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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Our June is not that of English Poets

I’m writing this on June 6, which is D-Day, but more on that later. I had intended to be speaking right now on the history of the League of Women Voters, but that was cancelled because of the season’s first tropical storm.

I love wind, rain, thunder, and lightening – but only here on our hill in Mango (the highest point in Hillsborough County, we’ve been told). I don’t like it down on the Bayshore where I would have been, and where the water table is just three feet below the ground. More than once, I’ve feared being washed away in a flash flood there. Because of our poor planning and unwillingness to pay taxes, torrential rain simply has nowhere to go in the condo canyons of South Tampa.

You just know that the first of the beautiful Bayshore mansions were built in the dry season by newcomers who had no conception of our summer storms, let alone genuine hurricanes. That area of our town was developed in the early 1920s, the years after World War I, which then was called the Great War. The war clearly had not solved anything, and indeed, the world soon headed to a second one. The “Lost Generation” of the 1920s was cynical and libertine. Prudence was tossed to the wind, and everyone was going to be an instant millionaire. No one regulated anything. That was especially true in Tampa, where especially our Spanish speakers ignored the prohibition of alcohol, and law enforcement used that to enrich themselves with bribes.

Throughout Florida, the Roaring Twenties roared as naïve investors bought unseen swampland and expected to sell the deed tomorrow at a big profit. Pyramid schemes and inflated Wall Street stocks crashed in October 1929, and many people, including Tampans, found themselves bankrupt. Indeed, after Franklin Street Citizens Bank & Trust locked its doors against angry depositors on July 17, 1929, it took a whole decade to sort out the fraudulent mess.

Wrath from the Sky and the Sea: Hurricanes

Beyond excessive gambling in banking and in real estate, one reason that Florida=s economy plummeted was that major hurricanes cooled the enthusiasm of northern investors. The first storm, in 1921, damaged the West Coast, with water as high as the telephone lines on Bayshore, but more serious hurricanes in 1926, 1928, and 1935 devastated the lower East Coast. Author Thomas Neil Knowles wrote of the last of those storms in Category 5: The 1935 Labor Day Hurricane (2009). He featured Helen Lennehan— who as Helen Muir, later was inaugurated into the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame.

On Labor Day night in Miami, Helen Lennehan sits alone in the city room of the Miami Daily News Tower... All reporters are out covering the storm, and she has been left to anchor the city room and handle rewrite...

Every now and again, a gust of wind shakes the [tower=s] large sheets of glass, and the thought flashes across her mind that at any moment she could...meet a grisly end...

She has no idea what a hurricane is, much less know what to do... Just last December she had been well ensconced in New York City, writing a column for the New York Journal...

By 10 PM, gusts [were] as high as 128 mph. Each blast of wind seems to shake the large glass windows more violently... Nonetheless, Helen continues to diligently crank out the reporters-- stories.

A rescue train to Key West plunged into the ocean, taking many lives, and the railroad tracks that were the Keys economic lifeline were destroyed, never to be rebuilt. That hurricane was the model for the award winning film, Key Largo (1948), starring Lauren Becall and HumphreyBogart. When told that eight hundred people were washed out to sea, the gangster played by Edward G. Robinson argued that this was a lie because, if true, nobody would live here.

While most victims of the 1935 monsoon indeed disappeared into the ocean, most bodies from the 1928 disaster were recovered, usually in horrendous condition. It was the most deadly hurricane ever, hitting poor and vulnerable people in the Everglades. Few had radios to hear the warnings which were late and less than accurate in any case.

Some people, including the Martins, a middle-class white family in Belle Glade, had endured a hurricane just two years before, in 1926. According to Robert Mykle’s Killer ‘Cane (2002), that traumatic memory made the Martin children particularly fearful when this one hit. They took shelter in the family-owned store, but in the black of night:

Like a toy dollhouse, the surging waters carried the hapless store... against the large Methodist church...and forced the two-story church off its foundation. The two buildings shuddered...then the store broke apart... Ernestine...bounced like a beach ball down Canal Street... She saw Thelma. The two girls were lodged on an overturned root stump of a massive rubber tree on the Hillsboro Canal... Thelma=s leg was caught in between the roots and she couldn=t move higher... She felt something on her free leg... It was her baby brother, Robert...

She held Robert above her head... A board with protruding spikes was lodged in her thigh, [and] pain shot through her leg, but twelve-year-old Thelma refused to give in. When her arms tired, she passed the baby to Ernestine... Beside them [cousin] Hattie struggled to hold onto her own brother until a large wave carried the boy screaming off into the night... Another wave surged up and over them, and then Hattie was not there...

For Nancy Martin, the news coming out of the Everglades could not have been worse. Stories of hundreds, then thousands of dead circulated in the press. Streams of refugees clogged the roads... Nancy and Josh searched for two weeks until finally they found Henry and the children in the Hollywood refugee camp...

In West Palm Beach, the trucks began to appear... A few at first, they parked and unloaded...dozens of chalk-marked coffins, then scores, then hundreds. After a few days of steady traffic, it seemed there were too many dead for anyone to care. The trucks...came day and night with unidentified bodies stacked like cordwood in the back. By the fifth day, the trucks were recognized from far away by their smell...

A pair of National Guardsmen were posted at the Woodlawn Cemetery entrance to restrict access... A steam shovel dug a long trench parallel to the railroad track... Shut out from the only cemetery in West Palm beach, trucks with dead blacks were directed to a lot beside the city incinerator near Tamarind Street... There was no time for coffins, tombstones, or mourning. Six hundred seventy-four unidentified black corpses were buried without procedure...

The largest concentration, sixteen hundred people, were buried north of Pahokee in Port Mayaca. Outside Moore Haven..., the dead were buried in Ortona Cemetery, where scores of victims of the 1926 hurricane rested. But not all burial grounds accepted the Everglades dead. One truckload of bodies was taken to be buried in Miami but was turned away because of the advanced state of decomposition. The truck returned to Belle Glade, where the corpses were burned.

Weather is serious. Pay attention. Pay taxes, too, so that when we have to head to higher ground, there’s a road to get there. And read Zora Neale Hurston’s novel that ends with this hurricane, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937).

Back to the Beginning

Weather was the reason that June 6 was chosen as D-Day, the date to attack Nazi-occupied Europe. It was not the longest day of the year – that is the Summer Solstice, which this year will be June 20. In 1944, however, June 6 was the most propitious date for the highly secret invasion. Tides would be high, enabling infantry to disembark from ships as close as possible to French beaches. A full moon the night before enabled parachute troops, including Tampa’s heroic Sam Gibbons, to have at least some vision of where they were going as they jumped from planes.

We had really good military leadership then, especially Generals Dwight Eisenhower and Omar Bradley, and this probably was the best-planned attack in world history. Despite criticism of slowness (mostly from formerly isolationist Republicans), the Roosevelt administration refused to rush in. Instead, a coalition of Americans, Australians, Britons, Canadians, and exiles from places such as Poland and especially France, spent years preparing. Indeed, by D-Day, people joked that southern England would sink into the sea from the weight of material gathered there.

Germany’s occupying armies in France knew that an invasion was coming, but could not guess when or where. Hitler was convinced that it would be at Calais, the closest point between England and France. The Allies did an excellent job of maintaining that deception, including dummy “armies” that appeared to aim at Calais. Instead, Eisenhower went further west and surprised sleeping forces in rural Normandy. Because Hitler’s highest aides feared waking him with the bad news, his forces lost precious response time. Meanwhile, 150,000 men crossed the English Channel and established themselves in France during one long day.

Women in the Navy Nurse Corps treated wounded men on hospital ships almost immediately after the combat began. The Army Nurse Corps soon followed on land, and members of the non-nursing Women’s Army Corps followed them. Martha Gellhorn, a journalist who earlier had the good sense to divorce macho-but-absent journalist Ernest Hemingway, defied the press rules and sneaked aboard a hospital ship on the very first day. She assisted nurses and translated for German POWs. Lee Carson of International News Service covered D-Day from the air: she simply talked a pilot into letting her onto his plane.

June 6, 1944 changed the course of history, as up to then, the Allies appeared to be losing the war. Planning pays. There are lots of books on it, and you should read some.


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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