Make us your home page
Instagram

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 duryea@sptimes.com.

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

Loading...
  1. Avalos gets life in prison for killing Bradenton neighbor, pastor

    Crime

    BRADENTON — A Florida man has been sentenced to life in prison for killing a neighbor and a local pastor.

    Andres "Andy" Avalos has been sentenced to life in prison for killing a neighbor and a local pastor. 

[File photo from Manatee County Sheriff's Office]
  2. Manchester police hunt for accomplices; Islamic State group claims responsibility for blast

    Public Safety

    MANCHESTER, England — Investigators hunted Tuesday for possible accomplices of the suicide bomber who attacked an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, killing 22 people and sparking a stampede of young concertgoers, some still wearing the American pop star's trademark kitten ears and holding pink balloons.

    Emergency services work at Manchester Arena after reports of an explosion at the venue during an Ariana Grande gig in Manchester, England Monday, May 22, 2017. Several people have died following reports of an explosion Monday night at an Ariana Grande concert in northern England, police said. A representative said the singer was not injured.  [Peter Byrne | PA via AP]
  3. Why's Pam Bondi raising money? Not to run for office, she says.

    Blogs

    Term-limited Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi may have restarted her political fundraising, but she says she's not considering a run for another public office.

    Attorney General Pam Bondi
  4. Roommates in Tampa Palms slaying case never outgrew Nazi sympathies, friend says

    Crime

    TAMPA — Like most people, Watson Fincher was shocked to hear that a neo-Nazi turned jihadi stands accused of killing his two Tampa Palms roommates — and that a fourth roommate told federal agents he, too, was a neo-Nazi, had bomb materials and was planning to target infrastructure.

    Authorities investigating a double murder Friday in the Hampton at Tampa Palms complex found explosives and bomb-manking materials in an apartment there. [ANASTASIA DAWSON   |   Times]
  5. The new 'Baywatch' movie is basically about hot people in swimsuits

    Movies

    Baywatch is a running gag in slow motion, a thong-in-cheek TV retread swapping wholesome jiggles for dirty giggles. There are places for such humor but beaches don't have gutters.

    Kelly Rohrbach as CJ Parker, Alexandra Daddario as Summer, Ilfenesh Hadera as Stephanie Holden, Dwayne Johnson as Mitch Buchannon, Zac Efron as Matt Brody and Jon Bass as Ronnie in the film, "Baywatch."