During World War II, St. Pete had its Bomb-a-Dears

When thousands of recruits descended on St. Petersburg during World War II to train as soldiers, pilots and sailors, a young woman named Peggy Baldwin volunteered to help the war effort.

She joined hundreds of young women in a group called the Bomb-a-Dears.

Carefully selected and constantly chaperoned, the women attended dances, sold war bonds, wrote letters to servicemen overseas and helped out at the Don CeSar Hotel, which had been converted into a military convalescent hospital.

Baldwin, now 88-year-old Peggy Baldwin Murrell, was in her first year at St. Petersburg Junior College when the call went out for volunteers. She was the second to sign up.

"It was such a patriotic thing," she said. She volunteered three times a week as a nurse's aide and attended dances all over the bay area.

"We sold war bonds at the dances," she said. "It was just so different then. Everybody was in such a patriotic mood."

When the war broke out, the city's tourism industry suddenly dried up. But the hotels, restaurants and parks quickly attracted a different kind of tourist — young military recruits.

Capitalizing on the area's mild climate and empty hotel rooms, the U.S. War Department turned southern Pinellas County into a major training center.

Before the war ended, tens of thousands of young recruits had lived in the hotels, marched in the streets and drilled in the parks and golf courses.

The city's residents, eager to do their part for the war effort, rationed everything from gas and tires to sugar, meat, vegetables and shoes.

As the city settled into its role as a military host, there were growing concerns that some of the young men were socializing with very young girls, said Connie Allen of St. Petersburg, a volunteer at the Pinellas County Heritage Village in Largo.

So a small group of local women who called themselves the Defense Mothers came up with idea of arranging more formal social outlets for the recruits.

The Bomb-a-Dears, who ranged in age from 18 to 30, generally came from the city's most prominent families.

"This was a very well chosen group. You didn't just join," said Gary Mormino, a professor of history at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. "You had to pass all sorts of social examinations. At least that's my impression, given the social standings of these ladies."

It's unclear where the group got its name, but local historians agree that the group was unique to St. Petersburg.

"I assume it was a play on the bombardiers who trained here," said Allen.

By the end of the war, 500 young women had served as Bomb-a-Dears. They participated in more than 1,200 dances and musical programs while entertaining 350,000 servicemen, according to one account in the St. Petersburg Times.

"They were a mirror of the boys," said Mormino. "If you look at a broader experience — wanting to make soldiers feel at home, dancing, flirting — that's an American experience."

The entertainment ranged from Sunday dinner in local homes to musical programs and dances at the Million Dollar Pier and MacDill and Drew fields in Tampa. (After the war, Drew Field became Tampa International Airport.)

"A lot of cities had a USO, but St. Petersburg was unique in that they had the Bomb-a-Dears," said Allen.

As they grew in popularity, the Bomb-a-Dears became a fixture. The St. Petersburg Times profiled a Bomb-a-Dear each Sunday.

Here's a snapshot from one profile:

"An active and attractive Bomb-a-Dear with a variety of interests, Eleanor Rosetta has added charm and personality to the many different duties to which she has been assigned. As a dance partner she rates high with service men who steer away from the jitterbug and prefer the graceful waltz and she is a pleasant and interesting conversationalist."

Mary Margaret Winning, now 86, is one of the youngest surviving Bomb-a-Dears. She recalls how quaint St. Petersburg was during the war.

"The city wasn't very big at the time," she said. "All the hotels in town were taken over by the servicemen, so there was no place to come down to spend the winter."

According to Winning, there were six service centers downtown where Bomb-a-Dears could socialize with soldiers. The Pier was the largest.

"We had Coast Guards and Marines," she said, "But did you know we had the Russians here, too?"

During the war, Russian soldiers were housed at a maritime training center at Bayboro Harbor, now the site of USF St. Petersburg.

"They would march up to Sixth Street (center), stay for a little while and dance. They put on a little show, and then they would march back to where their ship was."

Mormino, who once hoped to organize a reunion of the Bomb-a-Dears, realizes such an event would be hard to pull off. Just like the servicemen they entertained, the Bomb-a-Dears are rapidly disappearing.

"It's sobering to study that generation," he said. "It was really a magical moment" in the history of the city. "How do you get the public unified again when we're not at war?"

Some of the Bomb-a-Dears eventually married servicemen who trained here.

Not Peggy Baldwin. Her sweetheart, Bill Murrell, was local. When he was called up at Christmastime in 1942, Baldwin promised to wait for him. They married on St. Patrick's Day, after his return in 1946. They have been married for 65 years.

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Sandra J. Gadsden is an assistant metro editor, community news. She can be reached at sgadsden@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8874.

Excerpts from Bomb-a-Dear Peggy Baldwin's diary

Jan. 2, 1942: St. Petersburg's first blackout

Jan. 8: "Wore slacks to school for the first time. It's the latest fad."

Jan. 24: Dance with the Bomb-a-Dears at MacDill Field in Tampa.

Feb. 6: Dance for officers at the Princess Martha Hotel in St. Petersburg.

Feb. 14: Dance for soldiers from Tampa's Drew Field at the William & Mary Hotel in St. Petersburg.

Feb. 19: Victory Ball given by the Women of the Chamber of Commerce for Defense. "Thirty-two of us girls were usherettes at the Coliseum. We marched around selling bond chances."

March 19: "George Morrison, an insurance man and community leader, asked me to get 20 girls to sell defense bonds at Williams Park. We sold $11,025."

May 22: Dance at MacDill Field. "Came home to find the streets flooded with sailors. Six or seven destroyers came in today. The pier was all roped off — and everyone was excited."

June 18: "Eleven of the boys from SPJC enlisted in the Air Force Reserve. Their orders were marked Deferred until 1945. "

Feb. 23, 1943: They (the enlistees) received orders to report to basic training.

. Fast facts

Looking for Bomb-a-Dears

As Pinellas County prepares to celebrate its 100th birthday in 2012, Heritage Village is looking for former Bomb-a-Dears to participate in its Trees and Traditions celebration, which highlights traditions from the 1850s through the 1940s. Volunteers who served during World War II should call Connie Allen at (727) 596-5163.

During World War II, St. Pete had its Bomb-a-Dears 10/22/11 [Last modified: Saturday, October 22, 2011 4:31am]

© 2014 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...