MEMOIR: My first visit to Florida was no vacation
For the past 17 years, my wife and I have spent the winters in Florida. And 55 years ago, we spent our honeymoon in Miami Beach. But my first visit to Florida was no vacation and certainly not as pleasurable as subsequent visits to the state.
I first came to Florida in April 1943 for a three-month tour of Army Air Corps basic training in Miami Beach, a city that had been virtually taken over by the military. (A similar wartime conversion occurred in Atlantic City, N.J., where another Air Corps basic training center was established.) The resort hotels became "barracks" for the troops, virtually all commercial enterprises in the area were closed, and civilians became a rare species on the streets.
About a week before my arrival in Miami Beach, I had been inducted into the Army in Camp Upton, N.Y. with a group of 18-year olds from my neighborhood in the Bronx. I was separated from most of them because there weren't any empty beds available in their barracks for me and a handful of other inductees. We were assigned to a barracks across the street from the main group.
After a frenzied routine of being tested, inoculated, and given uniforms, the men in the main group were shipped to Camp McCall, N.C. to be trained as glider-infantrymen. When I came home after the war, I learned that they had later been assigned to the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions. Sadly, I also learned that almost half of them were killed or wounded in action in Europe.
The handful of us who were unable to get beds with the main group at Camp Upton wound up in Miami Beach. We were greeted by an Army colonel who, with a straight face, announced that we had been "scientifically selected as the cream of the crop for the Air Corps." The colonel was evidently unaware that we had come to Miami Beach only because there had been no beds for us in a barracks at Camp Upton. It was my initial exposure to military nonsense.
Although we were now living in a famed resort area, the Air Corps command did its best to create a harsh military environment. Military discipline was strictly imposed on us. We spent our days doing close-order drill, learning how to use a rifle, doing calisthenics, doing KP and guard duty (I was never sure what we guarding against), and performing all the other elements of Army basic training. When not in training, we were usually restricted to quarters.
As I recall, such Hollywood celebrities as Jimmy Stewart and Clark Gable were attending an officer candidate school in Miami Beach while I was there.
Many of the trainees were housed in what had been luxurious hotels. But I was assigned to the Hotel Madrid, a seedy, rat-infested hotel on Fourth Street between Collins Ave. and Ocean Drive. During a visit to the South Beach several years ago, I could not find a trace of it.
I shared a hotel suite with three other trainees. One of them was a farm boy who had never lived in a house with running water. Our suite was carefully inspected almost daily. Unfortunately, the inspections often occurred on days when the farm boy was the last one to use the toilet.
He obviously didn't know, however, that the toilet had to be flushed. The result was that all four of our suite's occupants were punished because of his ignorance. Our punishment was to scrub the hotel lobby floor with a toothbrush, an activity that did nothing to enhance our military capabilities.
A far more meaningful means to prepare us for warfare were regular forced marches, armed with a rifle and carrying a heavy field pack on our backs. We marched northward for at least 10 miles on what was then a barren, empty beach. After the war, the territory developed into what is now Bal Harbour and other upscale, postwar resort communities.
Our destination was a firing range where we practiced the use of various weapons. We began with the Lee-Enfield rifle, a World War I weapon whose fierce recoil made more modern rifles seem so much easier to fire. We bivouacked in pup tents, a problem for me because I had trouble properly wrapping an unopened pup tent around my back pack. On one visit to the bivouac area, a man in an adjoining tent was bitten by a coral snake and died.
As the basic training period ended, we had the option of selecting what the Army delicately calls a "military occupational specialty" before being shipped for advanced training to a more conventional military base. Those with some college education were invited to apply to become aviation cadets and trained as pilots, navigators or bombardiers.
I had only a year of night school college and applied to become an aerial gunner. But I flunked the color blind test and was rejected. I never understood why my inability to distinguish certain shades of blue from green would prevent me from shooting down enemy aircraft.
Before my induction, I had worked briefly as an office clerk at the U.S. Office of War Information. I was an accomplished touch typist, a skill seemingly regarded in the military as almost as vital as firing a rifle. That's probably why I was transferred to the Signal Corps at Camp Crowder, Mo., to be trained as a Teletype operator and cryptographer. (I was never called upon to use those skills while I was stationed overseas; but that's another story.)
I never saw Florida again for another decade. My return to the state was made under far more happy circumstances than my initial say there. This time I came with a bride on a honeymoon, and with no thoughts about close-order drill, rifle ranges, bivouacs, guard duty, KP, and forced marches. I had other matters on my mind.