A stop in Carabelle, Florida, our second, to see the Camp Gordon Johnston WWII Museum, which was closed on the way out. The museum has 5,000 square feet of exhibits that tell the story of this former coastal camp, where a quarter-million soldiers, including Omar Bradley and 30,000 of his men, trained for both Pacific and European theater warfare between 1942 and 1946. The scale of the construction of the training facility itself was gargantuan: All of 165,000-acre St. James Island—bordered by the Carabelle River, Crooked River, Ochlockonee Bay, and the Gulf—was cleared for use, and the barrier islands, Dog and St. George, were used as well. Despite it being a prime vacation spot now, it wasn’t easy duty then, with the heat, bugs, wild hogs, scorching sun, and violent storms.
“I have many memories of that place,” says veteran Culver Tenbroeck. “For example, going into a pup tent that was already occupied by a six-foot rattlesnake.”
“If, when I was there in the 28th Division,” says W. Bond Rutherford, “we had been given the choice of D-Day or stay at Dog Island-Carabelle, we would have picked Europe’s beaches and the Germans.”
“The man who selected that site should have been court-martialed for stupidity,” said Omar Bradley.
Some 2500 German POWs were also held at Camp Gordon Johnston. A sign in the museum says, “[P]risoners had free time to participate in sports, classroom, or leisure activities. US officials also mounted a re-education campaign to teach the prisoners democratic values.” Surely one of those values was to hate the sand-fleas, chiggers, and mosquitoes with the rest of the democracy.
Three or four interesting connections for us in this place: Army deep-sea divers also trained there (Frenchy is also the historian for the US Army Divers Association and wanted to ask some questions about the archives); the beaches of Carabelle, Lanark Village, and the surrounding area were used for all sorts of amphibious training, including Higgins-boat assaults (inventor and New Orleans businessman Andrew Higgins designing the landing craft we so often associate with D-Day); and Newton Perry, founder of tourist attraction Weeki Wachee, evidently worked and trained people in diving techniques at nearby Wakulla Springs, if not at Gordon Johnston itself. (There are films playing of him in the museum, fishing underwater with a fishing pole, and showing a young woman how to sit comfortably in some sort of diving bell.)
The docent at the museum could not have been any kinder or more attentive, conducted a personalized tour, in effect, and this the sort of museum that gives bigger ones a run for their money, as it’s more intimate and visceral.
Downtown Carabelle. Picturesque, oysters on the pilings, a boat repair shop, the water under the docks the color of tea. (“A quaint little drinking village with a fishing problem,” a billboard reads.) “World Famous Harry’s Bar and Package” on the waterfront. Sheryl Crow and Jimmy Buffet on the speakers, memorabilia, including a sign that reads in two languages, “Danger! Keep Out. Possible Unexploded Military Ammunition.” (Shouldn’t that be posted somewhere out on the beaches that made up the former gunnery range?). Signed dollar bills from previous customers hanging everywhere and papering the walls. Frenchy tells the lady behind the bar he should start counting them. “You’d be counting them until sometime in June,” she replies and laughs in a single musical note—“heeeeee!” Locals at the end of the bar talk loudly and good-naturedly. One says his daddy set up in the other room of their little house, drinking with visitors. “Daddy said he’d go to bed when they left, but morning came and Daddy was still in there. I said, ‘Gol-dang, Daddy….’”
“His mama was a corker,” the bartender tells us as if in confidence but loudly enough for the locals in their knot at the other end of the bar to hear. “And his daddy could drink. Gol-dang he could drink.” We sip our beers and consider.
“…bless his little heart….”
“…he was down there in Appalachicola….”
“…beer and a shot and a beer and a beer….”
“Ma’am, what time is it?” I ask a little later.
“The clock is right there,” she says. She points.
“Well, there’s only one hand on that clock,” Frenchy says. Outside our SUV ticks in the heat.