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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]
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