked and destroyed several enemy positions with rifles and grenades. Despite being wounded three times, "he continued his attacks until he was pushing alone far within the enemy position. When his body was found after recapture of the position, one enemy officer and two enemy soldiers lay dead around him.

Colin P. Kelly Jr.

1915-1941

Colin P. Kelly, Jr. of Madison died just three days after the American entry into World War II and posthumously received a Distinguished Service Cross (DSC). A 1937 graduate of West Point, Kelly was a B-17 pilot stationed in the Philippines in December 1941. On Dec. 10, his plane was sent on a bombing mission to sink the battleship Haruna. Kelly's plane might have bombed a large transport or light cruiser, but neither sank. While returning to Clark Field, a Japanese fighter severely damaged Kelly’s plane. He ordered his crew to bail out, but he was unable to exit the plane before it crashed. In the rush to publicize a rare American victory, the details of Kelly's sacrifice were misconstrued. Many Americans believed that he had received the Medal of Honor and some reports indicated that he had crashed his plane deliberately into the Haruna. In reality, Kelly received the DSC because of the belief that he had damaged or destroyed the Haruna, and because he stayed with his damaged plane until his crew bailed out.

Daniel "Chappie" James, Jr.

1920-1978

A Pensacola native, "Chappie" James became the first black four-star general in American military history in 1976. He served with the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II, and his illustrious career included 101 combat missions as a fighter pilot in Korea and 78 more in Vietnam. He was decorated for valor and air tactics. As commanding officer of the U.S. Air Force base in Libya, and wearing a .45-caliber automatic stuffed under his belt, he confronted the new dictator, Moammar Khadafy, at the front gate and forced his withdrawal. Khadafy had intended to seize the base with his half-tracks. In the late 1970s, the General was sought out as a potential candidate for lieutenant governor of Florida but died of a heart attack a few weeks after his retirement.

David McCampbell

1910-1996

Navy Pilot David McCampbell of West Palm Beach was one of seven native or adopted Floridians to receive the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award for heroism. McCampbell was the top scoring ace to survive the war, achieving 34 aerial victories. Born in Bessemer, Alabama, and raised in West Palm Beach, at thirteen he left home to attend the Staunton Military Academy in Virginia, and later Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. He was appointed to the U.S. Naval Academy in 1929 by Senator P. Trammell of Florida. He later returned to Florida for training at the Pensacola Naval Air Station. McCampbell also received the Navy Cross, the Silver Star Medal, Legion of Merit, and the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Donald Roebling

1908-1958

Donald Roebling, son of a wealthy New York industrialist, designed a revolutionary amphibious vehicle that helped win the war in the Pacific. Named the "Alligator," the Navy later christened it the Landing Vehicle Tracked, or LVT. A later version was nicknamed the "Water Buffalo." Eventually more than 15,000 of the vehicles were produced. In the early 1930s, Roebling began work on an amphibious tracked vehicle that could be used to rescue survivors of floods and hurricanes. Roebling spent eight years perfecting his design, with initial development taking place at Dunedin. Propelled by tractor treads, the vehicle could travel 25 miles per hour on land and 10 at sea. The military value of the machine was obvious. In 1939 he demonstrated the Alligator to Marine Corps officials, who recommended purchasing a vehicle for further testing and in 1940 funds were appropriated to purchase a prototype. The first models were delivered to the military shortly before Pearl Harbor. The vehicle was first used at Guadalcanal. During the course of the war newer versions were produced with improved specifications and a variety of armaments. Roebling refused royalties for the Alligator design, returning $4,000 to the government.

Ernest "Boots" Thomas

1924-1945

Monticello resident Ernest "Boots" Thomas led the patrol that planted the first American flag on Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi during the ferocious battle of early 1945. Unfortunately, this achievement would be overshadowed by a second flag raising later the same day. "Boots" Thomas graduated from Monticello High School in 1941 and enlisted in the Marine Corps in May 1942. His first combat was at Iwo Jima, the small, strategically vital island south of Japan. Thomas was a member of the 28th Regiment of the Fifth Marine Division, which captured Mount Suribachi. On February 23, 1945, Thomas led a platoon sent to raise an American flag on its summit, an event photographed by Sergeant Louis Lowery of Leatherneck magazine. Later that day, a larger flag was raised, and the first flag carefully preserved. This second flag raising was immortalized by Joe Rosenthal in what became perhaps the most famous image of the Pacific War. Thomas was later killed in action on Iwo Jima. His family received the Navy Cross he had been awarded for his service. A monument honoring Thomas and the forgotten Marines who raised the first flag over Mount Suribachi was placed in Monticello in 1981, along Highway 90, Washington Street.

General Joseph W. Stilwell

1883-1946

The highest-ranking officer from Florida to serve in World War II, General Joseph W. Stilwell commanded American forces in the China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater for much of the war. Stilwell’s father was a New York native who in the early 1880s moved his family to Florida and ran a lumber business near Palatka. Joseph W. Stilwell was born on March 19, 1883. The boy subsequently lived with his family in Massachusetts and New York. He graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1904. Stilwell served several tours in the Philippines and first visited China, beginning his long association with that country. He served in France during World War I, earning the Distinguished Service Medal. Following the outbreak of hostilities with Japan, Stilwell was ordered to China as chief of staff to Chiang Kai-Shek and to command American forces in the CBI. With the defeat of allied forces in Burma in 1942, the general won fame for his dramatic "walk-out" to India and his frank comments on conditions in the CBI. Over the next two years "Vinegar Joe" served in a number of demanding positions which forced him to perform as a diplomat as well as soldier. His relationship with Chiang deteriorated, and in October 1944, Stillwell was recalled. The Florida native died in 1946.

Jacqueline Cochran

1906-1980

Aviator Jacqueline Cochran was born in 1906 near Pensacola. In the early 1920s, while working at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York City as a beautician, she met her future husband Floyd Bostwick Odlum, who encouraged her to learn to fly. By the 1930s, she had established herself as one of America’s leading female pilots, winning the transcontinental Bendix Race in 1938. In July 1941, Cochran went to London to observe how England was using women pilots. On her return to the U.S., President Roosevelt asked her to find ways to use female pilots in the U.S. Army Air Corps. The following summer, Cochran returned to Britain with 25 American women who helped ferry planes for the British Air Transport Auxiliary. Soon, General Henry "Hap" Arnold asked her to establish a program to train American women to fly. In August 1943, Cochran formed the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs). Although it was a civilian organization, Cochran and her pilots trained B-17 turret gunners and staff pilots, test-flew airplanes and ferried planes across the county. The WASP program was dismantled in December 1944.

James Alward Van Fleet

1892-1992

James Van Fleet was born in New Jersey in 1892, after his family moved north from Polk County to escape a yellow fever epidemic. The Van Fleets returned to Polk County in 1893. Van Fleet graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1915. He participated in the Mexican Punitive Expedition and fought in France during WWI with the 6th Infantry Division. During the 1920s and 30s, he led the ROTC detachment at the University of Florida, and in 1923-1924 he was head coach of the University of Florida football team. In 1941, Van Fleet took command of the 8th Infantry Regiment, which he led ashore on D-Day and throughout the Normandy Campaign. Van Fleet rose to brigadier general and was assistant commander of the 2nd Infantry Division. He then commanded the 4th and the 90th Infantry Divisions before ending the war as a major general in command of the III Corps. In 1951, he was placed in command of the Eighth Army and of United Nations troops in Korea. Van Fleet retired in 1953 at the rank of full general. He died at his ranch near Polk City in September 1992 at the age of 100.

Mary McLeod Bethune

1875-1955

The daughter of former slaves, Mary McLeod was born in South Carolina in 1875, and educated in North Carolina and Chicago. She married Albertus Bethune in 1898. After teaching in Georgia and Florida, she established the Daytona Normal and Industrial School, which merged with Jacksonville’s Cookman Institute, and became known as Bethune-Cookman College. Bethune served as president of the four-year, coeducational institution from the 1920s to 1942, and from 1946 to 1947, remaining on the college’s board until her death in 1955. In 1935 Bethune founded the National Council of Negro Women, and in 1936 was appointed by President Roosevelt as director of the National Youth Administration’s Division of Negro Affairs. During World War II, Bethune mobilized support for the war effort, promoting war bond drives and serving as a special assistant to the Secretary of War for the Women’s Army Corps. Bethune was instrumental in the selection of Daytona Beach as the site of a major WAC training base in the United States. She later served as a consultant to the American delegation during the 1945 San Francisco conference which established the United Nations.

Millard Caldwell

1897-1984

In 1945, Millard Caldwell succeeded Spessard Holland as governor in the closing months of World War II. Born near Knoxville, Tenn., in 1897, Caldwell arrived in Florida during the 1920s. He served in both the Florida and the United State House of Representatives before running for governor. After close victories in the 1944 Democratic primaries, he easily defeated Republican Bert Acker in the general election and took office in January 1945. Caldwell subsequently oversaw Florida’s explosive postwar development and served as President of the Council of State Governments. In 1962, he was appointed a justice on the Florida Supreme Court and was elected Chief Justice in 1967. Caldwell died in Tallahassee in 1984.

Robert M. McTureous Jr.

1924-1945

Ultimately a Medal of Honor recipient, Robert M. McTureous, Jr. was originally classified as 4F by his local draft board. McTureous personally financed two operations to correct a physical condition which, once corrected, altered his draft status. Private McTureous enlisted in the Marines in 1944 and was mortally wounded June 7, 1945, on Okinawa. The Medal of Honor citation reads, "By his fearless initiative and bold tactics (Private McTureous)… succeeded in neutralizing the enemy fire, killing six Japanese troops and effectively disorganizing the remainder of the savagely defended garrison." He is buried in the Glendale Cemetery in Umatilla. His boyhood home, an early Cracker home in Altoona on State Road 19, is now the McTureous Homestead and Museum. His Medal of Honor is exhibited at the Lake County 

Roy Stanley Geiger

1885-1947

Roy Stanley Geiger was born in Middleburg on Jan. 25, 1885, and attended the Florida State Normal School in DeLand before enrolling in Stetson University. He received his LL.B. degree in 1907 and briefly practiced law before enlisting in the United States Marine Corps where he was quickly commissioned as second lieutenant. By 1916 he had returned to Florida for completion of the Navy aviator’s course at Pensacola. He served in World War I as part of the First Marine Aviation Force and earned a Navy Cross. After the war, Geiger was director of Marine Corps Aviation, and by the late 1930s commanded Marine Air Group One. With the outbreak of World War II, Geiger was sent to the Pacific, where he commanded the famous "Cactus Air Force" on Guadalcanal during late 1942. After staff duty in Washington, Geiger led Amphibious Corps I and III at Bougainville, Guam, Peleliu and Okinawa. After the death of U.S. Army General Simon B. Buckner, Geiger was temporarily placed in command of the 10th Army, marking the first time that a Marine general had been given command of a field army

Spessard Holland

1892-1971

Spessard Holland served as Florida’s governor during most of World War II. A native of Bartow, he had been in the air service in France during World War I, earning the Distinguished Service Cross. After the war, Holland began a political career. He won the 1940 Democratic primaries, and faced no organized Republican opposition in the general election. During World War II, Holland oversaw the activities of the State Defense Council, which administered all civil defense activities within the state. Holland also worked with the Federal government in the establishment of dozens of military installations throughout the state. His term ended in January 1945. In 1946, he was appointed to the U.S. Senate, a position he held until 1971.

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