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Nostalgia June 2012

Health, Wellness & the Good Life

Hell on the Bay: Where a Quarter-Million GIs Trained for D-Day

By Lynn & Glenn Pribus

The front-line troops had it even tougher with 25-mile full-pack hikes in the sand or into the swamps, all the time keeping an eye out for rattlers, scorpions and alligators. To say nothing of millions of mosquitoes.

Most people viewing the long beaches at Bald Point State Park on Florida’s panhandle see only sand, but Linda and Tony Minichiello can play videos in their minds of a quarter of a million amphibious troops rehearsing their D-Day invasion of Normandy.

“‘Hell on the Bay,’ they called this place,” declares Linda Minichiello, curator of the Camp Gordon Johnston WWII Museum which memorializes the training base for those long-ago men and women. She and Tony were founding members of the Camp Gordon Johnston Association and the Museum. “There were 60 to 75,000 troops here at any time.”

Originally called Camp Carrabelle after the nearby town, the training facility was open from 1942-1946 and covered some 165,000 acres with nearly 40 miles along the coast for D-Day training. Only a few miles inland, the land – now the Apalachicola National Forest – was a daunting sub-tropical swamp which was an ideal location for training troops for Pacific island jungles.

The camp sprouted up in two months using floorless prefab barracks. Mess halls, a hospital, classrooms, cargo-net towers and obstacle courses were constructed with some furniture and wardrobes built by Italian and German POWs.

Support personnel also trained here. Doctors, nurses, and medics worked at the rudimentary base hospital where patients were relegated to cots. Engineers practiced clearing harbors, and building bridges and docks. And all had a rigorous training schedule, running roads and learning to swim in the Gulf of Mexico.

The front-line troops had it even tougher with 25-mile full-pack hikes in the sand or into the swamps, all the time keeping an eye out for rattlers, scorpions and alligators. To say nothing of millions of mosquitoes. “We took atabrine so you wouldn’t get malaria,” recalls one veteran. “You just turned yellow.” In fact, the museum has a surviving chocolate bar embossed with a message about taking atabrine.

Training could be perilous. One time, paratroopers from Ft. Benning and jumping for Dog Island landed in the water and 10 drowned. During another exercise, a landing barge hit a sandbar rather than its St. James Island destination. “The government version says 18 drowned but the men who participated say it was about 40,” curator Linda Minichiello says. “I suspect the latter is true since it’s given by all the veterans. I think the government didn’t want to admit that 40 men died in a training accident.”

Of course, there was the occasional quiet moment and even liberty with outdoor movies at camp and a USO in nearby Apalachicola. Carrabelle had service centers with free pop, playing cards, and dances with local girls. More than one marriage resulted from those events.

Today the CGJ Museum is housed in Carrabelle’s former K-12 school. There are historical photos, videos, written memoirs, some vehicles and a variety of exhibits. Admission is by donation. There’s an annual CGJ reunion the second week of March.

The former officers’ quarters evolved to a retiree community with holiday rentals. The St. James Bay Golf Club, an Audubon course, includes rental villas built on the concrete pad for the old radio tower. Dog Island, reachable only by boat or ferry, is mostly owned by The Nature Conservancy but also has camping, private homes and rentals. St. George Island, a nesting site for endangered sea turtles, is reached by a causeway. There is a restored lighthouse, lodging and many rental options including homes sleeping up to 24.

The daunting swamps are now public lands and wildlife sanctuaries such as Tate’s Hell State Forest with kayaking, camping and fishing. The Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve on the Gulf has an excellent Visitor Center explaining one of the world’s most productive marine nurseries. Recreational fishing is popular and there are numerous restaurants, B&Bs, marinas, motels and RV parks in the area.

For information about visiting the area today see: www.ANaturalEscape.com and www.campgordonjohnston.com.

See historical photos by Googling <images Camp Gordon Johnston> or contact http://www.campgordonjohnston.com/contact.htm]

 

Lynn Pribus and her retired Vietnam-era Air Force husband live in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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