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How Tampa Bay area civilians supported the troops during World War II

Allied troops were helped by residents in all corners of the area — from Tampa’s shipyards to Tarpon Springs’ sponge docks.
Tampa women, including Juanita Salcines (far right), sell war bonds during World War II.
Tampa women, including Juanita Salcines (far right), sell war bonds during World War II. [ Times (1943) ]
Published Sep. 1, 2020

TAMPA — An aluminum ID card shaped like a war bond was among the most prized possessions of Emiliano J. Salcines, Sr.

It was a presidential commendation he received for leading the sale of war bonds to Tampa’s Latino community during World War II.

“My father carried it very proudly in his wallet,” retired judge Emiliano J. Salcines Jr., also known as E.J. Salcines, said. “It showed that my father, an immigrant from Spain, had stood up and done something in support of the country that embraced him.”

He was not alone.

Residents in all corners of the Tampa Bay area — from Tampa’s shipyards to Tarpon Springs’ sponge docks — supported the efforts of the Allied troops who were fighting the second great war that ended 75 years ago on Sept. 2, 1945, when the Japanese formally surrendered.

“We did it together,” Salcines, 82, said. “Everyone did their part.”

That “together” included women who, at that time in American history, were expected stay home and raise the family while men raise the money.

“They held down the fort,” Doris Weatherford, an author focusing on women’s history, said of local women during World War II.

Employment at Tampa shipyards that supported the military reached 16,000 during the war, she wrote in her book Real Women of Tampa & Hillsborough County. With so many of the area’s men enlisted, women were asked to handle blue-collar jobs, too.

“Shipyards throughout the United States commonly hired women as riveters,” Weatherford wrote in her book. “The first female welder in Tampa was Cecile Clark.” Alma Brown was the first women admitted to the Boilermakers Union and Opal Brown won a welding competition at Jackson Shipyard in Hooker’s Point.

“Enough young mothers worked in these jobs that Hillsborough County’s school board provided nurseries for preschoolers whose parents are engaged in war work in the Tampa area,” Weatherford wrote.

Historian Gary Mormino said, “The demand for workers was so acute that hundreds of women entered the shipbuilding profession to become ‘Joans of Arc.’”

Perhaps the most unique example of women holding down the fort goes to Frances Chiramonte. Her brother, Alfonso Chiramonte, had been elected to the Hillsborough County School Board. Rather than holding a new election when he went off to war, she filled in for her brother for the three years he was gone, Weatherford said.

Tarpon Springs also found its own ways to help.

Resident Paul Saunders developed and manufactured snakebite kits. Each contained a scalpel, a tourniquet, a vacuum suction pump, an antiseptic and instructions.

The Canadian government, Mormino said, ordered 41,000 for their troops.

The military also needed sponges for cleaning military equipment like periscopes and helmets, Mormino said.

The sponge docks stepped up.

“Sales for 1942 were impressive — $1.7 million,” Mormino said. “But the 1943 total of $2.3 million broke the record as the most profitable year ever. The sponge industry continued to soar, breaking still another record in 1944 — $2.55 million.”

Locals on both sides of the bay volunteered to survey the skies from towers, one located at Tarpon Springs’ city pier, Mormino said. They were on the lookout for the “threat of German Stuka dive bombers.”

The war was closer than most knew.

Nazi submarines, as part of a German expedition called Operation Drumbeat that spanned May 1942 through April 1943, patrolled the Gulf of Mexico.

Tampa Bay’s waters were not home to an attack, the Tampa Bay History Center’s Rodney Kite-Powell said. But, on seven occasions, ships either bound for Tampa or coming from the city were sunk.

The Nazis had several goals — death and destruction, preventing ships from leaving U.S. waters and sinking the morale of U.S. citizens.

The U.S. government either did not tell the public of the incidents at all or told the media they were isolated rather than part of a wide-scale operation.

The damaged ships were sometimes repaired at area shipyards.

The local newspapers published photos of area men serving their nation during World War II.
The local newspapers published photos of area men serving their nation during World War II. [ Times (1944) ]

Still, war bonds were the most popular way in which residents supported the troops.

“The war bond effort was nationwide at every level at every class of people because the government needed money to pay for tanks and bullets and rifles and more,” Salcines said.

A bond might cost $15, he said, but be worth $25 once the war was over.

Salcines’ said his father was charged with leading the sales effort in the Latino community because he owned a large general store on the corner of Howard Avenue and Main Street in West Tampa.

“That was the heartbeat of West Tampa,” Salcines said.

War bond posters, provided by the federal government, hung in the store windows.

The local newspapers published photos of enlisted men. To further illicit patriotic pride, Salcines’ said his father would cut and paste the pictures to the backs of war bond posters seen from inside the store.

And his father and mother, Juanita, made the rounds in the Latin communities of West Tampa and Ybor City, often with Salcines dressed as a little soldier or sailor.

“At the movie theaters, between the first and the second movie, while they changed the real, my father would make a pitch in English and Spanish,” Salcines said. “He would tell them we have to help our boys and we have to help the government finance the war effort.”

Rene Gonzalez, 82, has two primary memories of the war’s impact on his life as a child in Ybor.

“We couldn’t get good olive oil because we were at war with Italy,” he said with a laugh. “It was hysteria. How could Ybor live without olive oil?”

And then was the serious matter of air raid drills during which everyone had to turn off their lights so the city was less of a target.

“All of Ybor went dark, even Seventh Avenue,” Gonzalez said. “Cars even had the tops of their headlights painted black so the beams only pointed to the road and could not be seen from above.”

When the war ended, as adults who understood the severity of the situation celebrated the return of the troops and the end the Nazi threat, kids celebrated something else.

“The lights could be turned back on,” Gonzalez said. “The dark nights were behind us.”

Residents celebrating in the streets when World War II ended.
Residents celebrating in the streets when World War II ended. [ Times (1945) ]