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Wert’s a popular hangout during WWII

Most of you aren’t old enough to remember that, in Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast, World War II was not a far-away event. Between February and May of 1942, U-boats sank 24 ships off Florida, 16 of them from Cape Canaveral to Boca Raton.

George Payne Marshall of Singer Island, born in 1921, wrote of that time: “I was not only in radar maintenance training but was assigned to a secret intelligence group by the Provost Marshal at Camp Murphy.”

That was the facility just over the Palm Beach-Martin County line that housed the Southern Signal Corps School. It’s now Jonathan Dickinson State Park.

“I spent New Year’s Eve in 1943 at Werts with three of my army buddies from Camp Murphy,” Marshall wrote. “I will always remember the sign over the door carved in wood that read ‘Everybody Goes from Bad to Werts.’ This was kind of a secret hang-out that I and my buddies did not tell too many GIs at Murphy about. Most always one of the rich Palm Beachers would always pick up our check, as they did on this New Year’s Eve. One time we were told it was OK to dance with their wives. The Palm Beachers were very appreciative of all their military in the area and it was a good place for service personnel to be during WWII.”

George wasn’t kidding about Wert’s. At 456 S. Ocean Blvd. in Palm Beach, it was a hot spot for decades.

But during the war, it was especially popular with local servicemen and their dates, lured by its live music and 50-cent meals. They came not just from Camp Murphy, but also from the Boca Raton Army Air Field — now the Boca Raton airport and Florida Atlantic University — and of course from nearby Morrison Field, now Palm Beach International Airport.

The place also played an indirect role in the U-boat wars. Officials quickly figured out that the establishments lining Florida’s coastline back-lit freighters, making them even easier targets. So Wert’s east-facing windows were darkened and its entrance was moved from the oceanfront to the side.

“Uncle Sam darkened my front, but my rear is a blaze of glory,” “Wert” quipped in an ad.

“Wert” was Lionel Wertheimer, a Wisconsinite who had opened a lunch stand in 1924. It came down in both the 1926 and 1928 hurricanes and was rebuilt. After the war, the place expanded and the price of a turkey dinner shot up to an outrageous $1.50.

The colorful raconteur died at age 57 in 1948 while touring through Arizona. The family sold the place in 1973 and it became Willoughby’s.

It later closed, then reopened in 1980 in its current configuration: Charley’s Crab.

Jim and Gimmy McNalley, Josephine Quinn Guenther and Frederick Guenther (left) at Wert’s. Guenther was the sister of Dick Johnson’s mother. Jim McNalley owned two bars: The Music Box and The Alibi. (Photo courtesy of Ginny Lippincott)

For decades in Palm Beach, Wert’s restaurant, once located at the oceanfront location where Charley’s Crab is today (456 S. Ocean Blvd.), was a hot spot, boasting weekly entertainment and this logo: ‘The Best You’ll Get Here is the Wert’s.’ (Photo courtesy of the Historical Society of Palm Beach County)

Carved in the pavement by the entrance to Charley’s Crab is “Wert’s.” (Palm Beach Daily News staff file photo)

During World War II, Wert’s, pictured here in the 1930s or ’40s, was particularly popular, offering live bands and 50-cent meals to local servicemen and their dates. During the war, its east-facing windows were darkened to comply with blackouts. (Photo courtesy of the Historical Society of Palm Beach County)

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Posted in Eliot Kleinberg April 25, 2013 at 9:42 am.

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No easy solution to WWII plane mystery

Sunday, Nov. 11, is Veterans Day, which gave us an excuse to start a two-parter last week on the mystery of the World War II-era plane local diver Randy Jordan found in December 2011 off the coast of Jupiter.

James Odell, in Denton, Texas, called us after reading a Palm Beach Post story on the discovery.

Odell, who turns 89 this month, said he was stationed at Vero Beach and was flying back from Miami when the engine of his plane just quit. He considered bailing out in midair but opted to ditch.

He got on a raft and the plane sank in minutes. A passing fishing boat took him to shore.

Odell said he had called Vero Beach and officials said they’d try to get someone to pick him up. Instead, “I said, ‘Heck. I’ll hitchhike. It’s not that far from here.’ An executive from Ford picked me up in a woody.” Parachute and all.

Odell couldn’t tell us too much about the plane. About four decades ago, he said, his wife threw away his logbooks.

He did say that because his plane was a trainer, it had been stripped of guns and armor. And it had a tail hook because the SB2C “was a little nose-heavy.” That was the case with this plane.

“It had nothing in the bomb bay and the 50-calibers were gone,” Jordan said. “It was sent out that way.”

Navy archaeologist Heather Brown, part of the team of divers that came down from the Naval History and Heritage Command in Washington, said last month divers found an identifying plate on the plane “but it was too corroded to read.” She said a research lab was going to X-ray it but she wasn’t optimistic archivists would learn anything.

In a separate inquiry to the Naval History and Heritage Command, it said it found no accident reports for those planes that named Odell.

But research over the years has found that World War II-era military files are by no means comprehensive. A classic example:

In August 1944, a bomber out of the Panhandle’s Eglin Air Force Base dropped live cluster bombs on a family turkey farm, killing four and maiming several, in what was perhaps the only case of “friendly fire” deaths on U.S. soil during World War II. The tragedy was on the front pages of newspapers across the country at the time. But in 1994, military archivists contacted by the Palm Beach Post could find almost no documents on it. So it’s likely we’ll never know if the Helldiver found in December on the bottom of the ocean off Jupiter is the one James Odell rode all the way down.

Special thanks to staff researcher Niels Heimeriks.

In December 2011, divers found a Curtiss SB2C Helldiver in 185 feet of water off the coast of Jupiter. This image shows a Helldiver lining up to land on the USS Yorktown during World War II. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Naval Institute)


Posted in Eliot Kleinberg November 8, 2012 at 11:53 am.

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Vet may be pilot of plane found off Jupiter coast

Veterans Day is Nov. 11, and here’s a wild tale about a gutsy World War II veteran that’s too good to cram into one week, so we’re making this a two-parter.

In December 2011, colleague Pat Beall wrote about divers finding a plane on the ocean floor some four miles from Jupiter. It was identified as a World War II-era Curtiss Helldiver SB2C.

The remains of a mostly intact aircraft upside-down on the ocean floor about 4 miles off the coast of Jupiter. Divers found the plane, which some suspect might be a WWII-era Curtiss Helldiver SB2C. (Photo courtesy of Randy Jordan, Emerald Charters)

In June, a call came to us out of the wild blue yonder. Actually, out of Denton, Texas, north of Dallas. It was from James Odell, who will be 89 later this month. He said he might just be the guy who ditched that Helldiver.

First: the story of the plane. In December, Randy Jordan, who owns Emerald Charters, was in about 185 feet of water about four miles off shore when he spotted the plane upside-down on the ocean floor.

Naval historians say they have records of at least three accidental Helldiver crashes off the coast of Florida in September 1944.

Enter Odell, retired from the battery manufacturing industry.

This spring, a friend sent him a clipping of the December Palm Beach Post story, and this summer, he gave us a call.

During and just after World War II, he was training at a U.S. Navy air base in Vero Beach.

Sometime in late 1945 or early 1946, he said, “I was on my way down to Miami Naval Air Station and flying back from there when, all of a sudden, the engine failed. It wasn’t out of fuel. It had plenty of oil. I tried to start it and couldn’t do it. I decided to bail out. Frankly, I was afraid.”

Odell, who was flying solo, tried to climb out of his cockpit, in hopes of getting to the back tail and jumping off.

But, he said, “I got back in and said to myself, ‘That’s crazy.’ I worried about striking the elevator.”

Instead, “I decided to land it in the water. I noticed a fishing boat. I was sitting on the wing when it (the plane) sank right out from under me.”

Next week: The mystery continues.

James Odell of Denton, Texas, (past and present) who turns 89 in November. (Photos courtesy James Odell)


Posted in Eliot Kleinberg November 1, 2012 at 8:58 am.

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This week in history: Lantana Airport opens

The first plane landed on the newly paved runway at the Lantana Airport on Aug. 20, 1941. The airport, now known as Palm Beach County Park Airport, was expanded to accommodate civilian air traffic when nearby Morrison Field, now Palm Beach International Airport, was turned over to the military during World War II.

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Posted in Flashback blog August 20, 2012 at 6:00 am.

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Sansbury: County, not state, led Air Force Beach park purchase

Our June 21 column about Air Force Beach prompted responses from readers.

From John C. Sansbury, Palm Beach County Administrator from 1975-1986: “I would like to set the record straight. The state of Florida had absolutely nothing to do with the acquisition of Air Force Beach from the MacArthur Foundation.”

Sansbury wrote from suburban West Palm Beach that the county bought the 325 acres in 1980 for $21.2 million. He said John D. MacArthur’s son, Roderick, persuaded the rest of the foundation to sell at a reduced price and throw in $10 million in value on top of that. “In reality, the park should be named the Roderick MacArthur Ocean Park,” Sansbury wrote.

Sansbury wrote he later raised the idea of the state becoming a partner. The state then paid half the purchase price and made the place a state park.

“Shortly thereafter, I recommended to the County Commission that we trade our half-interest in the park for 600 acres the state owned at the southeast corner of Forest Hill Boulevard and (Florida’s) Turnpike, directly south of the county’s 600-acre Okeeheelee Park,” Sansbury said. “This property is now the Dr. Jim Brandon Equestrian Center and Trails.”

And Don Grill, 80, of North Palm Beach called to say that for a long time, what would be Air Force Beach had the unofficial name of Manhattan Beach.

That’s for the 25,000-ton, 1,200-plus passenger cruise ship, the queen of the U.S. Lines, that grounded 300 yards off Singer Island on Jan. 12, 1941, and stayed for nearly a month.

Three private tugs spent weeks removing tons of cargo, including more than 150 cars, as well as some 4,550 barrels of oil from the ship, while crowds estimated at up to 20,000 lined the beach.

Entrepreneurs sold cold drinks and photo postcards of the stuck ship. The Manhattan finally was freed Feb. 3.

Don Grill was a kid at the time.

“They had to throw over a lot of stuff that they were transporting to lighten the ship for a lot of the tugs to pick up,” Grill said. “The commercial fishermen came up in their skiffs and picked everything up. All up and down U.S. 1 in Riviera (Beach), every vacant lot was a place where they sold this stuff. It was everything. All kind of general cargo. There were sneakers, and food, and you-name-it.”

Jupiter resident D. Howarth submitted this photo that was taken Jan. 13, 1941, of the SS Manhattan, which had run aground in Palm Beach.

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Posted in Eliot Kleinberg August 2, 2012 at 10:09 am.

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