Readers: All year we’ve been marking the 75th anniversary of Florida being plunged into World War II, up close and personal. We’ll note other places and events in 2018. For now, we look back on Dec. 12, 1942, when one of Palm Beach County’s most exclusive resorts became a haven for heroes in need.
The military quickly had realized Florida’s value as a home to military installations. The number jumped from eight in 1940 to 172 in 1943. And waves of boys, some still in their teens, came from the tenements of chilly northern cities, or the sparse farms of the nation’s heartland, and found themselves in a tropical paradise. When the war ended, many of those boys decided this was where they wanted to live. From 1940 to 1950, Florida’s population leaped from 2 million to 3 million.
Photo gallery: World War II comes to Florida: palmbeachpost.com/offshore
With Americans now fighting in North Africa, authorities knew it wouldn’t take long for some to come back on stretchers, or worse. So Palm Beach’s The Breakers hotel became the 500-bed Ream Army General Hospital, named for a a flight surgeon killed in combat.
It specialized in neuro-psychiatry and plastic surgery. Officers and nurses used the “Breakers Cottages” along the ocean to the north and south of the hospital as barracks. Notable Palm Beach matrons donated their time as volunteers. Visitors included First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and her husband’s future successor, then-U.S. Sen. Harry Truman.
“One reason they chose The Breakers was because its large elevators and wide hallways could accommodate stretchers,” Kay Brainard Hutchins said in June 1999. Hutchins, 23 at the time, had been secretary to the hotel’s manager when it was converted. Kay’s brother later would be shot down over Germany and she’d find out only decades later that he was captured alive and then tortured and murdered. She died in July 2006.
Legendary Palm Beach historian Jim Ponce recalled in 2008 that at least three dozen children of servicemen were born at The Breakers. Leslie Watts, born at Ream in 1943 — her father had been stationed nearby — returned that year, 65 years later, with her 88-year-old mother. Mother and daughter recalled the bill for two weeks at one of the world’s most posh resorts was a whopping $12.48, which included a pink hair ribbon.
The Army complained the facility was not air conditioned and decided the $250,000 annual lease payment was too steep. And it was being pressured by tourism officials. So it returned control to the Florida East Coast Hotel Company. On April 10, 1944, The Breakers, after 18 months as a military installation, again became a hotel.
More stories of World War II in Florida: mypalmbeachpost.com/WW2Fla
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