75 years ago this month – War came to Florida shores

U123 GulfAmerica copy
(U-123 oil painting by Jackson Walker)

February 16, 2017 – A full-page-and-a-half article published in today’s Palm Beach Post by staff writer and historian Eliot Kleinberg tells the fascinating story of German submarine warfare within sight of Florida shores. Twenty-four ships were sunk between February-May 1942, the majority in the 150-mile stretch of coastline from Cape Canaveral to Boca Raton.

A great storyteller, Kleinberg’s opening paragraph sets the scene: “If you were living on Jupiter Island 75 years ago, on Feb. 21, 1942, you might have been partying at the local drinking hole, relaxing in your living room, or asleep in bed. All of a sudden, you would have felt the ground beneath you vibrate.” The story continues with coastal blackouts, famous local landmarks like The Breakers hotel in Palm Beach being converted into a hospital, local residents with German names being rounded up, beachcombers finding bodies amid seaweed and shells, pervasive paranoia.

It’s a great article, well illustrated, and well worth the read. Here’s a link: “The war offshore”

Eliot’s article references a book titled Operation Drumbeat by my godfather, University of Florida Distinguished Professor of History Emeritus Michael Gannon. Mike was the inspiration for my book on the history of Florida broadcasting and its effect on the social history of the state. One of Mike’s stories about warfare off the coast is in my book, including a first-person account by the captain of German U-123 who was monitoring St. Augustine radio station WFOY. The submarine was so close to the beach that “houses, trees, the dunes of the beautiful beach, the slender light house beyond it, everything could be seen without binoculars.” The boat continued northward where it encountered and sunk a tanker off Jacksonville Beach.

Commercial radio stations caused particular security concerns—not just because their signals could be used for direction finding, but out of caution for coded messages that could be conveyed to the enemy even by well-meaning broadcasters.

Within weeks of the submarine warfare off the coast, the US War Service Office of Censorship issued its Code of Wartime Practices for American Broadcasters. Many of the provisions were obvious, if very restrictive, when seen through the lens of today’s liberal media rules. Other prohibitions were somewhat surprising. “ALL weather data, either forecasts, summaries, recapitulations, or any details of weather conditions.” Included were restrictions on weather conditions surrounding special events. Permitted were terms such as “Game called because of weather,” “wet ground,” “muddy field”; prohibited was anything related to conditions over a large area, like “clear,” “rain,” “windy,” etc.

Entertainment programs were also restricted—the goal being to prevent coded messages to the enemy. “No telephoned or telegraphed requests” for songs. No “service announcements,” such as lost pets, meetings and the like. No man-on-the-street interviews.

The rules were voluntary, but enthusiastically adopted by broadcasters seeking to support their country in time of war.

You can read more about these topics and many more examples of how Florida broadcasters influenced the social history of our state in Towers in the Sand: The History of Florida Broadcasting, available now in paperback and e-book editions by clicking here.

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