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Column: When D-day came to St. Petersburg

On June 5, 1944, the graduation of 375 St. Petersburg High students competed against the liberation of Rome as the biggest news story.

Following the commencement ceremony, Martha ''Marty" Rudy and five classmates from the Class of '44 went to Ybor City. Around 1 a.m., they wandered to the Columbia restaurant for a Cuban sandwich. As the new graduates approached the entrance they passed a newsstand. Bold headlines proclaimed, "D-Day."

The classmates sped home to St. Petersburg. Shirley Stolz was especially nervous, because her brother was stationed in England and preparing for what Gen. Dwight Eisenhower called "the great crusade." As they pulled up to her home, they could see Shirley's mother sitting under a lamplight, listening to the radio.

The St. Petersburg Times spoofed its early-to-bed readers, announcing in its extra edition, "St. Petersburg slept peacefully this morning through the biggest news story in World War II." The slumber did not last long.

A city of 80,000 residents poised on the threshold of immense change, St. Petersburg had confronted home-front challenges. Following Pearl Harbor, St. Petersburg leaders fretted about the war's impact on a city without industry and a tourist economy wrecked by gasoline rationing.

Tampa, with a population of 125,000, had two mega-military bases: Drew Army Air Field and MacDill Army Air Field. Tampa's dormant shipyards boomed, attracting 16,000 union workers.

But St. Petersburg's tourist economy became a strength when the War Department announced in 1942 that the government was appropriating most of Florida's tourist hotels, to be converted into military barracks and training stations. The War Department declared St. Petersburg a basic training center, taking over 55 of the city's hotels. Only the Suwannee Hotel was reserved for tourists. The government also seized the Traymor cafeteria in downtown St. Petersburg, which would serve GI chow.

The U.S. Maritime Services Training Center at Bayboro Harbor facility expanded during the war, and the Pinellas Army Air Base trained thousands of mechanics and pilots.

In the summer of 1942, the government condemned the Don CeSar Hotel and purchased the pink structure for $460,000. The hotel was converted into a military hospital.

Dunedin had a Marine training base, and leathernecks stormed Honeymoon and Caladesi Islands. There they learned to operate the "Alligator," a 4-ton amphibious tank designed by Donald Roebling and built in Dunedin.

D-day represented the most ambitious and significant operation of the war. Once the Allies successfully secured a French beachhead, the question was when, not if, Germany would lose the war.

As the battle raged across the Cotentin Peninsula in Normandy, thousands of residents, many clutching Bibles and maps, gathered in Williams Park on June 7. "Under the quiet park trees and green benches," observed a Times reporter, "men, women and children in their white cottons and thin dresses seemed far removed from the battle scenes their husbands, sons and fathers are witnessing." The Rev. H.V. Kahlenberg turned to Psalm 46: "God is our refuge and our strength. … He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth."

"Simultaneously in Campbell Park, negroes of the city were gathering to worship," added a Times reporter, noting that 70 African-Americans who worked in the incinerator and garbage collection crews had requested permission to hold a special noon prayer service.

The St. Petersburg Independent reported that all business in the city was to be suspended at noon. The crowd joined in singing comforting hymns: A Mighty Fortress is Our God, Rock of Ages, and Oh God Our Help in Ages Past.

D-day was a stunning military success. Operation Overlord transported 156,000 troops and their equipment across 60 to 100 miles of open water, landing on heavily fortified beaches. Three weeks after D-day, the Allies had landed 1 million soldiers, 172,000 vehicles and a half billion tons of supplies.

But the invasion came at a terrible price.

Locally, Pvt. Ray Matthews, a former Green Devil football captain and president of his senior class, died in France in July 1944. Bill Nowling, whom many regard as St. Petersburg High's greatest football player, died in France at the Battle of Angers in August 1944. And in October came news that Lt. Merle E. Rudy Jr. had died in Charlotte when his A-20 light bomber crashed on a training mission. Rudy jumped from the plane but his parachute failed to open. A graduate of St. Petersburg High, Rudy left the University of Michigan to enlist in the Army Air Corps. Merle was the only brother of Martha Rudy Wallace, who had been one of the first to hear about D-day.

Gary R. Mormino, the Frank E. Duckwall emeritus professor of Florida history at USF St. Petersburg, is scholar in residence at the Florida Humanities Council.

Column: When D-day came to St. Petersburg 06/05/14 [Last modified: Thursday, June 5, 2014 5:45pm]
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