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It was the best and worst of times at WWII MacDill

by Nick Stubbs
Thunderbolt staff writer

PT was a bit different 60 years ago. Here a group of MacDill troops work at moving a huge exercise ball.

Top, gunners train in a MacDill hangar. Above, One a day in Tampa Bay" became the saying at MacDill, as B-26 Marauder crashes were frequent.

If you were eating light, 40 cents would get you a bowl of chili at the Officers Open Mess.

In 1942 it was a black and white world in Tampa Bay and at MacDill Field, where men of the Army Air Corps trained to fly B-26 bombers against the Axis forces threatening most of Europe and the Pacific.

MacDill was alive and bustling, as new buildings went up, runways were laid while men and their machines began to multiply under the brilliant Florida sun like so many oranges or grapefruit on a tree. For those assigned to train at MacDill, it was paradise far from the fighting. But all knew what lay ahead. The survivability of B-26 bombers showed nearly half of all crews could expect to go down on a mission or to sustain heavy damage or casualties. Even training was dangerous and the phrase: "One a day in Tampa Bay" became popular when referring to the less than agile planes.

As pilots, bombardier, navigators, engineers and gunners drilled and practiced, they knew their own fate and the fate of the free world soon would be in their hands. The scores of dedicated trainers at MacDill were even more aware of the importance of the mission.

So trainers and student alike worked hard, and when they weren't, they played hard. And with sand, surf, boating, fishing and a lively nightlife, Tampa was a great place for play.

Those times are preserved by local Tampa historians, who cherish every bit of material they can get about the war years, as it was such a dynamic period in local history, said Paul Camp, a curator in Special Collections at the University of South Florida Library. He keeps a healthy collection of all things related to MacDill in the library archives and always is looking for more.

"Most people don't realize that personal things like letters, diaries and such are the real stuff of history," Mr. Camp said. "We can obtain official histories but personal things are the meat of history."

B-26 flight engineer 1st Lt. Paul Matus is one of many names in the USF MacDill archives. It is assumed he trained at MacDill and later flew missions in Europe during the war. He wrote about a mission during the Battle of the Bulge, in which German forces launched a powerful offensive. Three B-26s were to run a low-altitude anti-personnel bombing mission to support trapped U.S. airborne infantry trapped in Bastogne. Things did not go well as they took off in the fog and their fighter escort never showed up:

"…the air cover never arrived so it was decided to make the bomb run. Shortly thereafter, I heard on the intercom, 'bandits six o'clock high' and immediately I heard the chatter of gunfire, all hell broke loose. German fighters winged overhead (Harry Stoerkel, my tail gunner on intercom said I got one, I cut his left wing off)."

Lieutenant Matus went on to describe his plane being hit, an engine catching fire and the canopy shattered and the cockpit filling with blue smoke. The crew bailed out, with Lieutenant Matus living to tell the tale years later, his thoughts making it to paper, the to the collection of Florida historian Hampton Dunn and eventually to the USF archives.

Throughout the USF archives are slices of wartime life in Tampa. One woman in a letter recalled: "One Sunday morning I had chicken ready to cook and biscuits in the oven when my daughter came in and said, 'Don't cook dinner, Bobby is gone.'

"I asked, 'Gone? Where?'

"She said, 'On his way to the war.'

Bobby wanted to spare everyone a sad goodbye so just up and left.

"I finished cooking dinner, prepared the table, everyone sat down. I asked my son-in-law to say the blessing. As he started, a plane flew over our house. About three minutes later another one flew over and about every three minutes planes flew over but he kept on praying until the last one flew over, the he ended the prayer and said, 'Bobby is gone.'

"I left the table when the last plane flew over. I knew he was gone, too. No one ate."

Hazel Valida, who worked in the payroll office of a Tampa ship builder, described Tampa as "Gasparilla every day."

"Tampa was full of soldiers, sailors and defense workers," but there were no traffic problems, as those lucky enough to have a car, couldn't drive them due to gas rationing.

"The military boys were choice. They came from all walks of life - poor and rich. They really stood out in their uniforms; they really looked like soldiers. I would see them come and go on the streets. Here today and gone tomorrow. Some came back, but a lot of them weren't that lucky."

In a lot of ways, Tampa was more alive than ever in those days thanks to MacDill, said Mr. Camp. Millions of dollars were piped into the community. Local merchant enjoyed the boom. Military Police and Tampa authorities struggled to deal with the thriving vice in certain parts of town that saw dollar signs with every soldier and sailor. While Tampa didn't have a designated "red light district," parts of Ybor City and other areas did have underground gambling parlors and prostitution.

"The Army actually made Tampa clean up certain parts of the city as a condition of having a base here," said Mr. Camp. "Tampa wanted the base, so they did what they could."

But amidst the mischief was a spirit spawned by the times. As one local recalled: "Everyone pulled together because we had one goal - to win the war and bring our boys home safe."

Scrap metal was collected and turned in, as were tires and paper. Those who were not physically fit to fight did what they could. A Tampa woman whose family had been in every war since the American Revolution and was the only one old enough to join, found out here poor eyesight would keep her out of the military. But she ended up in uniform despite here shortcomings, becoming a motor messenger for Western Union, a critical job in those days with so much news to deliver.

"It was an exciting and interesting time for Tampa and Florida," said Mr. Camp. "Florida really was the military training capital and this was the center with MacDill being here."

 

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