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Professor Gary Mormino speaks to the Longboat Key Historical Society. Photo by Robin Hartill.
Longboat Key Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013 4 years ago

Historical Society recalls Florida's World War II past

by: Robin Hartill Managing Editor

Evey Huntington rode with a car full of teens on V-J Day, aka Victory Over Japan Day, in 1945, to downtown Sarasota.

A boy held up a girl so that she could take a recruiter’s sign off of a recruitment station.

“The police came and took all of us to the courthouse for trying to steal government property,” said Huntington, who said that police let them go.

Huntington shared the memory when Gary Mormino, the Frank E. Duckwall professor of history at the University of South Florida and co-director of its Florida Studies program, spoke to the Longboat Key Historical Society Jan. 17. At the end of his presentation about Florida during World War II, he asked members for any joyous V-J Day stories.

Most audience members were old enough to remember World War II. But to most of Mormino’s students, it is a distant event.

He often tells them that someday within their lifetimes, perhaps in 2025 or 2030, they’ll see a headline that reads: “Last World War II vet dies.”

Much of Mormino’s presentation focused on headlines from Florida newspapers during World War II.

The headline of the extra edition of the St. Petersburg Times from Dec. 7, 1941, had the words “Japan officially declares” in black on one line of the front page with the word “WAR” emblazoned in giant bold red, its letters so large that it took up nearly one-third of the page.

The newspaper publisher told Mormino that he was expecting something major to happen at the time and had been storing red ink for it.

Many of the headlines showed the patriotism of an era.

There was a Tampa Tribune photo featuring two children sitting under a Christmas tree with a portrait of their father in uniform and a flag. Mormino recently tracked down both children and learned that their father made it home from the war.

Florida kept its identity as a tourist state during the war, according to Mormino.

Officials promoted it as “an ideal vacation spot for American defense workers.”

The military used many of the state’s famed hotels during the war, including the Don Cesar, on St. Pete Beach, and the former Ponce De Leon Hotel, in St. Augustine. Both Sarasota and Bradenton had military bases during the war.

Fighter planes often flew over the Key during training exercises. But the Key was most likely the setting for some of the more idyllic scenes of the era.

“(The recruits) probably took their girlfriends for picnics on the beach, vowing to return someday,” Mormino said.

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