World War II: Our Greatest Generation Remembers Life in Delray Beach

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World War II was the most significant event in modern Florida. Delray Beach was one of many coastal towns swept into a frightening sense of vulnerability and united patriotism all at the same time. The war unleashed the greatest economic boom in American history and Florida’s underdeveloped economy surged, leading to rebuilding and growth after the Great Depression. War contracts revived the state’s agricultural and manufacturing sectors, while tourism thrived. An explosive growth of military establishments produced the nearby Boca Raton Army Airfield. Our warm climate and abundance of vacant land made it an ideal location. The US Navy and the Army’s Signal Corps developed new techniques for airborne radar and airplanes came from all over the country to have this radar installed in Boca Raton. Eight hundred buildings were constructed for academic and military training and four runways provided pilot training on B-17’s. Imogene Walker Morgan, long time resident of Delray Beach, recalls that two days after graduating high school, she went to work as a teletype operator for the Western Union located in the Sun Trust Bank building on Atlantic Avenue. Messages were sent in code from the Boca Airfield and relayed to their destination. “They were sent twice to make sure they were correct. Local messages were delivered by boys on bicycles but notices of death of a serviceman were delivered by us in person,” recalls Imogene. With the population surge in Boca Raton, servicemen and their families flocked to Delray Beach in search of housing. Delray Beach became a hubbub of activity and booming business. Bob’s Famous Bar, The Arcade Taproom, The Patio Delray, The Delray Bowling Arcade and the USO Club became safe harbors from the chaos of war. Delray Beach residents expressed an outpouring of patriotic gestures and participated in numerous volunteer activities. They recycled scrap metal for war materials, planted victory gardens, rolled bandages, endured blackouts and ration coupons. Window flags bearing a blue star meant a son was in the military and a gold star carried the somber news of a family’s supreme sacrifice. Delray Beach’s Dr. Fred Love remembers, “We saved, we mended, we polished and we made do to support our boys in the service.” Fred left his studies at Vanderbilt to serve four years in the service, returning home as a Navy Captain. During his leaves he worked in his family’s store, Doc Love’s Drugstore. He recalls, “In order to buy new toothpaste in the store, you had to bring in your old metal tube. Everyone participated in metal drives. School children collected tin foil wrappers and formed them into big balls to contribute to the area metal drives too.” The Delray Beach USO (United Service Organization) Club, sponsored by the YMCA, was organized on September 19, 1942 and eventually settled in a building on SE 4th Avenue. More than 500 men, woman and girls volunteered to serve the needs of enlisted servicemen and provide a “home away from home.” For close to six years it entertained, guided and inspired nearly 700,000 servicemen. There were dances, beach parties, movies, plays and the opportunity to study history, Spanish and handicrafts. A sixteen-year-old Jo Neal (wife of Vic Neal of Delray Beach’s famous Neal’s Farm Market) performed in a local USO Camp Show in luxury hotels and hospitals, which had been transformed into military facilities. She and a group of 33 teenagers, which included another Delray Beach beauty named Gloria Gove Allen, remembers the evening when they were asked to take their act on the road! “It’s rumored that this all came about because Eleanor Roosevelt was in the audience one night and loved our show. She went back to the White House and told her husband and he made our traveling show happen,” says Jo. They preformed for the USO in 38 different states. For the four years of World War II, military personnel patrolled the beach on horseback and citizens of Delray Beach volunteered to watch the beach and ocean 24 hours a day from the faux bell tower atop the Seacrest Hotel. Peppy Smith Johnson remembers, “Delray Beach high school students were recruited and trained by the US Coast Guard to be plane spotters, learning the shapes and insignias of every plane. We took four-hour shifts atop the hotel armed with binoculars, ready to call the assigned telephone number if they spotted a plane!” Peppy eventually married Lt. James Johnson and today at 90, she still delivers her famous “Mrs. Johnson’s Banana Bread” to local businesses in Delray Beach. German Submarines or U-boats preyed off the coast of Florida, including Delray Beach. Their mission was to disrupt the delivery of supplies by sinking allied tankers and freighters. The Germans sank a total of 24 ships in Florida and there are reports of burning ships sighted off the coast of Delray Beach. Nineteen-year-old Ed George, whose family owned A. George and Sons on Atlantic Avenue, was one of the strongest and best swimmers in the region. When the US Coast Guard learned of Ed’s talents, they hired him to swim offshore into the Atlantic to search for evidence of enemy submarines. He served his country throughout the war as a singular, swimming patrol off the beaches from Boynton to Deerfield. The 1940s came to a close with America, particularly Florida, moving into prosperous times. After the war ended and the soldiers came home, America began to recover. It was a time of celebration with the economy back on its feet, jobs plentiful and families reunited. Perhaps one of the greatest legacies of World War II was that it exposed Florida to the vast cross-population of millions who passed through the state and Delray Beach. In a Gallup Poll at the end of the war, for the first time, Americans ranked Florida as the place they would most like to live if they moved. They came to the state to sun themselves, to play and ultimately to live. The postwar explosion had begun in our Village By The Sea.