Today, we continue with World War II coming to Florida. Specifically, the presence of German prisoner-of-war camps and the profusion of rumors and urban legends that sprang up during the war. Welcome to Florida Time, a weekly column about Florida history.
More than 9,000 German POWs went to 22 Florida camps, including facilities in Belle Glade and Clewiston. They went to work in fields in and around the camp before 8 a.m. and were back around 3 p.m.
Some prisoners bolted for freedom, but Florida was not an easy place to be on the lam, and they were caught. They weren't punished for trying to escape. The military charged farmers the going rate for labor, but were able to show a profit by paying prisoners 80 cents a day in coupons they traded for items such as cigarettes and beer. Almost immediately, Germans put little Belle Glade, at the south end of Lake Okeechobee, on the national map when they held a two-day strike over a cut in cigarette rations. The American public, press and politicians angrily painted word pictures of coddled Germans whining over cigarettes at a time when GIs were stumbling across Nazi concentration camps.
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Among the urban legends, the most persistent is that German subs supposedly sent parties ashore to buy supplies or pick up goods from "nests" of sympathizers. It was rumored that searches of captured boats had revealed American cigarettes, a Holsum bakery wrapper and tickets for West Palm Beach's Florida Theatre. (This urban legend verifies the tradition of those that surface in different towns. Historians in New Jersey and North Carolina reporting the same legends mention bakeries and movie theaters as well.)
The late University of Florida professor Michael Gannon, who wrote two books about the U-boat wars, said it just wouldn't have happened. Veteran U-boat commanders insisted no one left subs except to meet with other subs at sea. It would have been ridiculous to risk capture for cigarettes or recreation.
Gannon also said sailors were cooped up for weeks in a cramped, jammed, living area that was ventilated only when the boat surfaced. They soaked in stale air, body waste and crude oil fumes and often had no chance to bathe for weeks at a time. Had one of them bellied up to a Palm Beach bar, Gannon argued, folks within smelling range would have remembered.
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There was one landing for real and it was one of the most dramatic moments of the war in America.
In June 1942, in Operation Pastorius, Germans who’d grown up in America and returned to their homeland were dropped off by U-Boats; four on New York’s Long Island and four at Ponte Vedra Beach, south of Jacksonville.
Their mission: terrorism. They were to scatter into the countryside and destroy railroads, power plants, dams, water plants, factories, bus and train terminals and bridges.
The plot collapsed when one of the Long Island four, Georg Dasch, got cold feet and dropped a coin in a payphone to the FBI. The eight were rounded up, tried, and sentenced to death by electric chair. Six died. One got life. Dasch got 30 years. Those two were deported in 1948.
Back in Germany, Dasch wrote a book saying the FBI covered up the German’s role because they didn’t want the public to know the agency never would have learned of the plot if not for Dasch’s help. In 1980, an Atlanta Constitution reporter, using previously classified documents, vindicated Dasch.
Georg Dasch would spend the rest of his life trying to get permission to return to America and fail. He died in Germany in 1991.
Last Week: Florida History: We would never be the same after World War II
Next Week: History Ain’t Pretty, Florida Edition
From a Reader: Dear Eliot, don’t forget the Navy blimps that flew out of Richman Field S of Miami(site of present zoo). They were sub-spotters. Much bigger than the Goodyear blimp. Also, many celebrities trained in Florida. Clark Gable was commissioned an officer at Bayshore golf course in Miami Beach. -Paul G Kelly, Juno Beach
Eliot Kleinberg is a staff writer for the past three decades at The Palm Beach Post in West Palm Beach, and the author of 10 books about Florida (www.ekfla.com). Submit your questions to FloridaTime@Gatehouse.com, or in care of this newspaper. Include your full name and hometown. Sorry; no personal replies.