Florida offers a treasury of World War II museums and sites, both to serious researchers and the casual history buff.
By Jon Wilson
As the anniversary of the war-ending VJ Day is recognized Aug. 15, followed by the commemoration of Japan’s official surrender on Sept. 2, 1945, expect another flare of interest in history’s widest global conflict.
World War II museums, monuments and archives are available around the state. From deep-research repositories to simple roadside markers, floating museums to fighting aircraft, Florida sites provide a picture of a war that claimed an estimated 45 to 60 million lives.
Reflected are stories of an entire world at war, but also of the Sunshine State’s role and its heroes.
Well-known as well are the museum and park at Camp Blanding near Starke, the Jacksonville Naval Air Station’s memorial aircraft park and the Pensacola Naval Air Station Museum with its restored airplanes, movies and a flight simulator. (Note: Admission to the museum is currently limited to Department of Defense ID cardholders and their guests, and veterans with a Veterans Health Identification Card.)
But dozens of lesser-known World War II museum exhibits, galleries, libraries and memorials are found throughout the state. A good place to find both the high-profile exhibits and the lesser-known spots is the Department of State’s Florida’s World War II Heritage Trail.
Here’s a list of a few of the less obvious opportunities for absorbing World War II history:
- In Tampa, the SS American Victory is docked at 708 Channelside Drive. This floating museum is one of 414 Victory ships built to carry cargo. Tours show off much of the original equipment aboard.
- In Fort Pierce, the UDT-SEAL Museum is on the site where World War II Navy frogmen trained. It shows off many of the period’s artifacts.
- In Arcadia, Oak Ridge Cemetery contains the remains of 23 British RAF pilots who died in Florida during training. A ceremony for them is held each Memorial Day. Another memorial honoring British cadets is in Clewiston’s Civic Center Park.
- In Stuart, The House of Refuge at Gilbert’s Bar features a museum with permanent exhibits, photographs and a map identifying American ships sunk by Nazi U-boats. During the war, the site was a naval and Coast Guard base to repel hostile submarines and aircraft.
- In Avon Park, a museum in the old Seaboard railway station has World War II scrapbooks, uniforms, photos and artifacts.
- In Orlando, a Battle of the Bulge Memorial downtown at Lake Eola Park honors participants in the battle, which cost more American lives than any other operation in the war. This unusual memorial has a statue of a victorious soldier on a base with the insignias of the 41 infantry and armored units that took part in the fight. Bulge veterans are recognized with named bricks in a Circle of Honor.
- In Altoona, the McTureous Homestead and Museum honors Medal of Honor winner Robert M. McTureous Jr., who was mortally wounded on Okinawa. A genuine Florida hero, McTureous was originally classified 4F but financed two operations to correct a physical problem before he was allowed to join the Marines.
- In DeLand, the Naval Air Station Museum features aircraft models and parts, practice bombs, ammunition, historical newspapers, books, photos and a video.
- In Monticello, the Ernest “Boots” Thomas memorial honors Thomas, who led the patrol that raised the first (and famously depicted) American flag on Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima.
- In Tallahassee, the Institute on World War II and the Human Experience is a researchers’ dream that offers personal diaries, newspapers, photos and other memorabilia relating to the everyday experiences of WWII participants. The Florida State archives also has WWII resources.
- In Miami, the HistoryMiami (formerly the Historical Museum of Southern Florida) contains a huge collection of photos, posters and period maps relating to South Florida’s role in the war.
- In Miami Beach, the Jewish Museum of Florida has a permanent exhibit entitled “Florida Jews in the Military,” with WWII references.
- In Fort Lauderdale, the Naval Air Station was the training site for future President George Herbert Walker Bush, and is best known for being home base for the “Lost Patrol,” five TBM Avengers that, with their pilots, were mysteriously lost on a training run in 1945.