Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

As WWII loomed, MacDill fighters were tested

Sixty-eight years ago today the United States was not at war.

But it surely felt like war at what was then known as MacDill Field in Tampa. For several days, the military installation had been the target of a fairly substantial mock attack.

Before dawn on Dec. 1, 1941, heavy bombers from a base in Orlando rumbled over the southern tip of Tampa's peninsula. A few dozen paratroopers swung through the air. Dive bombers hurtled toward the base, feigning to drop their payloads, and fighter planes zoomed in low, strafing defenders who scrambled to man machine gun nests.

The Evening Independent carried a story on Dec. 3. Two photographs of gun-toting soldiers appeared under the headline "MacDill Fighters in Action During War Games."

It was a lot of drama for a base that had been dedicated only seven months before, and also for the residents of nearby Port Tampa, who got a whiff of diluted tear gas that wafted their way.

"They were doing the best they could to test the defenses of a relatively new base," says William Polson, historian for the 6th Air Mobility Wing, the current tenant of the base.

The mock invasion included repeated waves of air attacks and even an amphibious landing using a vehicle called the Roebling amphibious tractor, later versions of which would land American Marines on islands throughout the Pacific.

This chapter of the run-up to the war might have remained hidden in the newspaper archives if it weren't for a 94-year-old World War II veteran named William A. Sutton, who has devoted years to compiling a definitive account of Dunedin's contribution to the war effort.

One day Sutton received a letter that mentioned a mock amphibious assault on MacDill, launched from Dunedin sometime during the summer of 1941. He contacted Gary Mormino, a history professor at the University of South Florida, thinking there might have been more such mock attacks. Sutton was right.

Mormino sent him a clipping from the St. Petersburg Times, mentioning the December maneuvers. This led Sutton, a former military historian, to poke a little more deliberately into newspaper archives.

All the newspapers in the area covered the four days of maneuvers in some way. The St. Petersburg Times used a wire service report from the Associated Press, as if this whole thing were happening on the other side of the ocean. The Evening Independent gave it much more enthusiastic play, dispatching a reporter and photographer.

"Previous local opinions as to the fall of France, the rout of the British in Flanders, the 'cowardice' of the King of Belgium and the evacuation of Dunkirk were completely wiped out of mind as civilian observers watched with growing amazement the realistic portrayal of a similar scene before their very eyes," wrote Ed Williams.

The coverage had its peculiarities, notably the way it recorded the participation of black troops from the Army's segregated 24th Division, then based in Georgia. The Times referred to "owl-eyed negro troops," who were assigned to defend the base. The Independent was slightly more generous.

"These men have been awarded the highest praise by the air corps, the higher ups and the neutral personnel of the base and are counted among the best troops in the United States army," Williams wrote.

"It was the ability of these colored troops to see excellently in the pitch dark of night in a blacked-out camp that forestalled the attack by paratroops last night."

There was even a Mata Hari, a young Tampa socialite named Helen Gilmer who drove paratroopers to the gate of the base. The "fifth columnist," as she was described, was shot for her betrayal. It was all good fun.

On Sunday, Dec. 7, came the first reports from Pearl Harbor.

Bill Duryea can be reached at (727) 893-8770 or

If you have more information about the mock attack, please contact William Sutton at (727) 734-2138.

As WWII loomed, MacDill fighters were tested 12/04/09 [Last modified: Friday, December 4, 2009 11:29pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Editorial: Turn the heat up on AC problem in Hillsborough schools


    Hillsborough County School District students do not want to hear that their buildings are decrepit. They do not want to hear that Florida's legislators are complicit. All they want to hear is the sweet sound of a classroom air conditioner kicking in at full power. Anything less creates uncomfortably hot classrooms and …

    Superintendent Jeff Eakins and the current Hillsborough County School Board did not create this air conditioning mess, but they own it now.
  2. Man in bunny mask part of trio that breaks into Odessa McDonald's to haul away ATM


    ODESSA — A man in a bunny mask and two also-masked accomplices broke into a McDonald's early Wednesday, hoisted an automatic teller machine into a stolen minivan, then dumped the ATM and the van into a pond, deputies say.

    Three masked men, including one in a bunny mask, broke into an Odessa McDonald's early Wednesday and stole the ATM.
 [Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office]
  3. Plan your weekend Aug. 25-27: Craig Morgan, Wearable Art 13, SNL's Pete Davidson, Rodeo Fest


    Plan your weekend


    Pete Davidson: Saturday Night Live star Pete Davidson will headline this year's University of South Florida Round-Up Comedy Show, a back-to-school tradition at USF. Expect to hear about his recent trip to rehab, since he's known for his confessional …

    The 12th annual Wearable art Fashion Show was held at the Dunedin Fine Art Center on Saturday evening, August 27, 2016.
DAVID W DOONAN | Special To The Times
  4. Richard Corcoran takes aim at public financing of campaigns

    State Roundup

    TALLAHASSEE — House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, may not be running for governor — not yet anyway — but his latest idea will get the attention of those who are.

    House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R- Land O' Lakes, is proposing an end to public financing of campaigns. [SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times]
  5. Jeb Bush on the 'most ridiculous example of political correctness in history'


    Jeb Bush on ESPN's decision to pull commentator Robert Lee from a football broadcast at the University of Virginia.