Carrabelle's Camp Gordon Johnston: Rehearsal for WWII Invasions
The Amphibious Training Center readied soldiers headed into battle at Normandy and the Philippines.
Vivian Hess smiles as she recalls the military police who routinely met her after school and drove her, often in an amphibious Jeep, to her parents' workplace, the base post office at Camp Gordon Johnston in northwest Florida.
The youngster, who had moved from Tallahassee to Carrabelle in 1942 when her father became the camp's postmaster, often persuaded the burly soldiers to take a brief detour into coastal water where a quarter-million men trained.
In third grade when she arrived at the camp, Vivian spent her after-school hours in the MP's day room. She became friends with many of the soldiers and daily wrote – and sent chewing gum – to several after their departures.
Later, she met German and Italian POWs, who were imprisoned at the camp in the latter years of World War II. Among those prisoners was Hermann Josef Blumhardt, who baked her 11th birthday cake and delivered it via Jeep to the beach where her party was held. (Years later, the two reunited during a camp reunion.)
A secret place whose activities Vivian had been admonished never to discuss, the Amphibious Training Center readied soldiers headed into battle at Normandy and the Philippines. With 20 miles of coastline, the Florida site was similar to what the men would encounter half a world away.
"At the time, we didn't realize that this would be that important," Vivian recalled as she sat in the Camp Gordon Johnston World War II Museum that began in 1998 to remember the camp, its soldiers and, eventually, all veterans.
Vivian left the 165-acre camp soon after its closing in April 1946. She returns on occasion to visit a place that lingers as a defining time in the history of Carrabelle, known today for fishing, birding, beaches and sunsets. The town bustles annually on the second weekend in March when the museum hosts a reunion and parade honoring veterans of all wars.
Mother of three and a retired nurse, Vivian donated several items to the museum that today is housed in four rooms of the town's former, red-brick high school. Among those is a photograph of herself as a young girl standing with her parents, the late Katie and Henry Matthews. She also contributed a red patch given to her by Gen. Omar Bradley, who had taken the 28th Division to the camp.
Bradley, the camp's commanding officer, once stopped to offer Vivian a ride. "I didn't know him so I wouldn't ride with him," she recalled, reporting that Gen. Bradley told her parents about her wisdom in not climbing into a stranger's car. She later accompanied him as he oversaw soldiers training for one of the most critical battles of World War II.
"I remember him being very intent," she said, adding that when Bradley departed, he ripped a red insignia from his jacket and gave it to her. That patch is among a growing collection at the museum that began with a handful of items and has, under the leadership of Linda Minochelo, become a significant repository of memorabilia, including uniforms, mess kits, enemy flags, battlefield souvenirs, letters, photographs and recorded personal histories – even an amphibious vehicle similar to ones soldiers used for training.
"The soldiers trained every day in my front yard," said Hess, who lives today in Tallahassee, 60 miles north of the former camp where alligators, rattlesnakes, wild hogs and mosquitoes were nemeses for the thousands of soldiers who trained there. Bradley, she recalled, once said that whoever opened the camp should be court-martialed. For the soldiers, living conditions were primitive, she explained, pointing out a re-created, dirt-floored bunk that is part of the museum.
As training soldiers stomped from amphibious vessels, they sloshed through the waters at Carrabelle Bay and slithered across the main street in front of her home, she said. Her parents slowed their car to allow the soldiers to pass.
Looking around at the museum, she said, "My parents would be so happy that the memories are being preserved of those brave young men who trained here so long ago."
If you go...
Admission is free (donations are appreciated) to the museum, which is open Monday through Thursday from 1 to 4 p.m., Friday from noon to 4 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. For information, call 850-697-8575.
For more information about Florida’s military history, visit vivaflorida.org/Explore/Victory-Florida