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)
Tags: Palm Beach, restaurant, World War II, WWII
West Palm Beach taught the nation how to show gratitude and respect to returning GIs. And it began with one woman and a small plate of cookies.
By Eliot Kleinberg
Palm Beach Post staff writer
The ink on the German surrender was barely dry, World War II was over in Europe, and GIs were eager to get home.
They were crammed onto cargo planes and flown to South Florida on 27-hour flights. After landing in Miami, with barely time to kiss the ground, they were loaded by the hundreds onto trains, like so many steers, for another long trip north.
They’d already endured years of mud and blood and hardship and death, years of seeing the worst of humanity while being kept from the people they loved.
But then something happened that reminded them of the best of humanity.
Each night, these troop transport trains, carrying 400 to 800 soldiers, would stop for 20 minutes in West Palm Beach. GIs would stick their heads out the windows in amazement.
Lining the rails were dozens, sometimes hundreds of people, cheering and waving American flags and saying the sweetest words in the world: “Welcome Home.”
“Hey,” one grunt said out the window. “What place is this? Heaven?”
The cookie stop was the brainchild of Peggy Bailey, wife of the local ticket agent, who in her quiet way created a national phenomenon. Other cities soon picked up on the idea.
Bailey (below, in family photos from the 1940s and today) recalled the first time she greeted a troop train.
“I went down with a friend and took a half dozen cookies,” said Bailey, now 97 and living in a North Carolina retirement home. “You know what they wanted most of all? Milk. And also fruit, particularly watermelon.”
Cookie brigade expands
Soon Bailey had enlisted the help of neighbors and the Junior Woman’s Club. Women and their children brought fresh fruit, doughnuts, sandwiches and cold drinks, which they passed to soldiers through train windows.
By the time the last train passed through West Palm Beach on Nov. 11, 1945, some 60,000 soldiers had been served about 78,000 cookies, 66,000 doughnuts, 46,500 bottles of milk, 15 tons of fresh fruit, some 31,000 cold drinks, 20,000 cups of ice cream, and more.
She’s never forgotten those days, or the men, some of whom were really boys.
“They were just plain old GIs,” Bailey said. “They weren’t anything fancy. They were just delighted to be home again.”
While many enjoyed conversing with pretty girls, many were drawn to children, poignant reminders of their own kids who had grown without them.
Bailey recalled how the men, who weren’t allowed off during the brief stopover, would gather on platforms between cars.
One woman had brought a child no more than 3 or 4 years old.
“This soldier looked up, and he said, ‘Ma’am, could you tell me how old your little girl is?’ He said, ‘I got one at home just that age. But I’ve never seen her.’”
Bailey said the man asked of the girl’s mother, “Can I hold her?”
Then, she said, “He held the little girl real tight. Then the next boy said, ‘I want to hold her, too.’ It went right down the train, man-to-man.”
Peggy’s husband, Bill Bailey, was agent at the Seaboard Air Line Railway station in West Palm Beach, the same building where Seaboard’s successor, CSX, stops, along with Amtrak and Tri-Rail.
Every night the “troop train” passed through en route to Camp Blanding, in North Florida, where soldiers would be mustered out and put on trains headed across America.
As the cookie brigade took hold, local men joined and the Jaycees, the American Legion, firemen, teachers and airmen from Morrison Field — now Palm Beach International Airport — began showing up to salute, and celebrate with, the GIs, who often returned the favor by handing kids war mementos as gifts.
“They were hanging out the windows, yelling and screaming,” recalled 77-year-old Sue Green of West Virginia, whose family lived next door to the Baileys when she was 9. “Of course, we didn’t have near enough cookies for the whole train.”
In articles, Bill Bailey urged people to bring items or money to his office or home, or just come to the station any night “and talk to the boys. Most of them are hungry for a friendly word or two.”
And, indicative of how small West Palm Beach was then, a WJNO radio spot sponsored by Leak Tire says, “if you wish to donate please phone Mrs. Bailey, 6-2-5-7.”
Another spot, sponsored by a Realtor and perhaps a bit mercenary, says, “You’ll be thrilled with the music and excitement every evening when you meet the 8:15 train carrying servicemen just returned to the United States from foreign services. And you’ll have a lifelong thrill — when you own your own home in the Palm Beaches.”
The troop train event drew almost daily press coverage. Thousands of dollars in donations poured in. And people kept coming, even in sweltering summer heat and sometimes in an evening downpour.
Some 2,000 came Aug. 14, the night Japan surrendered and the war ended.
“Oh, my, yes,” Peggy Bailey recalled.
She said the GIs on the train hadn’t yet heard.
“Oh, they went berserk. We had a band. We had a great big banner. We had … it was a just a marvelous night.”
‘You were swell’
Even a peach-fuzzed 18-year-old present that night would be at least 85 now, so while clippings are rife with names, most of those either have died or couldn’t be found — or can’t recall their visits.
From an Aug. 30, 1945 Palm Beach Post-Times article: “Lt. R.J. Hunyard, Chicago, expecting a discharge after 34 months in Europe, shook hands with another Chicagoan living here. ‘How are things back home?’ he demanded eagerly.”
Robert J. Hunyard now of DeKalb, Ill., west of Chicago, remembers the stops, but not West Palm Beach.
“They very well could have. I was in Florida. I was flown over from Casablanca,” Hunyard, now 92, said this month .
“Favorable publicity for the Seaboard and its employees that is resulting from this activity is making itself felt in many quarters,” a Seaboard executive wrote Bill Bailey from Norfolk, Va.
And one wrote Mayor Stanley Peeler: “I will never forget West Palm Beach for their kindness and may the blessings of God be upon this City,”
The Baileys eventually moved to North Carolina. Bill died of a stroke about 14 years ago.
All these years, Peggy kept the scrapbook she made of clips and photos, and is donating it to the Historical Society of Palm Beach County — which, coincidentally, is running the exhibit, “Paradise in Peril: World War II in Palm Beach County,” through Aug. 18.
In the scrapbook: a letter-to-the-editor Bill and Peggy wrote as the program wound down:
“Thanks a million, every one of you, who participated even just once. We’re grateful for the privilege of working with you — you were swell.”
Staff researchers Michelle Quigley and Niels Heimeriks contributed to this story.
Tags: photos, railroads, troop train, war, West Palm Beach, World War II, WWII
This week marked the 70th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack. Three local boys lost their lives on that Day of Infamy. Here’s more from a Dec. 7, 1991, story.
Ralph “Red” Hollis (above) had joined the Palm Beach Fire Department. His amateur radio skills would later help him tell the world of America’s third-deadliest natural disaster: the 1928 hurricane.
He arrived Sept. 18, 1941 in Hawaii, assigned to the Arizona.
Claude Rich (above), of West Palm Beach, turned to the military as a way out of poverty. Never did anyone consider the he’d come into harm’s way. He also was assigned the Arizona.
Eugene “Gene” Lish (above) was good enough on clarinet to get A’s and a spot on the Fort Pierce High School band all four years. He joined the Navy and was assigned to the West Virginia. Its base: Pearl Harbor.
Dec. 7, 1941, was cool and rainy in South Florida.
The Sunday morning paper carried an ominous front page story: “President Roosevelt has dispatched a personal message to Emperor Hirohito of Japan in the midst of darkening war clouds in the Far East.”
Soon it was midafternoon in West Palm Beach; 7:55 a.m. in Pearl Harbor.
The West Virginia took seven torpedoes, which broke open fuel compartments. Fumes from the low-grade crude oil filled the lower decks. Lish was among those overpowered. Newspaper clippings declared him the first Floridian killed in a war too new to have a name.
The West Virginia was the first ship attacked, at 7:56 a.m., so if Lish was killed immediately, he was just minutes ahead of Hollis and Rich.
The Arizona took four direct hits from 1,760-pound converted battleship shells. The deadliest one struck just about 8:05 a.m. Seconds later 1.7 million pounds of gunpowder ignited.
It is believed about 1,000 of the 1,103 deaths on the Arizona — half of the death toll at Pearl Harbor — occurred at that moment.
The radio room was about 50 feet from the center of the blast. Relatives and friends believe Ralph Hollis and Claude Rich were killed instantly, perhaps vaporized. Their bodies never were recovered.
In honoring these three, we honor all lost on that day and in the line of service.
Tags: death, World War II, WWII
We’ve written a few times, most recently this summer, about the grim stretch between February and May 1942 when U-boats sank 24 ships off Florida, 16 of them from Cape Canaveral to Boca Raton.
Frank Leonard Terry, 23, was the only survivor when a torpedo sank the 500-foot W.D. Anderson, filled with oil, 12 miles north of Jupiter almost 70 years ago, on Feb. 22, 1942. He’s now 93 and lives in eastern Pennsylvania.
William Kelly saw our story this summer all the way in Oxford, England. It hit home. Among the Anderson’s dead was its second mate, Mahlon E. Stitsel, 37.
“Mahlon was the eldest son of Mr. and Mrs. John Stitsel and brother of my grandfather, Glen Stitsel,” Kelly wrote.
“Tragically, another brother, Elvan E. Stitsel, also enlisted in the merchant marines, was killed exactly one week before Mahlon, in a freak accident which occurred on board his tanker, Point Breeze, in the relatively safe waters of Long Island Sound, New York. The tanker ran aground, triggering an explosion in the engine room which knocked Elvan overboard. There were no other casualites. Elvan’s body was never recovered.
An article in a Defiance, Ohio, newspaper, provided by Kelly, said, “These men gave their lives to their country, even though they were not enlisted in the armed services.
“Patriotism and devotion to duty inspired them to take risks fully as dangerous as the servicemen meet, and just as necessary to the winning of the war.”
Terry said in October of this year he doesn’t specifically remember Stitsel but he still remembers his own ordeal. Covered in oil, he bobbed for hours in water so cold he thought sharks had bitten off his legs and was surprised when rescuers told him they were still there.
“It was my first trip to Florida,” Terry said in a 1992 interview for a Palm Beach Post section marking 50 years since World War II came to Florida. “I didn’t like the experience.”
Frank Leonard Terry of Parkesburg, Pa., in 1992. He was the only survivor of the W.D. Anderson, sunk in 1942 by U-boat ‘off the South Florida coast.’ (AP file photo)
Update: Our recent columns on Autorama said the great “Mural of America” now hangs at the Boynton Beach Woman’s Club. Janet DeVries, archivist at the Boynton Beach City Library, alerted us that we’d been given bad information. She said the Woman’s Club mural is by the same artist, Bernard Thomas, but it shows a history of Boynton Beach. The “America” mural is in the library’s archives — or at least one 8-foot by 4-foot panel of it. DeVries says the rest is believed lost to history.
Tags: art, automobiles, museums, World War II, WWII
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)
Tags: Boca Raton, Boca Raton Army Air Field, photos, This Week in History, World War II, WWII