Watchmen, SEALs and Gardens
The Treasure Coast played several surprising roles in the Allied war effort
April 10, 1942. A German U-boat locks onto its target: a tanker with a cargo of furnace oil. The officers and crew of the tanker are unaware of the danger until the torpedo strikes. Nineteen lives are lost; the survivors are rescued. The tanker soon sinks beneath the waves.
The incident took place approximately 5 miles off the Florida coast.
The sinking of the SS Gulfamerica near Jacksonville exemplifies the historical truth that not even the seemingly peaceful shores of Florida escaped the Second World War. While precise statistics vary, approximately 24 ships were sunk by U-boats off the coast of Florida.
The presence of 22 prisoner-of-war camps in Florida, where some 9,000 Germans were interred, many of them picking oranges or cutting sugarcane, was further evidence that Florida was very much a part of the events playing out on the world scene.
That was true here on the Treasure Coast. Naval Air Station Vero Beach prepared pilots for the Pacific theater. Along the coast, lookouts posted on observation towers watched for U-boats. Meanwhile, a rigorous military program in Fort Pierce led to the development of the tactical force now known as the Navy SEALs. And the lush acres of what is today McKee Botanical Garden became a training ground for Navy men who might find themselves marooned on South Pacific islands.
Naval Air Station Vero Beach was commissioned in 1942, and the first flight was in December of that year. The 100-acre, city-owned airport was expanded into a 2,500-acre training ground with a military population approximately equal in size to the civilian population of Vero Beach. Flight training was provided for Navy and Marine personnel. Vero Beach Mayor Tony Young, a retired Army colonel and local military history aficionado, notes that during World War II, “Vero Beach was a Navy town, and the Ocean Grill was an officers’ club.”