Preparing for D-Day: Camp Gordon Johnston near Carrabelle

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the 1944 D-Day invasion, in which over 100,000 Allied troops stormed the beaches along the coast of Normandy, France, making it the largest seaborne invasion in history. Some of the troops  arrived by parachute, but the vast majority waded ashore after being transported in specially constructed vehicles. The Army and Navy had been planning for amphibious invasions like the one at Normandy for some time, and Camp Gordon Johnston near Carrabelle, Florida was one of the sites selected for training troops to do the job.

Map of the Florida Panhandle showing Carrabelle and nearby cities.

Map of the Florida Panhandle showing Carrabelle and nearby cities.

Carrabelle, a small town southwest of Tallahassee in Franklin County, was little more than a small fishing village when military leaders decided to use the terrain around it as an amphibious training base. A small military installation called Camp Carrabelle was already located here, but it would require major expansion to suit the Army’s needs. Once the site was selected, the federal government quickly bought up 10,000 acres of land and leased an additional 155,000 acres, forming a base with nearly twenty miles of frontage on the Gulf coast between St. George Island and Alligator Point, including Dog Island and the beaches near Carrabelle. In a few weeks contractors were already at work on the thousands of buildings and other structures needed to complete the training center. The new installation was named for Gordon Johnston, an Alabama native who served in the Spanish-American War and World War I and received the Medal of Honor in 1910.

An aerial view of Camp Gordon Johnston, with the Gulf of Mexico on the south (left). Photo 1943.

An aerial view of Camp Gordon Johnston, with the Gulf of Mexico on the south (left). Photo 1943.

Camp Gordon Johnston quickly developed a reputation for its tough conditions. For many of the camp’s first inhabitants, few of whom were actually from Florida, the contrast between the Florida of postcards and travel literature and the Florida they experienced was incredible. Because they had been thrown together in such short order to accommodate the troops, the barracks lacked dependable heating and in most cases had no floors. At first, the camp had no mess halls, and soldiers were obliged to eat their meals outdoors using their mess kits.

Barracks at Camp Gordon Johnston. Notice that the walls are little more than tar paper on a wooden frame (circa 1943).

Barracks at Camp Gordon Johnston. Notice that the walls are little more than tar paper on a wooden frame (circa 1943).

A wash-up shed at Camp Gordon Johnston (circa 1943).

A wash-up shed at Camp Gordon Johnston (circa 1943).

Soldiers wait in a chow line with mess kits in hand at Camp Gordon Johnston (circa 1943).

Soldiers wait in line with mess kits in hand at Camp Gordon Johnston (circa 1943).

Camp residents wash their mess kits in a pot of boiling water after a meal at Camp Gordon Johnston (circa 1943).

Camp residents wash their mess kits in a pot of boiling water after a meal at Camp Gordon Johnston (circa 1943).

The challenges of the terrain were no cakewalk, either. Sure, there was a beach, but as residents of the camp explained, there were also insects, snakes, lizards, mud, drenching rain, and stifling heat. Sergeant Bill Roth captured the feelings of the men toward Camp Gordon Johnston’s steamy conditions in a poem that appeared in one of the first issues of the camp’s newspaper, The Amphibian.

The rattlesnake bites you, the horsefly stings,
The mosquito delights you with his buzzin wings.
Sand burrs cause you to jig and dance
And those who sit down get ants in their pants.

The heat in the summer is one hundred and ten
Too hot for the Devil, too hot for the men.
Come see for yourself and you can tell
It’s a helluva place, this Carrabelle.

Living conditions nothwithstanding, soldiers at Camp Gordon Johnston found plenty of ways to entertain themselves during their stay. Carrabelle itself might not have been the most active metropolis, but GI’s could have a pleasant time reading in the camp’s library, fishing from one of the nearby piers, attending a USO-sponsored dance, or catching the latest movie at the camp’s theater. By the end of the war, the post featured five theaters, three service clubs for enlisted men, clubs for both commissioned and non-commissioned officers, baseball, baketball, and boxing leagues, and six chapels to minister to the spiritual needs of the camp residents. Tallahassee was the nearest city of any size, but it was already crowded with GI’s stationed at Dale Mabry Field. Soldiers reported difficulties even finding a room at the local hotels, but that didn’t stop them from trying. The Lee Bus Line and later a special passenger railroad carried residents of Camp Gordon Johnston to and from Tallahassee regularly.

Soldiers and visitors dance to music from a live band at one of Camp Gordon Johnston's dance halls (circa 1944).

Soldiers and visitors dance to music from a live band at one of Camp Gordon Johnston’s dance halls (circa 1944).

Training for amphibious warfare was the initial purpose of Camp Gordon Johnston, but as the war continued the Army began shifting more responsibility for this kind of tactic to the Navy. In 1943 the base was re-purposed as an Army Service Force Training Center, where small companies could be trained to operate boats and amphibious trucks for the Army’s “island-hopping” campaign in the Pacific. Engineers charged with constructing, repairing, and maintaining ports also trained at the center, and starting in 1944 small numbers of German and Italian prisoners of war were sent there.

Soldiers jumping obstacles during training at Camp Gordon Johnston (circa 1943).

Soldiers jumping obstacles during training at Camp Gordon Johnston (circa 1943).

Practicing maneuvers on the beach near Carrabelle (1943).

Practicing maneuvers on the beach near Carrabelle (1943).

A GM manufactured amphibious vehicle called a DUKW, located at Camp Gordon Johnston. DUKW was a code describing the specifications of the vehicle.

A GM manufactured amphibious vehicle called a DUKW, located at Camp Gordon Johnston. DUKW was a code describing the specifications of the vehicle. “D” stood for date (1942), “U” stood for amphibian, “K” indicated the vehicle was all-wheel drive, and “W” meant the vehicle had dual rear axles. Photo 1944.

Company photo of the 1057th Engineer Port Construction and Repair unit at Camp Gordon Johnston (circa 1944).

Company photo of the 1057th Engineer Port Construction and Repair unit at Camp Gordon Johnston (circa 1944).

A number of African-American troops resided at Camp Gordon Johnston during its tenure. For these men, many of whom were from the Northern U.S., entering the segregated world of the Florida Panhandle in the 1940s was a difficult transition. While white residents enjoyed the use of the camp’s guest house, library, and service clubs, black soldiers were not permitted to enter these facilities, nor was a segregated alternative provided until much later in the war. Moreover, Carrabelle and other nearby small towns were still in the grip of Jim Crow segregation laws, and tensions between the races at times broke out into violence.

African-American soldiers in front of barracks at Camp Gordon Johnston (circa 1943).

African-American soldiers in front of barracks at Camp Gordon Johnston (circa 1943).

When news of the Japanese surrender reached Camp Gordon Johnston in 1945, the effect was said to have rivaled the power of the atomic bomb. Concerts and parades marked the occasion, and the demand for beer was so high that bartenders reportedly were forced to serve it before it had even had time to chill. With the war over, the camp’s life came to a close as well. The base officially shut down in early 1946, and by 1947 the federal government had disposed of its land in the region.

A barricade marked

A barricade marked “Government Property – Keep Off” blocks the driveway to the barracks of Camp Gordon Johnston after it closed in 1946.

Little remains of Camp Gordon Johnston, but local citizens and former camp residents still gather from time to time to reminisce about what it was like to train in the sun, sand, and heat around Carrabelle. The Camp Gordon Johnston Association organizes these reunions in cooperation with the American Legion Post at Lanark Village and other community partners.

Learn more about the World War II era in Florida by searching the Florida Photographic Collection. Teachers and students, you’ll find useful resources on the subject in our learning unit.

Florida’s Junior Scrap Army During World War II

During World War II, the enormous demand for steel, aluminum, and other metals led the War Production Board to launch a nationwide campaign to salvage scrap. Everyone from state and local Defense Councils to the Boy Scouts combed local communities for sources of scrap metal that could be melted down and re-purposed for ships, guns, vehicles, and other war materiel.

Part of a poster encouraging housewives to save tin cans for scrap metal. From the papers of the State Defense Council, circa 1940s.

Part of a poster encouraging housewives to save tin cans for scrap metal. From the papers of the State Defense Council, circa 1940s.

As part of this national effort, Florida’s State Defense Council and Department of Education teamed up to develop the Junior Scrap Army program in 1942. State School Superintendent Colin English challenged every pupil in the Sunshine State to collect as much scrap metal as possible and turn it in at their local schools, where it would be weighed. The program was competitive; the schools and individuals collecting the most scrap would be entitled to a prize.

Results from a scrap metal and rubber drive in Pensacola (circa 1942).

Results from a scrap metal and rubber drive in Pensacola (circa 1942).

The enthusiasm exhibited by Florida’s school children in this competition was incredible. One student reportedly was out until nearly midnight on the very last night before the contest deadline with her grandfather’s truck, collecting as much metal as possible to add to her total. In Perry, pupils from a physical education class dug up ice manufacturing equipment that had been discarded and buried nearly twenty years earlier. At least four students collected over a thousand pounds of scrap each, and Polk County reported collecting 375 pounds of old keys alone for re-purposing. The heat of the competition reached even into the highest levels of state government, as Governor Spessard Holland accepted a challenge from California Governor Culbert L. Olson to see which state could collect the most metal on a per capita basis.

Individual top scrappers and representatives from the top scrapping schools visit with former governor Fred P. Cone in Lake City. L to R: Albert W. Thompson, Betty Lou Smith, Gov. Fred P. Cone, Gwendolyn Willcocks, Joseph Thibodeaux, and Allen Shelton, with Dale Maxwell in front (December 1942).

Individual top scrappers and representatives from the top scrapping schools visit with former governor Fred P. Cone in Lake City. L to R: Albert W. Thompson, Betty Lou Smith, Gov. Fred P. Cone, Gwendolyn Willcocks, Joseph Thibodeaux, and Allen Shelton, with Dale Maxwell in front (December 1942).

When the dust settled after a month of scrapping, Green Acres and Loxahatchee schools of Palm Beach County and Cape Florida School of Dade County emerged as the top collecting schools. Each won the right to send a delegate to participate in the dedication and launching of the Liberty Ship Colin P. Kelly, Jr., named after  the Madison County, Florida airman who was among the first to perish in combat after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. The top three individual collectors also earned the right to attend and represent the state. Gwendolyn Willcocks, 15, from Palm Beach High School, personally collected 101,116 pounds of scrap metal. Joining her was Betty Lou Smith, 10, of Coral Gables Elementary School, who collected 156,160 pounds, and Dale Maxwell, 9, of Pahokee, who collected a whopping 202,650 pounds of scrap metal for the drive.

Florida's top scrappers viewing the gold star for fallen hero Colin Kelly, Jr. at his family's church in Madison. L to R: Gwendolyn Willcocks, Betty Lou Smith, Joseph Thibodeaux, Albert W. Thompson, Allen Shelton, and Dale Maxwell (December 1942).

Florida’s top scrappers viewing the gold star for fallen hero Colin Kelly, Jr. at his family’s church in Madison. L to R: Gwendolyn Willcocks, Betty Lou Smith, Joseph Thibodeaux, Albert W. Thompson, Allen Shelton, and Dale Maxwell (December 1942).

The six met in Jacksonville for a tour that included stops in Lake City, Madison, and Tallahassee before moving on to Mobile for the dedication and launch of the U.S. Liberty Ship Colin P. Kelly, Jr. Gwendolyn Willcocks broke the traditional bottle of champagne against the hull while Mary Lou Smith used a hatchet to cut the ship loose and allow it to enter the water for service. Dale Maxwell, whose enormous contribution to the drive made him both the state and national scrap collecting champion, said a few words to the crowd. In describing his triumph, he said, “I didn’t set out to be top collector. I wanted to do my part for the war effort. And I haven’t stopped by any means. I shall continue to collect scrap as long as this war lasts.”

As part of their trip, Florida's top scrappers were treated to a stay at the Governor's Mansion, where they were the guests of Governor and Mrs. Spessard Holland. Here they are pictured gathered around the Governor's desk. L to R: Betty Lou Smith, Albert W. Thompson, Allen Shelton, Joseph Thibodeaux, and Dale Maxwell, with Gwendolyn Willcocks seated (December 1942).

As part of their trip, Florida’s top scrappers were treated to a stay at the Governor’s Mansion, where they were the guests of Governor and Mrs. Spessard Holland. Here they are pictured gathered around the Governor’s desk. L to R: Betty Lou Smith, Albert W. Thompson, Allen Shelton, Joseph Thibodeaux, and Dale Maxwell, with Gwendolyn Willcocks seated (December 1942).

Florida's First Lady, Mary Holland, playing Chinese checkers with her house guests at the Governor's Mansion in Tasllahassee (December 1942). Seated around the table are Gwendolyn Willcocks, Allen Shelton, Mrs. Holland, and Albert W. Thompson (?).

Florida’s First Lady, Mary Holland, playing Chinese checkers with her house guests at the Governor’s Mansion in Tallahassee (December 1942). Seated around the table are Gwendolyn Willcocks, Allen Shelton, Mrs. Holland, and Albert W. Thompson (?).

Allen Shelton is the center of attention during a visit of Florida's top scrappers to the Florida State College for Women (December 1942).

Allen Shelton is the center of attention during a visit of Florida’s top scrappers to the Florida State College for Women (December 1942).

The family of Colin Kelly, Jr. standing in front of the ship to be dedicated to his memory in Mobile, Alabama. From L to R: Emy Kelly (Colin, Jr.'s sister), Mrs. and Mr. Colin Kelly, Sr. (December 1942).

The family of Colin Kelly, Jr. standing in front of the ship to be dedicated to his memory in Mobile, Alabama. From L to R: Emy Kelly (Colin, Jr.’s sister), Mrs. and Mr. Colin Kelly, Sr. (December 1942).

Dale Maxwell, the youngest member of Florida's top scrapper delegation, gives a speech at the launch of the U.S. Liberty Ship Colin P. Kelly, Jr. in Mobile, Alabama (December 1942).

Dale Maxwell, the youngest member of Florida’s top scrapper delegation, gives a speech at the launch of the U.S. Liberty Ship Colin P. Kelly, Jr. in Mobile, Alabama (December 1942).

Gwendolyn Willcocks holding flowers and a bottle of champagne to break against the hull of the U.S. Liberty Ship Colin P. Kelly during its dedication ceremony at Mobile, Alabama (December 1942).

Gwendolyn Willcocks holding flowers and a bottle of champagne to break against the hull of the U.S. Liberty Ship Colin P. Kelly during its dedication ceremony at Mobile, Alabama (December 1942).

This is just one of the many stories of courageous homefront contributions by Floridians during World War II. Search the Florida Photographic Collection for more images relating to the war effort in Florida, and check out our learning unit on the subject.

Most of the photos in this post are from the subject files of the State Defense Council of Florida, an agency charged with preparing Florida and Floridians for the challenges of World War II. The collection (Series 419) is available to researchers at the State Archives in Tallahassee.