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Restoring South Florida's fading military memory

MIAMI, Fla. — There was a time during World War II when South Florida was a major training ground for the U.S. military.

Air wing troops bivouacked at Miami Beach hotels and trained on the golf courses. The Army drilled up and down Biscayne Boulevard, while the Navy had a submarine chaser school at what we now call Bayside Marketplace.

Out on the edge of the Everglades, a blimp base near today’s Zoo Miami sent sailors out over the ocean to hunt down German U-boats.

The base was called Naval Air Station Richmond, and it housed three gargantuan blimp hangars and a federalist-style white shiplap headquarters — a peculiarly un-Floridian-style building where in the ’60s CIA agents covertly hatched ham-handed plots to oust Fidel Castro from power in Cuba.

Now, a nonprofit group bankrolled by county funds is working to make South Florida’s mostly forgotten military history more than a fading memory. It’s seeking a $3 million commitment from the state Legislature to transform the old blimp headquarters into the Military Museum of South Florida.

And the ambitious $7 million project is in a race against time to pay homage to America’s Greatest Generation, the World War II veterans, before the memory disappears entirely.

“World War II veterans are dying fast,” says Miami historian Arva Moore Parks, who as a child saw them as soldiers marching on Biscayne Boulevard. “There were other installations around Miami,” she adds, “but the blimp base itself was extremely important.”

Enter Anthony Atwood, a retired U.S. Navy yeoman, a historian in his own right and the driving force behind the nonprofit project whose current fate lies in the hands of the state.

Part pitchman, 100 percent patriot, Atwood is so passionate about South Florida’s military history — and the blimp base in particular — that the obscure is suddenly interesting and the distant past has immediate relevance.

  • With the 70th anniversary of D-Day coming up in June, Atwood, who wrote his doctorate dissertation on Florida’s World War II history from Florida International University in 2012, wants you to know that America’s path to the liberation of Europe started not on the beaches of Normandy but right here in the Sunshine State.

Three divisions landed on D-Day, and “all trained in Florida,” he says. “If you’re going to land on a beach under fire, you’d better get some training.”

  • The future military museum was moved as a shell to its current site alongside the Gold Coast Railroad Museum in 2010. Rail cars came and then went with the blimps. But the building, smack in the middle of 2,000 acres of mostly empty land, found its Cold War purpose as “the largest CIA base south of Langley,” the agency’s Virginia headquarters.

It was codenamed JM-Wave and, according to Atwood, when carpenters stripped the building, they found wire mesh planted in the walls to deflect electronic surveillance — and a secret door fashioned like a window on one side.

  • In its heyday, Naval Air Station Richmond maintained 21 blimps as an air wing. Its World War II workforce included laborers conscripted out of the Goodyear plant, a Navy band of students drafted out of the Juilliard School and air crews specially trained for an urgent mission.

German U-boats had been sinking merchant freighters and other ships carrying crucial supplies to the war effort. Stricken ships went down off the coasts of Dania, Fort Pierce and Miami Beach, he said. “You could see the dead sailors floating ashore along with the petroleum.”

The blimp crews carried bombs to hunt down and disrupt, if not destroy, the subs and secure strategic shipping lanes as far south as Brazil.

Miami-Dade County has contributed $3 million to move the dilapidated former 12,000-square-foot building to its current location, on a former blimp landing strip, where workers are now restoring it to modern safety standards. The state has so far kicked in $500,000, and the Legislature is considering a proposal to contribute $3 million to complete the work.

If the state agrees, Atwood anticipates at least a partial opening by Christmas to whet the public’s historical appetite.

“It’s a process, not an end,” he said of ongoing plans to build exhibits that span South Florida’s contributions to the war efforts and surround the building with somber attractions including a 2,500-square-foot Quonset hut packed with period hardware, a Cuban Missile Crisis-era Hawk missile and a World War II-vintage jeep.

The site is large, and so is the vision.

Blueprints envision a parade ground with bleachers, an obstacle course and education center for kids. The plan also proposes a memorial garden for veterans and a gift shop with build-your-own blimp model kits, spotter cards and “Rosie the Riveter” towels.

Atwood is looking for a vintage blimp gondola, a minivan-sized compartment that carried a crew of 10 sailors. He also wants to find a DC-3, World War II’s workhorse cargo plane, to reflect Miami’s role as a major war-effort air hub. From here, U.S. planes flew supplies south into the Caribbean and South America to hopscotch between refueling stops and reach Europe.

“Scratch Miami and you’re going to find military involvement,” Atwood says of the region’s critical role in our national defense that was ended abruptly by South Florida’s natural enemy: the weather.

On Sept. 15, 1945, a Category 4 hurricane was aimed at the state, and the blimp base’s towering hangars seemed a suitable sanctuary. So the military stuffed nearly 400 aircraft inside.

The no-name hurricane blew roofs off buildings, ripped out power lines, and stirred up one of the largest storm surges recorded in South Florida. It also tragically kicked off a fire that leaped from hangar to hangar and turned South Florida’s aircraft to ash.

All of it burned in what Atwood calls the “largest loss of federal property in peacetime.” Training and surveillance aircraft, blimp gondolas, and torpedo bombers all “disappeared from our heritage,” he said.

South Florida’s role as a major military outpost ended overnight at the blimp base, where today workers are pounding together the future Military Museum of South Florida as a place, says Atwood, whose message will be “not blood and thunder” but “service and sacrifice.”
 

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