NEWS

History Mystery: Destin fishing during World War II

Hank Klein

Many locals and visitors alike are taking part in the 74th Annual Destin Fishing Rodeo this month. Our readers might be interested to know what fishing was like during World War II in Destin, Florida. Our History Mystery this month gives us a pretty clear picture of just how plentiful schools of fish were in the 1940s, but it also shows how difficult it was to catch those fish, due to the war efforts. 

History Mystery by H. C. “Hank” Klein

Capt. O. T. Melvin had been a fisherman all his life, a good half-century; he fished from Destin, Florida, to the Mississippi River. Since 1929 he concentrated his activities around Bayou La Batre, Alabama, and is one of the largest producers of food fish on the Gulf Coast. 

Capt. Melvin had a reputation for bringing in large catches. In 1941 two loads of mullet, he brought in weighed 104,000 pounds which, until Nov. 21, 1942, held the record. 

The week before Nov. 21, 1942, Capt. Melvin had a hard time getting a crew together; Army, Coast Guard, and defense plants had taken so many good young men. But finally, he gathered a crew and, incidentally, a crew that turned out to be one of the best he ever set out with despite the fact he had to dig to find them. 

Eight of them: Preacher Kennerson, Oliver Tilliman, J. Kennerson, Hugh Kinsey (he’s in the Army now), Mertz McDonald (good old Mertz, the cook, who kept the coffee hot and coming on that memorable catch), Charles Gillmore, Walter Bosarge (he’s been called since, too), and Rufus Cook (the only one of the crew available to go on another trip due to the war effort). 

Odem Thomas (O.T) Melvin 1893-1975

They were out about four days in the 82-foot James Velcich when, in a heavy fog on Thursday, Nov. 19, 1942, they ran into roe mullet, thousands of them. It wasn’t luck, Capt. Melvin knew they were due there. 

Believe this or not, but when they pulled in the Ederer Seine they had over 100,000 pounds of fish. They finally loaded nearly eight thousand pounds, working from 7 a.m. until 8 p.m., never letting up a minute, making trips back and forth in the seine boat Clipper until they had no more ice to handle the catch. 

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They had to turn loose over 20,000 pounds, gave several thousand pounds away at the dock, and sold to Clark Seafood Company at Bayou La Batre 74,500 pounds net. Thirteen and one-half shares were split and each share was $254.24. Not bad wages for a week’s work in 1942! 

This was only one of the catches that Capt. Melvin and his crew made that year (1942). Every pound of fish he caught was handled by Clark Seafood Company and the records show that from July until Nov. 21 (1942), Capt. Melvin had brought in 175,488 pounds of food fish of which over 75,000 pounds were choice fish! Fish was shipped all over the U. S. to help the food situation. 

Now, mark this well: Captain Melvin, who knew where the fish were, who knew how to catch them, who had the equipment, was not able to move his boat from Nov. 21, 1942, until the end of World War II because he couldn’t get fishermen together. 

As we all know Americans took the war effort seriously helping wherever and whenever they could. Rationing of food, fuel, and other commodities was common throughout the United States during World War II. 

I recently came across some Civil Service paperwork pertaining to my father-in-law, Clarence Lee Marler. During the war, he worked at Army Air Force Proving Ground Command at Eglin Field, as a deckhand in the Boat Section. He worked at Eglin Field from Dec. 1, 1942 to March 5, 1944, when he resigned. On the War Department form, he stated “I want to leave to go fishing, as I am going into partnership with Herbert Woodward. I feel that by furnishing fish to the market I can be of better service to the war effort.” 

Boat Section Crew – Clarence Lee Marler, second from left, front row.

One can see that the “War Effort” meant everything to not only the military, but also the civilians whether they worked on a military base, in a factory, or even when they decided to go back to fishing for a living. They saw it as a “service to the war effort.” 

H. C. “Hank” Klein is a Destin historian, author, and speaker on local history. He lives in Bob Hope Village in Shalimar with his wife (the former Muriel Marler of Destin). Klein recently published two Destin history books - DESTIN Pioneer Settlers...A Land History of Destin, Florida from 1819-1940 and DESTIN’S Founding Father…The Untold Story of Leonard Destin. Both can be obtained from Amazon.com, The Destin History & Fishing Museum in Destin, Henderson Beach Resort in Destin, The Indian Temple Mound in Fort Walton Beach, and Sundog Books in Seaside. Klein can be contacted directly at klein@aristotle.net.