If you’ve spent any time in Florida, I suspect you already know the Sunshine State played a major role during World War II in training our soldiers and sailors. A warm climate, good rail links and a sparse population (less than 2-million in 1940) made the state ideal for the military.

Historian Robert D. Billinger Jr. says by war’s end, there were more than 170 different military installations of one type or another scattered across the state. Thousands of young men earned their aviation wings here, while even more practiced storming Florida beaches in preparation for future D-Day and Pacific atoll operations.

In all probability however, you know little or nothing about the 10,000 enemy prisoners of war, mostly German, held in the Sunshine State. In fact, POWs were interned just a stone’s throw from Live Oak; in tiny White Springs. Up to 300 labored there, furthering the US war effort by working in the pulp timber industry. (By the way, in the early days of the war, a POW camp was also authorized for Live Oak, but it never materialized. Apparently the additional beds were never needed.)

This week’s column focuses on one aspect of our state’s prisoner of war camps virtually forgotten. It occurred in the months immediately after the US entered WWII when CIVILIANS were being taken into custody and interned. Here’s the story, as it relates to our state.

Thanks to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, much of America was in a state of panic in late 1941 and early 1942. We worried a so-called Fifth Column attack would be launched by US residents of German, Italian and Japanese ancestry. It’s well known that 120,000 Japanese-Americans were locked up because of those concerns. Often forgotten is the fact that another 21,000 Americans with Italian and German backgrounds were interned in as well.

The US was also worried about the number of Germans and Italians, who in 1942 were living south of the border, in such countries as Costa Rica, Guatemala and near the all-important Panama Canal. Significant diplomatic pressure was brought to bear on these countries, because Washington fretted over the possibility that enemy operations could be launched clandestinely in our backyard.

Those tiny, Central America nations felt they had little choice but to comply with the US’s emphatic demands. And so the first prisoners of war to arrive here in Florida were not members of either the German or Italian military. They were in fact civilians, categorized by Washington as “Enemy Aliens.” There were 152 of them - mostly German - but also a few Italians. And upon their arrival in the US they were locked up in a barren, tent city erected at Camp Blanding, near Starke.  

I have not been able to find out much about these folks. I suspect that some were undercover enemy agents or true Nazi believers, but there are also indications others were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Still more disturbing are allegations that some of those deported to the US were sent simply because crooked Central American politicians wanted to grab their property.

Like I say, I don’t know much about these folks. On the other hand, I feel confident in saying 18 of these foreign nationals should never have been deported from their Panamanian homes and locked up as potential Nazis. You see, the 18 were all German Jews!  

Jim lives in Live Oak.

This Week's Circulars