7: WAR YEARS
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On Sunday, December 7, 1941, as I was riding down First Street South in Jacksonville Beach, the news came over my
radio . . . "The Japanese have bombed Pearl
Harbor!" It struck
me hard but not nearly so hard as it did later when we finally
found out what war was all about—first hand. It was hard to
believe that was happening to us. We had always had so much
confidence in our Navy. History records that one battleship almost wiped out the Spanish Navy before breakfast, and here
we were with much of our Navy wiped out in one stroke. That
was many thousands of miles away and we were not as concerned as we might have been if it had been closer to our home.
We were awakened one night some time later by a terrible
blast. As we looked out to sea, a submarine surfaced and began
shelling the tanker it had torpedoed with tracer shells. I believe
we counted seventeen tracers. There was nothing between
us and the submarine but a very few miles of water and a well-lighted pier
where the city firemen were having a ball. The firemen worked harder at putting out those lights than they ever
had at putting out afire. There was a small contingent of planes
at Imeson Airport and people put up a clamor to get them
here to bomb the submarine. But of course, the sub was long
gone before they could even crank up a plane. The whole truth
was that we were woefully ill-prepared for what we had been
pushed into. That was a Standard Oil tanker and it is still out
there. For a long time part of the ship was above water level,
but I am not sure about that now.
For years I had been told that Townsend Hawkes and another man had taken a
lifeboat and rowed out to the stricken
tanker. No one seemed to be sure of anything so I asked
Townsend and here is his story:
When the tanker was torpedoed we figured there would be survivors and
they would need help, so another man (I don't remember
his name) and I got a boat from the Life Guard Station and headed
for the stricken ship. There was a west wind blowing and it was
easy getting to the tanker. In fact it was so easy that we were close
enough to hear the submarine as it blew its tanks to submerge.
As we neared the tanker, fire was all over the ocean from burning
oil, and with such a stiff wind at our backs, we had all that we
could do to keep from going into the fire. We pulled until my partner gave out and said he could not row any more. I just pointed
to the fire and he got renewed energy in a hurry. We were pulling
for our lives when a boat came up. We thought it might be the sub
returning, so we stayed as quiet as possible. Finally, an American
voice asked what we were doing out there. It was the Coast Guard.
We told them we were out there to rescue somebody. Their reply
was that it looked like we were the ones needing rescuing, and
with that we thoroughly agreed, and were real happy when they
took us on board and tied our life-boat onto the stern of their ship.
Both my buddy and I were lying on the deck of the Coast Guard
ship, completely exhausted. There were several men lying all around us, apparently in the same shape we were in. When I finally
got my breath I started asking questions, but no one would talk,
until someone below deck told me those men can't talk; they are
Townsend said there were about 90 people (including the
gun crew) on the tanker, and about twenty five of them were
lost. Bodies floated into the beach for several days.
"We were taken to Mayport, and since both of us were in
our underwear, the Navy (with some prodding from the Marines) brought us home in an automobile."
For days, debris came floating in as other ships were torpedoed. I can remember going onto the beach and finding a refrigerator with a jar
of mayonnaise in it, and a dish towel hung on
the door. Wonder if the cook deserted ship with his arms full
of food or did the door just happen to come open and most of
its contents spill out? I heard one merchant marine sailor say
they put a bag of Irish potatoes on their life boat and that the
mate did not like that. It would be my guess that this was a bad
time to pick an argument with a bunch of scared sailors.
Then the lights went out all along the beaches. Every house
was required to have blackout shades, and the automobiles
were driven with only their parking lights. That driving business
was fixed pretty soon with gas rationing, and you were never
supposed to go over forty miles an hour in the day time. Guess
most of us have a little Boy Scout or adventuresome streak in
us, for it was no trouble to get volunteers to check on the lights
and patrol the streets at night. I never did, but many of the
men seemed to relish the idea of adventure and spent much
time patrolling the beaches. It gave them an opportunity to
break out their guns for a legitimate reason.
There were many vacancies here during the war due to
many reasons. First, it was difficult to get enough gas to travel very much, and that old prosperity that was going to round
the corner on two wheels was slow getting here, and also, it
was just plain spooky with no lights showing anywhere. Could
be the thought of a shelling or invasion entered into the minds
of some people. On top of all this we were on an island with
one bridge and when that went, we stayed.
We had two army camps here, one at Jacksonville Beach and
one at Atlantic Beach. One camp manned what looked to be
a pair of thirty caliber machine guns, on the corner of Third
Street and Seventh Avenue North, about as effective as trying
to stop a bull with a BB gun. Most of the men in this battery
were from Maine and they were certainly a nice bunch of men.
Many of them went to the Methodist Church, and it was a
strange sight to see a soldier kneeling to take the Sacrament
with his .45 pistol strapped on his side. Made you think of the
old Puritans as they carried their muskets to church for protection from the Indians, I'll say this about the war; it made
you think deeper than you had been accustomed to, and to
realize that if there were no higher power, then we had gotten
ourselves into a mess way over our heads.
The shelves in our stores began to get bare, and many things
that you needed were on the rationing list. With nothing else
to do with their money, many people began paying their debts.
It was a strange feeling, money in the bank, very little stock
in the stores, and people clamoring to buy what little we had.
Could give a merchant a superiority complex until he tried to
buy sugar, coffee or meat. Even with food stamps you found
shelves were empty too. One lady solved the hoarding problem
very nicely. She took her stamps and bought all of the coffee
that she could get before the hoarders got there. She also must
have gotten a lot of gall for she tried to bring the coffee back
for credit after the war.
During the war, there was an Italian merchant ship anchored
in the St. Johns River just above the Acosta bridge and it made
you wonder about the ship and its crew. Many of the shrimpers told me that, quite often, while visiting the ship they would
hear something dropping into the river and wondered what it
was until they found out. The Italian seamen were sabotaging
their ship piece by piece and throwing the pieces into the
river! They did a good (or bad) job and there was very little
left of the ship when the war was over. One of the last things
to go was the ship's cat. She was brought to Mayport where
she had a terrible time communicating with people since she
mostly spoke Italian. I have a cat of my own, and I have always
suspected that a cat was smarter than people, and now I'm sure.
This cat immediately began conversations with some of the
fine young toms around Mayport and it was not long until she
had a family of her own. They were probably bilingual!
During the war we had some coughing gas come from somewhere and people all over the beach were having coughing
spells. Never did know what it was, but will be just as happy
if it never returns. We had no hospital here at that time and
only one doctor, Earl Roberts. Come to think of it, maybe it
was a dangerous place to live.
We were asked to send some cement to Seminole Beach
where they had installed a disappearing cannon. Nobody told
our driver about this cannon, and about the time he got there,
the artillery man took it upon himself to raise the cannon for a
shot to sea. He came very close to having to unload the cement
and bring the truck back home, for the driver had visions of a
more peaceful location and was about to go hunting that location without being impeded by a truck.
We had civilian plane spotters on duty around the clock, but
so far as I know, there was never a foreign plane spotted. This
was before the days of long range bombers, and Captain Doolittle had to take off from a ship to make his token retaliation
on the Japanese nation. Always wondered about that trip but
never really knew. Guess that secret is locked up with the Civil
War secrets, and possibly the Revolutionary War secrets,
marked "Top Secret."
The war was rough on people who were not born in this
country; unnecessarily so, I thought at times. My wife was on
the bus for Jacksonville when it was stopped at the canal bridge
and an inspector came on board to question everyone as to
where they were born. One gentleman who had been here for
years, and was a good friend of ours, but not an accomplished
linguist, had to admit that he was from some other country.
He was about to be put off when my wife spoke up and said
that she had known the man for years. That settled it, but how
could you expect a man who spoke broken English to be an
accomplished spy? Suppose it was like the gentleman of Grecian heritage
who said that he could not understand why he had
been here for twenty years and still did not speak good English,
when that man from Georgia had been here only six months
and spoke good. (Maybe he was thinking of Georgia, Russia,
the birthplace of Stalin; the man of steel, until he rusted away.)
It has been well said that when a nation stops singing, it is in
trouble and I can remember no song from the World War 11 that
has retained its popularity. About the only songs that I do remember are "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition" and
"I'll be gone a year, little dear." The reason I remember the latter song so vividly is because we were vacationing in a little
shack in the mountains and there was a little store and eating
place just below us on the creek that had a jook organ. Those
mountain boys and girls gathered there and went through the
gyrations of dancing to the tune of this song. You could easily
tell that they expected to be gone a full year. I can't remember
any song that came out of our two last confrontations, but
then I'm not "hep" about music. It took me two years to learn
the bugle calls in military school, and I never did learn the one
they called "retreat." Guess I had read too much about John
Paul Jones and his ship.
One man says he was the only man who ever crossed the
Atlantic by rail. He was standing and holding onto it all the
way. I think that is a slight exaggeration
for he came back home
with a pocket full of money made from matching his skill at
rolling snake eyes. Most of the devotees
that I know have been
rolling the ivories were doing that from a position flat on their
We were heading toward Mayport and were about a mile
away when we saw a trainer plane, flying at an altitude of
about a thousand feet, suddenly head straight down with full
power. The plane went into the river and that was the biggest
splash ever seen around Mayport. The rescue boats came out
as soon as possible but there was nothing anyone could do to
help the pilot. It probably was the first and last solo for the
pilot. He no doubt panicked with his hands on the throttle. It
was certainly not a pleasant sight.
It is amazing how little robbing and breaking and entering
we were troubled with during the war. There were several reasons for this. First, everybody knew what belonged to him and
what did not belong to him, and anybody who had anything at
all had worked hard to get it. The people on this beach during
the war were tough minded and would not have taken kindly to
a thief. Secondly, how were you going to tell if anyone was
home when every curtain everywhere was drawn? The last man
in the world to tackle is a scared man, especially if he has a gun.
The little community of Wonderwood had been a train stop
during the operation of the Florida East Coast Railway between Jacksonville Beach and Mayport. The J & MP railway
had also served this community before it was discontinued in
1895 so, at one time, this was a fairly well-known place. It was
a summer resort with people commuting between there and
Jacksonville until a storm washed many of the homes into the
bay because there was no bulkhead to protect them.
Our first trip to Wonderwood was a thoroughly enjoyable
affair. We came by car (if you could call a Model T a car) and
there was a long winding dirt road from Atlantic Boulevard to
the edge of the hammock where the old Spanish trail started.
It was like going through a tunnel; big live oaks everywhere
with their branches entwining overhead, and all of the trees
covered by Spanish moss. The trail was winding because taking
out a live oak tree in those days before bulldozers was a job
not to be undertaken lightly. It was easier to dodge than to
dig, and besides no one was in a hurry. Take it back; one car
load of musicians who were filled with shine were in a hurry.
For a year or two you could see the mark on the live oak tree
where they hit at high speed, but now I can't even spot the
tree that was hit. It is difficult to tell the difference between a
live oak and a water oak, but the difference is there as you will
find when you use wood from either of these species.
Alongside this trail were the railroad tracks and rows of section houses where the people who repaired the tracks lived.
Around every section house were fig trees. Some houses had
citrus trees but this was really fig country. I still miss them.
After the track was abandoned in 1932, the houses were not
kept up and slowly everything went to pieces.
There was one store in Wonderwood and one garage; as well
as a tea room and a thousand foot pier running out into Ribault
Bay. To get to the pier, you had to go through a veritable forest of oleanders of every color. This was a beautiful drive.
There were accommodations for cook-outs and you could clean
and cook your catch there. Made for a nice day, especially if
you had a good catch.
The road on into Mayport was flanked by houses and the
Catholic church on one side while the lighthouse, which still
stands, was on the other side. There was an alternate drive around Ribault Bay where there were several very well kept
Mrs. Sarah Leake had a home and garden about where the
train stop was in Wonderwood and it showed what loving care
can do for a place. She raised figs, scuppernongs and black
grapes, cultivated persimmons, pears, plums, citrus and most
everything else she could get to grow. She sold this produce to
augment their income, and never was a place more tenderly
cared for. It was a pleasure to walk through her garden and
talk to this old lady who never seemed to complain.
I'm not sure as to when negotiations began, but in 1940,
the Navy began taking over the property. Some people were
pleased because they thought they would get more than their
homes were worth while others definitely did not want to
move. With the right of condemnation against them there was
nothing anyone could do but sell. The only thing they had to
worry about was how much could they get.
Mrs. Elizabeth Starke had owned much of the land since
1914 and she definitely did not want to sell. Hard to fault the
lady for this. Mrs. Starke had some one hundred seventy-five
acres bordering Ribault Bay with a pier that was making money, a tea room, about which I am not sure, and plenty of barns
all under a canopy of live oak trees. She also had a big artesian
well so there was no shortage of water. This place was the fulfillment of a dream to her and who could ask for more.
Jack Starke, the husband of Mrs. Elizabeth Starke, was a
diabetic and both of his legs had been removed almost to his
hips, but he never quit trying. He made a "dolly" with four
wheels and still helped to keep the yard. Someone said that he
had been a prize fighter before they were married, and with his
determination I don't see how he ever lost.
After the legal battles were settled the Marines came in to
take over, a whole squad of them, eight in number. Mrs. Starke
had no intention of leaving as long as she could possibly stay,
but her time was up. It happened that our nephew, Howard
Brewer, was one of the Marines stationed there. He told us of
having cooked breakfast for Mrs. Starke on her last day there.
I know it was good for he could really cook.
Then came the fireworks — draglines, bulldozers, dredges and
workmen for most every kind of work. Ribault Bay, which had
been only a few feet deep, was dredged to some forty-two
feet, and there went our oyster beds. Prosperity had hit the
little town and, of course, it began to grow as much as it was
allowed to build with priorities on most everything.
It was amazing how much history was uncovered when the
bulldozers started digging in. Skeletons were found and this
not surprising in as much as the Timucuan Indians had lived
there for generations, the remains of an old blacksmith shop,
and many relics of the past. It was reported that the original
Ribault Monument was left to the safe keeping of Satouriba,
the Indian Chief, and he buried it in the sand, never to be
found again. There is a street in the Naval Base named after
There is one old scoundrel who would never recognize his
former haunts—Black Beard, the pirate who operated around
this section for some time until he finally went into politics.
He made an agreement with Governor Charles Eden of North
Carolina to share his spoils with the government. The U.S. government was having no part of this and sent out a young naval
officer, Robert Maynard, to catch and arrest Teach. Edward
Teach, or Black Beard, and Maynard went together in a fierce
hand-to-hand fight with Maynard the winner. People were not
nearly so squeamish then, so Maynard nailed Black Beard's head
to the prow of his ship as proof that the pirate was dead. They
played rough in those days. The road department has named a
ferry that runs from Mayport to Fort George in honor (?) of
Black Beard. Try riding the ferry and let your imagination
have full sway.
Getting ready for the Navy was a feverish business with much
work going on around the clock. One dredge was running full
force with a bulldozer shifting the sand so that it would not
pile up too much when the dozer got stuck and frantic efforts
were made to get the dredge stopped before it covered up the
dozer. The dredge would not stop, said that all of that water
coming back would have sunk him, so the dozer was covered
up, minus the driver, and had to be dug out later. It is amazing
how much sand and water comes through the big pipe on a
dredge. A big part of Mayport is on filled land, and all of the
runways are on sand from the bottom of the river.
All of this frenzied activity paid off, for it was not too long
before ships began coming into the Mayport Base. Then came
the carriers, with their thousands of men; many of them married and looking for a place to move their families. The Navy
built a large group of houses and private enterprise built more,
but it seems there are never enough houses to adequately house
the Navy. Once the Navy started here, it has since made several
more acquisitions of land and seems to be somewhat like the
camel who got his nose in the tent. It is interesting to note
that the Wonderwood Baptist Church which was acquired by
the Navy is now the office for security police, and they have
been able to use other buildings so it was not all wasted.
The Navy, with its thousands of men, has contributed greatly to the sound growth of this community. Many of them
have married local girls and settled here after they were out of
service. Some of them leave for a while, but it is not unusual
to find them moving back after they have had a try somewhere
else. Suppose it is like the old saying "You can get a boy out
of the country, but you can't get the country out of the boy."
Many of these girls know a good thing when they see it and
mean to live here. There might have been a clannishness among
the natives some years ago but I don't believe that prevails now.
At present, 1973, the Navy has moved much of its boundary
line to the Wonderwood Road, the right of way for the old
J & MP Railway; and have taken in one of my favorite spots,
Clarence Young's home and garden. My first trip there was a
long winding trail taking off from the old Mayport Road and
riding for nearly a mile until suddenly, you were there. Fruit
trees were everywhere and flowers were blooming in every
corner of the garden, in every hue of the rainbow. Thought
for a minute that I was in the "Garden of Eden", then I looked up and saw sweat on the man's face.
Before the coming of the highway A1A from Jacksonville
Beach to St. Augustine, this stretch of beach was almost deserted. In those days you could drive down the beach if you
were careful of the tide, but I have always wondered how they
ever got the material up on the sand dune where the old Lett
house was located. This house was about a mile north of Mickler Road and finally
came to be known as the Wine Cellar because it did have a cellar and it was
usually loaded, not with wine, but with branded whiskeys brought from the Islands.
This was a place very suspected by the "Revenoorers" for the
unloading of boats from the Islands. One of my friends says
they were paid from a dollar to a dollar and a half a case to
help unload boats, and even at that price there was no surety
bond out on the unloaders, they could bury their own cases in
the dark and come back another
day. Must have given the
head man a great big ulcer.
It was in this lonely spot that a German submarine surfaced
on June 16, 1942, and discharged four passengers along with
boxes of explosives. These men were trained German spies and
had come to blow up bridges, highways, buildings, factories,
or do anything that might impede our progress in the war.
These men had plenty of money with them but most of it was
in big bills and that came close to causing their trouble in the
Jacksonville Beach Bus Station. I'm not sure as to how they
paid their fare from the Ponte Vedra store to the bus station
but they did have quite a hassle at the station in getting
change. Most of these men had spent time in this country, before the war, and were well acquainted with every strategic
spot here. They had no thought of anyone recognizing them
but you can play your luck only so far, and theirs ran out.
One of them was recognized and immediately the FBI was
Another group of four saboteurs landed at Long Island
about the same time as our group landed here. The plan was
to unite and do all the damage they could. Of the eight, two
turned government evidence and were given long sentences
while the other six were electrocuted. Living in the dark here
with so much going on around you, made you really grateful when V Day finally arrived.
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