The Coming of War
With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, the United States entered into World War II. As the massive effort of converting the country to a wartime footing began, Florida became a vital resource to the nation. The results of Florida’s involvement would change the state forever. Over the course of four years, Florida grew from a small, mostly rural and agricultural state into a massive industrial and training area preparing men and materiel for the war. Instead of tourists, Florida was soon filled with recruits. Many of these servicemen and women returned to the Sunshine State when the war was over, contributing to the State’s growth.
Florida's weather conditions, flat land, and miles of accessible coastline made it ideal for the building of military training bases, especially for aviation and amphibious landing operations. By 1942, Florida had over 172 military installations, ranging from relatively small specialty camps to extremely large bases. Camp Blanding near Starke became Florida's fourth largest city, growing to 180,000 acres and housing 55,000 soldiers at a time. There were forty airfields actively training military personnel throughout the state. Likewise, Naval Stations and Airfields lined the coast from Pensacola in the panhandle to the newly built Mayport Naval Station near Jacksonville. Many of these sites are still active military installations today. Others have been transformed and are now the core of Florida’s State Park system.
The war effort sent large amounts of money into Florida, which led to rebuilding and growth after the devastation of the Great Depression. War contracts helped to rebuild Florida's manufacturing, agricultural, and tourism businesses. Defense contracts boosted industry and revitalized Florida cities. Florida's nickname almost changed from the Sunshine State to the Steel State. Florida's citrus industry also thrived. In 1942, Florida became the top citrus producing state in the country, surpassing California for the first time. Florida citrus growers patented a new process to create frozen concentrated orange juice. The cotton industry increased its profits. In 1945, researchers in Orlando discovered an insecticide, DDT, which became available for commercial use. The drawback was that the chemical's long-term effects had not yet been tested, and it would later have a negative impact on Florida's wildlife and agricultural industries. The war also changed the appearance of Florida cities with a surge in urban population. The boom had begun.
With the rebuilding of industry, jobs were plentiful, but most men were off fighting in the war. Because of this, World War II provided the opportunity for American women to show they could handle a man's job. In Florida, women worked in shipyards, welding shops, and military bases. Women also helped run the agriculture industry, where they made up one fourth of all farm workers. In addition to providing the necessary work force needed during the war, women bought war bonds and volunteered as nurses, fire fighters, and even police officers.
The War Comes to St. Augustine
Local youth were being shipped off to the dangerous corners of the world, but until August of 1942, when The U. S. Coast Guard took over several local hotels, the direct impact of war on St. Augustine had been limited. The Ponce de Leon Hotel (now Flagler College) was converted into a Coast Guard barracks and boot camp, where young men learned the art of war. At any given time, as many 2,500 guardsmen were stationed in St. Augustine. Matanzas Bay was filled with zigzagging boats on maneuver. Even the famous protector of early St. Augustine, the Castillo de San Marcos, played an important part in the Coast Guard's war time role. “The vast grounds of the Fort area were in daily use by boot training companies and here thousands learned close order drill with as many as eight companies deployed there on most days," reported a local newspaperman. The Coast Guard also received permission from the National Park Service to turn four of the Castillo’s casemates into classrooms and use the courtyard for graduation ceremonies.