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This week in history: Boca Raton Army Air Field opens

On Oct. 15, 1942, Boca Raton Army Air Field opened on 5,860-acres between Yamato and Palmetto Park Roads, from Military Trail to Dixie Highway. It was a flight and radar training base and home to some 16,000 troops. Boca Raton had fewer than 1,000 residents at the time.

The base was in operation until 1947. When ownership of the land was returned to the city and the state, part became Boca Raton Airport and the much of the rest eventually became Florida Atlantic University; the school’s unusually wide parking lots are former runways.

Read more about the Boca Raton Army Air Field at Palm Beach County History Online and in Small Town, Big Secrets: Inside the Boca Raton Army Airfield During World War II by Sally J. Ling

The Provost Marshal’s headquarters at the Boca Raton Army Air Field, around 1942. (Photo courtesy of the Boca Raton Historical Society)

Aerial view of the Boca Raton Army Air Field. (Photo courtesy of the Boca Raton Historical Society)

Col. N. L. Cote (front, center) escorts Maj. Gen. Walter R. Weaver (front, left) and others on a tour of the Boca Raton Army Air Field in this undated photo, circa 1940s. Historians have identified the building in the background as the Mizner Oaks Apartments. (Photo courtesy of Boca Raton Historical Society)

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Posted in Flashback blog and Our history in photos October 17, 2011 at 6:00 am.


World War II brought a wealth of bases to Florida

We’re continuing our military theme of the past few weeks. G. Paul Baker of suburban Lantana wrote May 10 to ask if we’ve written about the area’s military bases. Of course, we’ve described them extensively through the years. But it’s been a while, so let’s revisit a 2000 column:

America’s entry into World War II brought terror to South Florida; German U-Boats, unimpeded by an inadequate U.S. defense net, sank 24 ships, 16 of them from Cocoa Beach to Boca Raton between February and May 1942.

The Florida attacks killed hundreds of men and sent millions of dollars in cargo and oil to the bottom of the Atlantic. They also brought fear to civilians who worried about shells landing on them.

But the attacks helped lead to a buildup that was a boon to the state, still reeling from the real estate crash and the Depression. The number of military bases in Florida increased from eight in 1940 to 172 in 1943; the influx of soldiers who later returned to live contributed to the increase in Florida’s population from about 2 million in 1940 to nearly 3 million a decade later.

Boca Raton Army Air Field was a giant radar training base, with more than 100 bombers and about 16,000 troops. After it was returned to the state, part became Boca Raton Airport and the rest Florida Atlantic University; the school’s unusually wide parking lots are former runways.

A large part of Palm Beach International Airport was Morrison Army Air Field; about 45,000 fliers trained at or left from the field, and about 6,000 planes passed through in the eight months before D-Day.The Breakers in Palm Beach became Ream General Hospital. Germans worked in sugar fields at prisoner-of-war camps in Belle Glade and Clewiston. In southern Martin County, tens of thousands received secret radar training at the Southern Signal Corps School at Camp Murphy; the land later became Jonathan Dickinson State Park. Farther north, the Stuart and Fort Pierce municipal airports were used as military facilities, and the military established Hutchinson Island Navy Base and the Fort Pierce Amphibious Training Base.

Patients are entertained on Nov. 26, 1943, at Ream General Hospital at the Breakers in Palm Beach. The resort was used as an Army hospital from December 1942 to mid-1944, according to the state Department of Veteran’s Affairs. (Palm Beach Post file photo)

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Posted in Eliot Kleinberg and Flashback blog June 10, 2010 at 9:02 am.

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West Palm Beach To Palm Beach Ferry Met Need

Ellwood Sproul of Hobe Sound recalls that when he was a young Marylander based at the Boca Raton Army Air Field during World War II, the surrounding town was pretty quiet — it had fewer than 1,000 residents– and he would go up to Palm Beach, where cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post would let GIs relax on the beach of the Mar-a-Lago mansion.

Sproul says he rode a “dinky little ferry” that crossed the Intracoastal Waterway between West Palm Beach and Palm Beach.

Longtime resident Dora Digby of Lake Worth, now 87, remembered the ferry. She said in a 1992 letter, and in a February 2007 phone interview, that the boat ran from the George Washington Hotel, and later the Helen Wilkes Hotel, over to The Biltmore.

“The ‘captain’ had only had one arm, which sometimes interfered with his navigation. Five cents a ride, with entertainment thrown in,” Dora recalled.

She said it wasn’t a sophisticated business, just a disabled guy trying to earn a living during the war years.
The ferry filled a need after authorities banned cars from crossing the bridges with their headlights on.

Readers: Do any of you remember more about the ferry or its “captain?” Let us know.

Update: The Jan. 31 and Feb. 7 columns on the venerable downtown West Palm Beach office buildings prompted a call from Jeannette Dunkle, widow of John B. Dunkle, who retired in 1991 as Palm Beach County’s clerk of courts after 33 years and died in February 2005. She said Dunkle’s father and uncle, both local mayors, developed the Guaranty and Comeau buildings.

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Posted in Eliot Kleinberg April 11, 2007 at 2:55 pm.

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Bibletown Once U.S. Army Air Field

Q: What’s the story behind the religious complex called “Bibletown”?

A: In 1950, former Detroit preacher Ira Lee Eshleman, a Miami Christian radio commentator, took all his savings, about $1,000, and made a down payment on about 30 acres a few blocks west of downtown Boca Raton. The land had been the property of the former Boca Raton Army Air Field.

Soon the Boca Raton Bible Conference Grounds would sprawl across 320 acres and be valued at $2 million. “Doc” Eshleman called it “the miracle of Boca Raton.” The complex was later called Bibletown Community Church and is now Boca Raton Community Church, but it’s still colloquially called “Bibletown.”

A blaze in 1976 destroyed Bibletown’s cafeteria and conference center. The former air field officers’ club, made of hardy Dade County pine burned fiercely; the fire is still considered the biggest in city history. No one was hurt but damage was estimated at $750,000.

The organization developed homes on 300 acres and sold them and now operates on the remaining 20 acres. With 11 main buildings, a staff of more than 50, about 1,000 members and hundreds more visitors, it hosts Boca Raton Christian School and runs religious retreats, prayer meetings, summer camp, a winter bible conference, concerts, and, of course, Sunday services.

Eshleman retired in 1967 and lives in Boca Raton and North Carolina. He turned 86 in March. His son Dennis is director of Palm Beach County Parks and Recreation.

Boca Raton Community Church: 395-2400. Web page: www.bocacommunity.org
Boca Raton Historical Society: 395-6766.
Read More: Boca Raton: A Pictorial History, by Donald Curl and John Johnson.

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Posted in Eliot Kleinberg October 8, 2003 at 3:36 pm.

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Lantana Airport Handled Civilian Traffic In WWII

Q: Is it true there was once another commercial airport than Palm Beach International?
A: Yes, at least briefly. It’s the Lantana airport, officially named Palm Beach County Park Airport. That facility, the oldest of the county’s general aviation airports, opened Aug. 20, 1941, to move civilian air traffic from Morrison Field – now PBIA – when that facility, 6 miles away, was turned over to the military during World War II.
Right behind it is Boca Raton. The airport was founded in 1942 as Boca Raton Army Air Field, a 5,860-acre flight and radar training base with more than 100 bombers and some 16,000 troops. It stretched from Yamato to Palmetto Park and from Military Trail to Dixie Highway. At the time, the city had fewer than 1,000 residents.
Most of the property eventually was sold. Of the remainder, about 1,000 acres later became Florida Atlantic University – the unusually wide parking lots are the old east runways – and about 200 acres were left for aviation.
Palm Beach County Glades Airport in Pahokee opened soon after, in 1949. The airport, which services many crop-dusting planes for nearby fields, was recently in the news because of reports the Sept. 11 hijackers had inquired about the planes and fears that they had planned a biological weapons assault.
The newest facility, the North County Airport, west of Palm Beach Gardens, opened in 1995.
The Boca Raton airport is the only one of the four not run by the county; it’s operated by the Boca Raton Airport Authority, founded by the Legislature in October 1982.
General information on Palm Beach County general aviation airports: Web page: http://www.pbia.org/
Palm Beach County Park Airport: 965-6400. Palm Beach County Glades Airport: 924-5696. North County Airport: 626-9799.
Boca Raton Municipal Airport: 391-2202. Web page: www.bocaairport.com
Read More: Our Century, by the Palm Beach Post staff

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Posted in Eliot Kleinberg January 30, 2002 at 12:10 pm.

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