Editor’s Note: This story is adapted from an article that ran in 1992, on the 50th anniversary of World War II.
If you were living on Jupiter Island 75 years ago, on Feb. 21, 1942, you might have been partying at the local drinking hole, relaxing in your living room, or asleep in bed. All of a sudden, you would have felt the ground beneath you vibrate.
You would have heard a boom in the distance, so powerful it rattled dishes and windows and even broke some. You might even have been knocked out of bed. Far off at sea, you might have seen a dull white glow. A short time later, you might see two lifeboats pull up to the beach behind your house. Several men would stagger off, coated in oil. They would be the crew of the Republic.
You would then discover that living on America’s coast had come with a price. America was at war, and the war had come literally to your backyard.
If you lived in America’s heartland, you knew the war all too well; you sent your sons and husbands, and some didn’t come back. But you never really felt personal fear. The war was in strange lands far across the sea.
But if you lived on the coast of Florida, you could see the war glowing on the horizon. You could see its smoke billowing and feel its heat. You could encounter its dead tangled in seaweed on the beach. And you lived with a special fear reserved for civilians in war’s way: You went to bed every night wondering if a shell would crash down on you while you slept. After all, just offshore a few feet below the pleasure boaters and commercial fishermen the metal sharks lay in wait.
In those first few weeks after Pearl Harbor pulled America headlong into a two-front war, the untersee boots of Adolf Hitler’s navy worked with virtual impunity. Off Florida alone, between February and May 1942, they sank 24 ships. Sixteen went down in a 150-mile stretch of Florida coastline from Cape Canaveral to Boca Raton.
The commanders were under strict orders to sink ships; nothing more. Hitler’s plans at that point didn’t include massacring civilians in American cities. But South Floridians didn’t know that. They painted their headlights black, took part in blackouts and drills, patrolled beaches on foot or on horseback. Jumpy authorities rounded up virtually anyone with a German-sounding accent or Asian features. Rumors spread like fire on an oil slick. And some of the very features that attracted tourists to Florida made it the logical place for soldiers as well.
The state, a strategic asset for its geography and climate, became an armed camp. Its hotels turned into barracks. Hospitals, bases and airfields sprang up, increasing from eight in 1940 to 172 in 1943. The influx of soldiers led to the boom that changed Florida’s population from about 2 million in 1940 to nearly 3 million a decade later. The sleepy southern locale became one of the nation’s most important and fastest-growing states.
Florida would never be the same.
Authorities weren’t messing around when they conducted a practice blackout Jan. 11, 1942 that threw into darkness a 300-mile stretch of South Florida coastline from Stuart to Key West.
“It was an impressive and sobering sight,” wrote one reporter as he stood on a rooftop and watched the twin tourist towns of West Palm Beach and Palm Beach enveloped in black, “to see these two large municipalities as dark as a pocket when the huge observation plane soared over the resorts, its throbbing motors breaking the stillness, which seemed to hang like a pall over everything.”
The war footing touched everyone. Beachfront hotels and restaurants, worried about business, initially resisted orders for coastal cities to dim lights so ships wouldn’t be backlit. It was not until April 11, 1942 that Gov. Spessard Holland ordered a dimming of lights facing the sea. Street lights were hooded to cast only a small circle of light directly down. Ten donated station wagons were fitted with blankets as emergency standby ambulances.
Paranoia led authorities to detain people on the slightest suspicion of subterfuge. In the first days following the attack on Pearl Harbor, FBI agents and local police were under strict orders to pick up any Japanese. “Loafers” unknown to police were to be run off and any aliens held for questioning. The FBI searched a Japanese-owned import-export shop on Palm Beach’s ritzy Worth Avenue and posted an armed sailor out front who answered no questions of nosy reporters.
The former Countess Erica von Haacke, of the Silesia region of Germany, was “taken into custody” in Palm Beach while wintering from New Jersey with her family. And the FBI arrested Baron Fritz von Opel — yachtsman, scion of the Opel carmaker family, and inventor of the rocket-propelled car on Feb. 26, 1942 at his Palm Beach residence along with his wife and two Hungarians.
By late February 1942, news reports showed, FBI agents made 55 raids in the West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale areas, arresting 29 suspected enemy aliens and confiscating guns and cameras.
Unlike their West Coast counterparts, Japanese residents of Florida — the state’s 1940 census lists only 217 statewide — were not subject to the mass relocation to government-run camps. But the government froze the assets of George Morikami, former member of the Yamato colony in Boca Raton. It ran his farm and lodged servicemen in his home. It also confiscated land owned by the Yamato colony family of Hideo Kobayashi for the Boca Raton Army Air Field.
The Coast Guard set up observation towers every three miles, at places such as the Lake Worth casino. A polo grounds held barracks for about 280 U.S. Coast Guard beach watchers. The men, each armed with a .38-caliber pistol strapped to the waist and a rifle in a boot, rode horses shipped in from Fort Riley, Kansas.
Teenagers who never had been in a saddle were drafted for their local knowledge and rode eight to 10 hours a night. Where horses couldn’t maneuver, 30 trained dogs took over. Authorities got a break in early 1942 when a big winter storm blocked Jupiter Inlet for the duration of the war, enabling patrols to negotiate most of the coastline.
Patrol dogs ran people off the beaches at night. And anyone crossing the bridges between West Palm Beach and Palm Beach encountered an armed sentry who shined his flashlight, demanded identification and sometimes searched cars. Just to cross the bridges, residents had to be fingerprinted and photographed for an ID card.
The nation’s third Civil Air Patrol squadron formed at Morrison Field. The “Coastal Picket Patrol” and the “Mosquito Fleet”— rag-tag flotillas of pleasure and charter boats — patrolled for subs and rescued survivors from torpedoed ships.
And at “The Hill,” the complex just west of downtown West Palm Beach that housed Palm Beach High School, Junior High and Elementary, stories of sinkings, attacks and Germans coming ashore flew through classrooms. Teachers would hush students, saying, “If you didn’t see it, don’t talk about it. The enemy might be listening.”
In the first half-year of war, the Germans sank 397 ships and killed some 5,000 people, about twice as many as died in Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941. University of Florida professor Michael Gannon, in the 1990 book “Operation Drumbeat,” called it “a six-months long massacre.” He alleged monumental incompetence and delay by American authorities, focused on the Pacific. The “Gulf Sea Frontier” defensive force was responsible for 45,814 miles of serpentine Atlantic and Gulf coastline from Maine to Mexico. It had six ships, four under repair, and 32 planes, nearly half of them unarmed.
The German strategy was to interrupt the flow of supplies along the U.S. coast and to England, lay waste to the Allies’ merchant fleet and strike a propaganda blow by letting Americans watch burning ships from their beaches. Germans saw an opportunity to prey on tankers plying the crowded and narrow shipping lanes off the Florida coast, where traffic ranked second in the United States and sixth in the world. Reports said about one of every 12 ships sunk worldwide in 1942 went down in Florida waters leaving hundreds dead and sending millions of dollars in cargo and oil to the bottom.
Emergency workers at Good Samaritan Hospital in West Palm Beach saw as many as 50 seamen in a night, some foreigners unable to describe injuries ranging from broken bones to oil burns. Many who could speak English were too busy screaming in agony.
The first Florida victim of Operation Drumbeat was the Pan Massachusetts, hit in broad daylight off Cape Canaveral on Feb. 19.
Two days later, at 11 p.m. Feb. 21, the first sinking along Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast: the Republic was hit 3½ miles northeast of the lighthouse.
“After 150 seconds, two detonations, under the bridge and astern in the engine room, where the sparks fly around the air,” U-504 commander Fritz Poske noted in German in his war diary, later translated by historians. The engine room blast killed five of the 34 crewmen.
Stuart insurance agent Ralph Hartman recalled that night. It was his 18th birthday and he and friends went to Jensen Beach. As Hartman dropped a nickel in a jukebox, there was a dull boom. The building shook and windows rattled. Ralph and his pals dashed outside. Far out at sea, they saw a dull white glow.
“It was the first time,” recalled Hartman, “that we knew the war was coming home to us.”
At seven that same night, Feb. 22, the 21-year-old, 10,277-ton W.D. Anderson was heading north 12 miles north of Jupiter with a cargo of crude oil. The crew was at chow. Two men had already eaten and were on watch at the back of the 500-foot ship, swapping tales. One was Frank Leonard Terry, 23. He was sipping coffee when a torpedo hit the engine room with a dull thud. It was from U-504, killer of the Republic.
“The ship stood, in a fraction of a second, from forward to astern in flames,” German commander Poske wrote. “After 12 seconds, second (torpedo) hits in the stern; the rear part broke off.”
Terry jumped over a railing and dove into the water.
“There was heavy smoke all ‘round and fire,” the retired steelworker and part-time security guard, living near Philadelphia, recalled in 1992. “I heard a lot of screaming and hollering. I could feel heat and smoke.”
Terry dragged a shipmate through the water, then had to let him go. He watched the man burn. He swam under the inferno until he thought his lungs would burst, then treaded freezing water with no shirt or shoes for three hours, coated in oil. He insisted to rescuers that sharks had bitten off his legs until they showed him his numb limbs.
Terry, who would die at 96 in 2014, was the only survivor of 36 men.
“It was my first trip to Florida. I didn’t like the experience. When I finally thought of my pals, they were in my prayers. I was a nervous wreck. The Germans? I figure it was war. It was their duty.”
Local media covered the sinkings but had to wait two days for the federal Office of Censorship to clear publication. A note assured Palm Beach Post readers the paper was on the job but hampered by government, reminding them, “If it’s anything we can’t print, you shouldn’t be talking about it.”
In May 10 ships sank in 10 days. Among them:
At 1 p.m. on May 4, the British tanker Eclipse, a mile off Boynton Inlet, never expected a torpedo from the direction of land, but U-564 had maneuvered between it and the coast a few hundred yards away. At 11 that night, near Jupiter Island, U-564 struck the DeLisle.
At 11:45 p.m. on May 5, U-333 commander Peter Cremer targeted the Java Arrow off Fort Pierce. Four hours later, U-333 found the Amazone off Hobe Sound. Later, off Jupiter Island, U-333 claimed its third kill in five hours: the Halsey.
Two days later, on May 8, U-564 made a daring daylight attack on the Ohioan off Boca Raton. At 3:20 a.m. on May 9, 3½ miles east of Delray Beach, U-564 made another strike: the Lubrafol.
By mid-May of 1942, the United States finally instituted convoys. Attacks tapered off; only four off Florida in 1943 and none in 1944 and 1945.
Ironically, the deadliest disaster of the war was caused only indirectly by the Germans. Two ships under wartime orders to travel without lights collided off Jupiter Inlet just before 11 p.m. on Oct. 20, 1943. The empty Gulf Bell rammed the Gulfland, filled with gasoline. Of 116 seamen on the two ships, 88 died. The Gulf Bell ran aground. The Gulfland burned off Hobe Sound for a remarkable seven weeks.
By war’s end, the Allies had sunk many U-Boats, but apparently none off Florida. A 1945 U.S. Navy report said the Coast Guard cutter Nike “probably” sank a U-Boat off the Jupiter lighthouse on May 18, 1942. Neither U.S. nor German reports documented any such sinking.
Operation Drumbeat had left its legacy: a line of ships lying on the bottom, cargo strewn on the ocean floor and oil oozing from ruptured tanks.
The militarization of Florida also left its mark. Many bases were transformed to public use. Soldiers heading home from the front got heroes’ welcomes as their trains passed through West Palm Beach. Those men, and those who had been stationed in South Florida, went home with stories of the paradise they had left. Many later returned for good.