Boca Raton History Part 4: A World At War

boca raton history part 4 - a world at war

A majority of pictures, research, and supporting materials were provided as a courtesy through our partnership with The Boca Raton Historical Society.

Life In Prewar Boca Raton 

In the 1930s Imperial Japan had been well underway in its campaign of expansion. By that time numerous atrocities had been committed and large swathes of the Pacific fell under the control of a regime that for years remained largely unchecked by Western powers. By 1931, Manchuria had been invaded and occupied. On July 7th, 1937, the nation leveraged the Marco Polo Bridge Incident as its impetus to invade mainland China, later achieving victory at The Battle of Shanghai, later occupying the current capital, Beijing, and the then-capital Nanjing. It is here in Nanjing that the viciousness of the occupying force may have reached its nadir, with thousands of civilians executed. In today's world, it would be nigh impossible to imagine such a disconnect from the widespread brutality of Imperial Japan, but in the world that preceded World War II, the way we saw the world, the way we read the news, and the way regional powers interacted was very different. Though contact and relations had been established for centuries between European and East-Asian powers, it was rare a European nation would take note of a conflict that didn't directly implicate their interests. 

The actions of Imperial Japan would remain somewhat under the radar when on September 1st, 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland. This cataclysmic event would vault the overseas war into the national conscience, where debates would rage about whether to help, how much help would be given, or if we even chose the right side at all. Notably, the German American Bund, with help from the Nazi Party formed to advance the interests of Germany alongside other groups. Until later, few everyday Americans were truly aware of the urgency of what was unfolding overseas, nor how deeply they would be involved just a short time later. For Boca Raton residents, the 1930s and 1940s may have come on the heels of the Mizner-led Florida Land Boom of the decade prior, According to primary sources, as late as 1942, Boca Raton was still largely built around "only a municipal building, two general stores, two gas stations, a roadside restaurant, and a tavern with a year around population of 500." This, and the illustrious Boca Raton Resort, would be almost all of what was considered Boca Raton proper in 1942. While the war raged on in its second full year in Europe, locals were only beginning to come to terms with what was to come.

155m Howitzers sent to Britain as part of the Lend-Lease Act

155mm Howitzers sent to Britain as part of the Lend/Lease Act

Lending and Leasing 

Though the situation appeared dire, the United States had plans to enter the European Theater as Britain soon became the final Allied belligerent left to resist Nazi Germany. After a decade of non-interventionism in the 1930s, the United States passed the Lend-Lease Act in March of 1941. This allowed the United States to supply all manner of military hardware, munitions, fuel, rations, medicine, and all manner of crucial supplies at no cost to Britain and its Allies in exchange for future repayment or leases on shared land. While at this time the United States was staunchly and publicly opposed to entering the war, in just 9 months, all that would change. Despite the clear superiority of Nazi Germany in material, wartime production, weapons research, wartime readiness, and total arsenal, the British still had two distinct advantages: the Royal Navy, and the RADAR. For the sake of this blog, the RADAR, short for Radio Detective and Ranging, is the invention that may have saved the modern world from ruin, and provided the charge for Boca Raton's ascent from sleepy tropical resort-town to a bustling metropolis for vacationers and businesspeople alike. The RADAR was first demonstrated in use by the English on June 17th, 1935. This technology would inform the warning system that would save countless lives during The Battle of Britain. Later, thanks to an agreement made between the United States and Britain to share top-secret RADAR research and training, this nascent technology would line the coastlines of the United States, and sit onboard many B-17s, Lancaster Bombers, and on remote airstrips all across the Pacific.

The U.S. Enters The War

On December 7th, 1941, lending and leasing would transform into full-scale involvement in World War II. The Day of Infamy that marked the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor would lead to the United States declaring war on the Empire of Japan, and Nazi Germany declaring their own war on the United States a day later. Overnight, the sleeping giant of the Western hemisphere was awoken. Knowing the RADAR would make a considerable difference to all who possessed it. For its part, the United States was seeking a new site to build and expand its RADAR training. Mayor J.C. Mitchell, a World War I Veteran himself, saw the potential shared benefit that having the RADAR training school at Boca Raton would pose. It would bring thousands of jobs, new infrastructure, and expansion of its shipping lanes among many major boons to the then-fledgling seaside town. 

map of the Boca Raton army air field (BRAAF)

Map of the Boca Raton Army Air Field (BRAAF)

Boca Raton Takes Center Stage

The military agreed with Mayor Mitchell, and plans to expand the small town of Boca Raton into a sprawling military installation were underway. The coastal presence, minimally occupied, flat land, favorable weather, and all-season shipping lanes were major factors in choosing Boca Raton as the new location for the Air Corps Technical School for RADAR. Initial plans established the boundaries of the planned Boca Raton Army Airfield (BRAAF) as the "Florida East Coast and Seaboard Tracks, Palmetto Park Road, and Fifty-First Street." The military under their wartime powers seized over 5,820 acres of land in Boca Raton. There were thirty property owners who were then displaced but assured a later appraisal and just compensation. Of these thirty, four were Japanese farmers remaining from the Yamato Colony. However, despite assurances from the government, economic hardship was still inevitably felt by this land seizure, with notable early pioneer Burt Raulerson losing his home and prosperous farm, eventually to leave town and never return. By May 1942, the acquisitions process was over, and the engineers set to work at a blistering wartime pace. Under the leadership of Col. A. MacSpadden, the base was open in four months, officially entering service on October 15th, 1942. MacSpadden claimed construction was easy, thanks in large part to friendly and cooperative locals. This would be further seen as this small town of around 500 to 750 people ballooned to 16,381 troops in early 1945. As many as 50,000 to 100,000 servicemen and women would be stationed at BRAAF. Citizens of Boca Raton were commended during and after the war for quartering and feeding troops, rationing their own materials, and working tirelessly on the base, and within the community. Soldiers even quartered and trained at the Boca Raton Hotel, where acting manager Harold Turner hurriedly stored furniture and wrapped elegant stone pillars in coverings to protect them from the butts and barrels of the guns when servicemen rushed down the halls. 

Boca Raton Resort w/Army

Military officials walking the grounds of the Boca Raton Resort, which would be converted to military housing for the duration of the war.

the vigilant citizens of Boca Raton

The one advantage Germany had in Naval combat was the U-Boat. As pioneers of submarine warfare, the Germans had a leg up on submersible watercraft and used it to devastating effect throughout the Atlantic. Thomas Rickards Jr. witnessed firsthand the horrors of sub warfare. In a letter written to his sister, he describes an oil tanker struck just offshore by a U-Boat lying in wait. All fifty crewmembers died. Seven of these crewmen were wearing life preservers, and Rickards was later asked to help with identification at the Coast Guard Station at Boca Inlet. Understandably, this experience left him shaken. This letter continues: "They say at least twelve tankers have been torpedoed between Ft. Pierce and Miami during last week. I know of one last Monday off Boynton which was attacked in broad daylight, about 1:00, by a sub which was between it and offshore." Another account by plumber Joe Lankford describes the sinking of a sub off the coast of Boca Raton in sight of the beach. A Navy bomber first discharged its payload, later followed by Lankford's patrol boat, whose depth charges finished it off, rocking the entire beachfront. Boca Raton's residents truly played their part in the war, however small and local it was.  Local grocer Max Hutkin compared the surge in activity to Boca Raton to the Gold Rush of the Klondike. Army personnel soon began to frequent the Hutkins store. Each morning, Max and his wife Nettie would arise by 3:00 AM to make thousands of sandwiches for hungry soldiers. The Hutkins would sell them all by 2:00 PM that day. Between 1,200 and 1,500 civilians worked at the BRAAF during its peak. Locals and Army wives organized into watch pairs, manning the beach watch tower through 1944. The respect and admiration for these selfless citizens is reflected in a letter donated by Helen Howard, who served as a volunteer in the Aircraft Warning Service.

Part of it reads: "It has been almost 2 1/2 years since that Sunday in 1941 when thousands of Patriotic Amerians sprang to the defense o this country by manning roun-the-clock watches at Observation Posts, FIlter Centers, and Information Centers. It is my conviction that there never existed a more sincere and loyal group of Americans than those who volunteered for this work." In just a few short months, Boca Raton had put itself on the map through both the luster of its land, and the service of its citizens.

portrait of Col. Arnold MacSpadden

Portrait of Col. Arnold MacSpadden, U.S. Engineer and key leader charged with building the Army Air Corps base in record time.

The Tech That Turned The Tide

The RADAR training school was a top-secret initiative. Mentioning the word "RADAR" was punishable by court-martial. Colonel MacSpadden even recalls a GI who snuck RADAR parts off base, returning to a sea of spotlights, submachine guns, and curious MPs. Though there were spies in their midst, this soldier simply wanted parts to build his own set. As part of their agreement to share technology with the British, the highly classified work here was to build, improve, and test airborne RADAR over the Caribbean. Initially imported to MIT at the Rad Lab, the technology was now ready to be worked on and tested over open water and aboard freshly imported bomber aircraft. These airborne RADAR units would be mounted on several U.S. and British warplanes, which in the case of the RAF, was tantamount to countering the night-fighter strategy of the Luftwaffe. A popular quote of the day summed up the importance of the RADAR to detect, intercept, and turn the tide of the war in favor of the Allies: "RADAR won the war, the atom bomb ended it." 

Boca Raton Radar Training

Soldiers training in secret on the RADAR technology at the BRAAF.

Boca Raton & The World, Forever Changed

The RADAR saved the British Isles from ruin, prevented the RAF from total destruction, and allowed the United States to match its firepower and heart with cutting-edge technology. The RADAR would be deftly used in the Pacific Theater, where Aircraft carriers and combined arms warfare would step into the fore and shift war doctrine closer to what it resembles today. Moreover, the Allied victory prevented dozens of alternative scenarios from playing out, many of which are best relegated to historical fiction and morbid curiosity. Boca Raton and South Florida have one of the largest Jewish populations in the world, many of whom were Holocaust survivors and their descendants. How many of these families have never One can only imagine the cost to the world at large had Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan remained unchecked for a day longer, let alone the years that Allied victory prevented from unfolding. Locally, the RADAR and the economic boom that followed the military to Boca Raton forever changed the community. From here, some of the earliest and largest communities of single-family homes were developed in Boca Raton. Florida's quality of life, educational opportunities, available residential real estate, and overall impact on the U.S. economy and presence in the world blossomed following the Second World War. Truly, this technology breathed life into Boca Raton, and kept thousands of civilians alive. The RADAR was the savior for the British and the ultimate tool for Allied militaries to stem the tide of Axis encroachment. That Boca Raton factored so prominently, is one of the most under-told and significant stories in our city's short but incredibly rich history.

Read Our Previous Installment In Our Boca Raton History Series: Part III: Addison Mizner, The Land Boom, and The Great Depression

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