Editors Note: In honor of the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, the SDNL takes a look at the war’s connection to South Dade.
The United States joined its allies Britain, France and Russia in World War I on April 6, 1917. The nation was torn between entering the war and remaining on the sidelines, much like the time prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
As early as 1915 it became evident to President Woodrow Wilson that our entry into the war to end all wars was inevitable. Our county did not have the money or the united will to join the allies. In an effort to raise money for the war by selling War Bonds the Liberty Bell was transported from Philadelphia by rail around the country. The effort was successful, but when we entered the war finances were still a problem. Major General John J. "Black Jack" Pershing US Army commanded the nearly 2 million troops on the ground in Europe. Where did he get his nickname? It came because in his career he had often commanded elite black units which were not led by black officers.
How did South Dade County fit into all this?
Just about three weeks before war was declared
oft-presidential candidate and orator William Jennings Bryan gave "a most interesting address on 'War
and Its Relations to Us' on a Saturday evening in the Homestead School Auditorium" to a small turnout. Just days after the U. S. entered the war W.O. Bryant was trying to raise a company of Homestead recruits. W.O. Bryant was a Spanish-American war veteran. 106 officers and men were needed. Local businessman J.U. Free tried to enlist but he was too old and married. He was not deterred. By the end of May he was at Officers Training Camp, Fort McPherson Georgia and back in uniform.
Also by the end of May local women Red Cross workers were meeting and planning to make hospital supplies from old white rags. A separate black Red Cross unit was formed and it also made hospital supplies.
Sisal and castor beans were crops grown near Flamingo for the war effort but not successfully. The sisal was intended to make ropes for the Navy and the castor beans were used for their oil in early military aircraft engines. Wild castor bean plants still can be found here.
Ninety-four men from the Homestead area served in the Army and twenty in the Navy. Killed in action were John G. Salley, Ephraim Francis, Archie Nelson, Frederick Pfleger and John Tanner. WWI military records were kept by race so we know the last four men who gave their lives for our country were black. In 1919 American Legion Post 43 was named for John G. Salley.
Carl Turnage served in the US Army during World War I. He became one of General Pershing's first aerial photographers. He then became a White House photographer for President Warren G. Harding. Later in the 1920s he came to Homestead and set up a photo studio in the Horne Building. Much of his work has found its way into the Florida Pioneer Museum. Included are very artistic postcards.
William J. Geronimo came to Florida City after the war and became first the elected Marshal, and then City Commissioner and finally, Mayor. He was American Legion Post 43's longtime adjutant. Affectionately called: "The Captain" by his fellow veterans.
Just as after WWII returning military men made a big contribution to the prosperity which was experienced by South Dade until the real estate collapse of 1926.
The depressed economy did recover until just before WWII when the federal government funded a pipeline from southwest of Florida City to Key West, Homestead Army Air Field and 500 units of farmworker housing. Our involvement in WWI was relatively short but many men paid the ultimate sacrifice with their lives and with their health.
Bob Jensen is a retired Navy Commander and the president of the Florida Pioneer Museum and of the Historic Homestead Town Hall Museum.