If I Had My Way
If I Had My Way is a play about life: laughter, tears, music, pride and fear; strong women and willful men; longing and unrequited desires; family and home; the past, the future, the magic of citrus blossoms. The play touches on the shared experiences of farm help, the children of enslavement (in its many forms) and people, often forced into warfare, who find themselves captured, put on ships and told to work during the day and live behind barbed wire at night.
This was life in Florida during WWII. This is that story.
The characters of If I Had My Way live in a time when America is still in the grips of World War II, not knowing Germany will surrender within months. The realities of the War and its drain on local manpower meant a shortage of workers on local farms, a shortage addressed by the US Army by "lending" residents of area POW camps to fill the gap - Kissimmee Air Base was developed as an Italian detainee camp and became such a part of local community that POWs would often be seen shopping in downtown Kissimmee and even going to the movies. Formed in 1943, Camp Blanding in Starke, FL, (constructed by the builders of the Empire State Building) at first contained captured U-boat crews and Afrika Korps members who had surrendered in North Africa and eventually extended to a least 15 branch camps. When Camp Johnston in Carrabelle was opened in early 1944, both camps were filled with captured and surrendered troops from Sicily and Italy, and then from France and Germany.
PRISONERS IN SUNSHINE
As long as the Government is offering, Mr. Jamison’s glad of the help. Goodness knows we need it, there isn’t a spare farmhand from here to Jacksonville.
Unknown to many residents of the state, even at the time, over 10,000 German and Italian prisoners of war were kept in Florida, housed in a system of camps throughout the state. At its peak in May 1945, a total of 425,871 POWs were held in the US. This included 371,683 Germans, 50,273 Italians, and 3,915 Japanese. From June 1940 through May 1943, hundreds of thousands of Italians were sent into a war for which they were ill equipped and about which they understood little. By the end of 1943, over six hundred thousand Italian soldiers were taken prisoner and, of those, 51,000 were brought to America as enemy prisoners of war. Thousands of Italian POWs, captured in Africa, Sicily and France, were sent to 29 camps in Florida between 1944 and 1946. The Kissimmee airport (aka the Army Air Base) was built by Italian prisoners of war as an branch site to Ft. Blanding, and residents were lent out to local ranches to do picking duties in the orchards. The POWs picked vegetables, harvested sugar cane, cut pulpwood, processed Florida’s massive fruit crop, and even served as custodial workers at undermanned military installations and Miami resort hotels. The practice goes back to WWI, German POWs (and “heritage enemy aliens”) were held in two camps in Georgia and sent to build roads. In 1918, the mayor of Kissimmee, Florida, requested information on the process to obtain prisoners from Fort McPherson in Georgia to work on the highways in his city. Almost 90% of the Italian POWs agreed to support the U.S. war effort by joining what would be called Italian Service Units.
Other Florida detainment camps included Drew Field Airport and MacDill Air Base in Tampa, Camp Gordon Johnston in Carrabelle, Clewiston, Daytona Beach, Orlando, Melbourne, several in Miami, Fort Meyers and Winter Haven. Not to mention 155 camps in 45 states, including Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Arizona, Wyoming, Hawaii, Utah, Michigan, Montana and Ohio.
As many as 500,000 Italian sons of immigrants served in the American armed forces during World War II. But 600,000 Italian immigrants had not become U.S. citizens. The U.S. government therefore declared them enemy aliens.
In addition to forcibly evacuating 120,000 Americans of Japanese background from their homes on the West Coast to barbed-wire-encircled camps, Executive Order 9066, the rule signed by President Franklin Roosevelt on February 19, 1942, authorizing the Army to evacuate any persons they considered a threat to national security, called for the compulsory relocation of more than 10,000 Italian-Americans, restricted the movements of more than 600,000 Italian-Americans nationwide and detained, relocated, stripped of their property or placed under curfew. Often families, including naturalized or American-born spouses and children, of those interned voluntarily joined them in internment. The government treated Italians on the West Coast more harshly than their counterparts in the East. Many had to move inland. East Coast Italians had it a little better because their dense neighborhoods gave them political clout. Italians, after all, helped elect Fiorella LaGuardia mayor of New York City. But still, Italians throughout the country carried the stigma of their classification as enemy aliens. They lost jobs because of curfews. The government shut down their Italian-language newspapers, and the U.S. Navy requisitioned their fishing yawls. They had to give up cameras and short-wave radios for military reasons. But in fact, hundreds of Italians were arrested by the FBI in the months immediately after Pearl Harbor, before America even joined the War. About 250 individuals were interned for up to two years in military camps in Montana, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas. By June of 1942, the total reached 1,521 Italian aliens arrested by the FBI, sometimes just for curfew.
The secret Enemy Alien Control Program, run by the State Department, sent FBI agents to Latin America, looking for German ex-pats who they could consider threats, spies and saboteurs. Just days after Pearl Harbor, thousands of Europeans who had moved to Latin America were rounded up and eventually deported to Camp Algiers in New Orleans and Crystal City, Texas, the only family internment camp during the war. Camp Blanding also had a separate compound that held around three hundred German Latin American internees in the spring and summer of 1942.
Over fifteen Latin American countries accepted the offer and eventually deported a total of over 6,600 individuals of Japanese, German, and Italian ancestry, along with some of their families, to the U.S. for internment, some being held until 1948. Few, if any, of those deported received any sort of a hearing so many did not know the specific reasons for their deportation. Since it was illegal at that time for the U.S. to seize individuals outside the U.S., when the Latin American residents arrived to the port of New Orleans without papers, they were denied visas. Then, they were arrested on the grounds that they had attempted to enter the country illegally, and were then subject to internment. Approximately 81 European Jews in various countries were rounded up, refugees who had gone to Latin America when they were denied a visa to enter the U.S. for refuge. In the search for Nazis, the United States deported and interned Jews; held at the Ellis Island Detention Center, where, most likely, they had been turned away .
RACE AND FLORIDA
And I wonder what part of that beach they got to play on? Surely not where those Black soldiers who took them prisoners there has to wait cause they not allowed on the sand?
Although African Americans had participated in every conflict since the Revolutionary War, they had done so segregated, and FDR appointee Henry Stimson, the Secretary of War, was not interested in changing the status quo. With a need to shore up the U.S. Armed Forces as war intensified in Europe, FDR decided that Black men could register for the draft, but they would remain segregated and the military would determine the proportion of Blacks inducted into the service. The compromise represented the paradoxical experience that befell the 1.2 million African American men who served in World War II: They fought for democracy overseas while being treated like second-class citizens by their own country. Despite African American soldiers' eagerness to fight in World War II, the same Jim Crow discrimination in society was practiced in every branch of the armed forces. Many of the bases and training facilities were located in the South, in addition to the largest military installation for Black soldiers, Fort Huachuca, located in Arizona. Regardless of the region, at all the bases there were separate blood banks, hospitals or wards, medical staff, barracks and recreational facilities for Black soldiers. And white soldiers and local white residents routinely slurred and harassed them.
Black nurses who served in the war found themselves in one of two places— segregated bases with Black soldiers or German prisoner of war camps. In one train depot in Texas, a group of Black soldiers were denied access to the Whites-Only dining hall, yet saw through a window, a group of German POWs and their American guards sitting at a table together, laughing and eating. When German prisoners complained about having to work in Tampa's MacDill Field mess hall kitchen where black and white American soldiers ate in the same building, military authorities appeased the POWs by segregating whites and blacks into different dining areas.
Meanwhile, even in a "post Jim Crow" Florida, racial segregation of unequal public facilities remained the norm throughout Florida. First expressed in the Fort Lauderdale Daily News in 1927, African American communities were unhappy with being constrained to a single “colored leisure beach”; an uninhabited and inconvenient strip of land that was inferior to the “white beaches”. It was not until 1945 that African American leaders in Dade County began to plan action to challenge and draw attention to this injustice. Nothing changed until the 1964 Civil Rights Act ... if then.
Ironically, it was the guaranteed mortgages of the G.I. Bill that allowed Black soldiers returning from the War to move from ghettos into owning homes.
The Klan marches through Orlando every couple years, you know, hoods and crosses and all, and folks let them, like it’s normal.
With a membership of about 30,000, the Ku Klux Klan was active in Jacksonville, Miami, and the citrus belt from Orlando to Tampa. In the orange groves of Central florida, Klansmen still operated in the old nightriding style, intimidating blacks who tried to vote, “punishing” marital infidelity and clashing with union organizers. Florida responded with laws to unmask the nightriders, and a crusading journalist named Stetson Kennedy infiltrated and then exposed the Klan in 1946, rousing the anger of ministers, editors, politicians and plain citizens.
In 1920, black residents in the Ocoee area owned land and businesses and were eager to vote. Despite a terrorizing Ku Klux Klan march through the Orlando streets on October 30, 1920, Mose Norman and other African Americans attempted to vote. They were turned away. After seeking advice from Orlando Judge John Cheney, Norman again attempted to vote. Armed whites stationed at the polls immediately assaulted him. Reportedly he fled to the home of his friend and business comrade, July Perry. A mob, seeking to capture Perry and Norman, surrounded and attacked Perry's home. Two white members of the mob were shot and killed by Perry. Perry suffered a severe wound during the raid and was arrested and jailed. The next morning, November 3, 1920, a lynch mob took Perry from his cell, beat him severely, and hanged him at the entrance of the Orlando Country Club.
THE DICHOTOMY OF THE ITALIANS
I knew a bunch of Italian folk in New Orleans, when I was workin the docks.
Italian immigrants were welcomed into Louisiana after the Civil War, when the planter class was in desperate need of cheap labor to replace newly emancipated black people, who were leaving backbreaking jobs in the fields for more gainful employment. These Italians seemed at first to be the answer to both the labor shortage and the increasingly pressing quest for settlers who would support white domination in the emerging Jim Crow state. Louisiana’s romance with Italian labor began to sour when the new immigrants balked at low wages and dismal working conditions. The newcomers also chose to live together in Italian neighborhoods, where they spoke their native tongue, preserved Italian customs and developed successful businesses that catered to African-Americans, with whom they fraternized and intermarried. In time, this proximity to blackness would lead white Southerners to view Sicilians, in particular, as not fully white and to see them as eligible for persecution — including lynching — that had customarily been imposed on African-Americans.
My cousins, they visit from Sicily, their skin is very dark, almost like you. They are treated very bad, much angry. But it is different here, si? But also, the same.
Darker skinned southern Italians endured the penalties of blackness on both sides of the Atlantic. In Italy, Northerners had long held that Southerners — particularly Sicilians — were an “uncivilized” and racially inferior people, too obviously African to be part of Europe.
When the Americans catch us, we had no more bullets, it was easy.
The Italian Royal Army. The manpower strength of an Italian infantry division was very low, the division could not absorb prolonged combat losses without becoming ineffective. A major reason for the low combat value ascribed to the Italian army are repeat incidents where hundreds of soldiers were collected into captivity without much or indeed without any resistance. While the Germans conveyed discipline and order, the Italian soldier was seen to be happy-go-lucky and disorganized. Many Italian soldiers performed well, while others seemed to lose their enthusiasm for the war. “He was neither equipped nor prepared for a war against a European opponent armed with the most modern weapons, because the Fascist regime had neglected the armed forces. The Army was particularly at a disadvantage in respect of tanks, antitank equipment, artillery, and antiaircraft defense. A considerable portion of the Army’s guns was still composed of the booty collected on the collapse of Austria-Hungary in the autumn of 1918. Their wireless posts were not in a position to transmit or receive while on the move. There were no field kitchens, and the rations were insufficient. Their industry was not equipped to meet the requirements of the armed forces during a war of long duration. The grueling conditions of the desert, the lack of equipment, and the lack of preparation for the venture did nothing to instill the Italian soldier with duty to a distant dictator.” The fact that tens of thousands of Italians chose, voluntarily, to join with the Allies later in the war and fight the Germans in the equally inhospitable terrain of their homeland is often overlooked.
Mussolini Prime Minister of Italy from the March on Rome in 1922 until his deposition in 1943, and "Duce" of Italian Fascism from the establishment of the Italian Fasces of Combat in 1919 until his execution in April 1945 by Italian partisans.
It was illegal for a POW to marry in the U.S., but after the war Washington enabled the fiances of former POWs set sail for Italy on surplus troop transports with a chaperone (often an aunt or mother). Each carried the documents required for a legal marriage in Italy and two trunks of personal luggage. By marrying in Italy, the women could then legally bring their new husbands back to America to live.
LIFE AT HOME
Workin the turpentime fields up Steinhatchee way.
In January, 1865, General Sherman procliamed the infamous "40 acres and a mule" order, alloting land formerly held by Confederate soldiers to recently freed slaves. In July of the same year, newly minted President Andrew Johnson Vetoed that bill, giving that land back to its former Confederate owners. The concept of sharecropping, the onerous post-Civil War replacement for people working in slavery, was being replaced by big business, and in agricultural Florida that meant the turpentine, lumber and Big Sugar industries. Zora Neale Hurston’s expedition to a Turpentine camp in Cross City, Florida showed turpentine has many uses but in the early 1900’s it was used for caulking the seams in ships, treating ropes, solvents, medical purposes, repairs, and was even used in paints. Work at this camp started at 6 in the morning, but it was the foreman’s job to have every man up earlier than that. The foreman had 18 men under him and everyone resided in his place, he earned around $12.50 a week, and received all the firewood and gardening space that he desired. In this particular camp there were five chippers, seven pullers, another five dippers and a wood-chopper. Work on any ‘gum path’ in the U.S. during the 1920’s and 30’s was grim, long, and often a repetitive, and tiring process.
Couldn’t get no sugar this week, Mizz Margaret, we been rationed out.
The government began rationing certain foods in May 1942, starting with sugar. By the spring, Americans were unable to purchase sugar without government-issued food coupons. Vouchers for coffee were introduced in November, and by March of 1943, meat, cheese, fats, canned fish, canned milk and other processed foods were added to the list of rationed provisions. Every American was entitled to a series of war ration books filled with stamps that could be used to buy restricted items (along with payment), and within weeks of the first issuance, more than 91 percent of the U.S. population had registered to receive them. Promotions such as “Meatless Tuesdays” and “Wheatless Wednesdays” implored Americans to voluntarily modify their eating habits in order to increase shipments to soldiers.
Pink grapefruits were discovered in 1910 Florida on Kimball Chase Atwood’s 265 acres of plantation south of Tampa Bay. Ruby Red was patented in 1929.
A Pineywoods bull is a lovely color too, but I’m not putting one up on the breakfast table.
Pineywoods cattle, directly descended from criollo (Spanish stock born in the New World) cattle that were introduced to the American Atlantic coast by Andalusian explorers in the early 1500s. They became the Longhorns of Texas, the Corriente of Mexico, and the Pineywoods and Florida Cracker cows.
Besides, all you have to do is go over to Jimmy’s Grill on Thursday. Thursday is spaghetti night.
In 1942, LIFE magazine ran a a series of photographs by Alfred Eisenstaedt as a tutorial for women, teaching how to elegantly consume spaghetti “like a lady” - four strands at a time. "Truant strands require patience, lip facility, suck power."
On the night of June 16, 1942, four saboteurs from a German submarine came ashore at Ponte Vedra Beach, just a few miles north of St. Augustine, carrying explosives and American money. Five days earlier, another submarine had put ashore four others on Long Island, NY. The German spies were captured before they could do any damage, but the entire Atlantic seaboard was alarmed. Coast Guard units in St. Augustine patrolled the beaches on horseback, in jeeps, and even using specially trained patrol dogs. That year, runways, taxi strips and barracks were built at Kissimmee Airport when the Army took it over. For recreation, the soldiers stationed at the Army Air Field used the swimming pool at Gilbert Park, which has since been removed. In 1945, the first U.S. jet aircraft were secretly tested at Kissimmee Army Air Field.
Somethin called “National Velvet”? Heard tell it’s about horses, I like horses.
National Velvet, starring the 12 year-old Elizabeth Taylor, 1944
Daddy met Roosevelt once. Back in ‘20, he was runnin for somethin, come through Florida.
In 1920, Franklin D. Roosevelt was the running mate of failed presidential candidate James M. Cox. The ticket lost in a landslide to Warren G. Harding. In 1921, Roosevelt would be struck by polio. In the dozen years that followed he was elected governor of New York, and became president of the United States. served as the 32nd president of the United States from 1933 until his death in April, 1945.
TO LEARN MORE
Prisoners In Paradise a film by Camilla Calamandrei
Southern Exposure and I Rode With the Ku Klux Klan books by Stetson Kennedy about his years undercover with the Klan
Una Storia Segreta: The Secret History of Italian American Evacuation and Internment during World War II by Lawrence DiStasi
The Train to Crystal City: FDR's Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America's Only Family Internment Camp During World War II By Jan Jarboe Russell
Mules and Men by Zora Neale Hurston
Hitler's Soldiers in the Sunshine State German POWs in Florida Robert D. Billinger, Jr.