Military Training Sites and World War II Museums in Florida
By Jon Wilson
Warm weather, plenty of rugged, empty land and miles of beaches for troops to practice storming ashore made Florida a top military training site during World War II.
Starting in the 1930s and continuing through the war years of 1941-1945, nearly 200 military installations were established in Florida. Some can be visited today and a few have museums on site.
In Carrabelle, Camp Gordon Johnston, named for a Congressional Medal of Honor winner, Spanish-American War Rough Rider and World War I participant, provided military training for as many as 30,000 soldiers across its 165,000 acres.
Carrabelle also boasts the Camp Gordon Johnston Museum, said to be the only Florida museum dedicated solely to World War II. Its seven rooms contain weapons, uniforms, flags, magazines, newspapers and life-size models of a barracks room and a medical treatment facility. Two theaters show a documentary about the war and movies such as “Tora, Tora, Tora” and “12 O’Clock High.”
Officials are planning to move this WWII museum in Florida to a new building and are raising money for its construction.
Another huge installation was Camp Blanding, near Starke. During the war, Camp Blanding became Florida’s fourth-largest city, with 55,000 soldiers at a time spread over 180,000 acres, including the Army airfield. The old site features a museum and park that contain military memorabilia and memorials honoring nine Army infantry divisions and the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, all of which trained at the camp. Other monuments honor recipients of the Medal of Honor, Purple Heart and former prisoners of war.
An hour’s drive away is the Jacksonville Naval Air Station, established in 1940 after the land had served as a military training site for the Army and National Guard.
During the war, more than 700 buildings went up, including a hospital and a prisoner-of-war compound which held 1,500 captured German soldiers. Today the base is the Navy’s third-largest behind San Diego, Calif. and Norfolk, Va. A memorial aircraft park displays more than a dozen vintage aircraft.
Other northeast Florida military training sites with museums:
- Home to Lee Field during the war, Green Cove Springs has the Military Museum of North Florida.
- DeLand’s old Naval Air Station site, where bomber and fighter pilots trained, offers a museum in a restored former residence.
Here’s a quick look at a few other places where troops trained and that now offer WWII museums in Florida:
- The Pensacola Naval Air Station trained 1,100 fledgling pilots per month during World War II. The museum features restored aircraft, movies and flight simulators.
- Navy frogmen – the underwater demolition specialists – trained in Fort Pierce. The Navy SEAL Museum there records their exploits.
- The Air Museum in Kissimmee recalls the training and operational missions of several units based there. Some searched for Nazi U-boats in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico.
- P-40 fighters and B-17 bombers filled the skies over the Naples Army Airfield and Buckingham Army Airfield east of Fort Myers. WWII aviation is highlighted at the Museum of Military Memorabilia.
- More than 20,000 women received military training for the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps – later simply the Women’s Army Corps – in Daytona Beach. They are commemorated in an exhibit in the Florida Museum of History in Tallahassee.
- Numerous grand hotels still operating served as quarters for the military, among them the Vinoy in St. Petersburg, the Ponce de Leon in St. Augustine and The Breakers in Palm Beach.
Photos by State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory