Fighter jets soared across Sarasota Bay and swooped down on Longboat Key, firing guns and .50-calliber bullets at their targets.
Art Ferguson remembers the site as a thrilling one for a teenage boy. It was World War II, and although his family had moved from the Village to the mainland, they often returned on weekends.
People planned their schedules around the military drills. Before the drills, the military would block off a section of the Key, near where Gulfshore of Longboat Key stands today, and keep it closed for a couple of hours. When the drills were finished, Ferguson and his friends often headed out to the beach. One time, they found a machine gun and the wing of an airplane that had crashed. Often, they would find the bullets that had separated from their brass casings and would put them back together. Gulf of Mexico Drive was named Longbeach Road back then. The Army seldom removed the bullet casings after they pounded down on Longbeach Road. Cars ran them over, and they became blended in with the asphalt.
“At night, the road would kind of sparkle with the .50-caliber machine gun casings,” Ferguson said.
The Key also had an emergency landing strip.
Today, few people know about the Longboat Key Bombing and Gunnery Range, used from 1942 to 1946 by fighter pilots assigned to the 717th base unit at Sarasota Army Airfield. Recently, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers advertised that it was seeking information from the public about the former training area.
According to Amanda Ellison, outreach coordinator with the Corps of Engineers, the Longboat Key site was one of 9,000 sites nationwide, 700 of which are in Florida, that were used for military training during World War II. In the 1980s, Congress voted to create the Military Munitions Response Program to study defense sites that could contain suspected ordnance, discarded military munitions and/or munitions constituents.
There was evidence of munitions on Longboat Key — but it wasn’t considered a high priority on the list of sites to be inspected. But through public input, the Corps of Engineers can get both a better historic understanding of the site and the types of weapons that were used.
On June 3, the Corps of Engineers visited the site to take water and soil samples. The samples did not reveal evidence of hazards. The process is now in its inspection phase.
According to Kent Chetlain, Florida historian and journalist and real-estate columnist for The Longboat Observer, the site was most likely selected because it was flat, undeveloped and close to the Sarasota Army Air Force base.
“They wanted them to train at low altitudes,” Chetlain said. “Longboat Key is ideal, because it was flat, and there aren’t a lot of trees, especially at mid-Key.”
Training fighter pilots strafed the mid-Key area, along with some nearby mangrove islands.
The military also dropped bombs in the area.
Chetlain recalls writing an article about a fisherman in Cortez whose boat hit a bomb during the war years and exploded.
World War II ended in 1945, and, just three years later, mobile homes began lining the mid-Key area where pilots once trained before heading off to war.
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