Last month I wrote about Camp Blanding as it was in the 1940s. Several years ago, I was driving around I-295, the Jacksonville bypass and saw a sign for Blanding Boulevard. I had some time to kill, so I decided to ride on out and see if the old camp was still there.
To my delight, it not only exists under the control of the Florida National Guard, but they have an extensive museum with a bunch of WWII relics including weapons, aircraft, and vehicles. These are not display mockups, but the real thing. You can get up close and personal with tanks, cannons, howitzers, and aircraft, including a C-47 transport plane. This is the military version of the Douglas DC-3, which was a staple of the airline industry from the 1930s through the 1960s. I remember flying in several of them while I was in the Navy in the ’60s. The seats were simple aluminum frames with canvas laced between them to save weight. They all faced the rear of the plane for safety in case of a crash. Not a good thing to think about at 20,000 feet.
But for me, the most interesting was an Army DUKW. That’s a military designation: “D” for the production year, 1942, “U” for amphibious, “K” for all-wheel drive, and “W” for dual rear wheels. It’s pronounced, “Duck.” It was basically a cargo carrier that you would load on a ship, then it would drive down a ramp into the water, continue up on the beach and go on down the road! It was invaluable during the invasion of Sicily, where the water was too shallow to allow the LSTs and other cargo ships to get close to shore.
The Duck was designed by Olin Stephens, designer of many of the successful America’s Cup defenders, from the 1950s through the1980s, including the “Intrepid,” the last wooden Twelve Meter. During the Cup races, she led at every mark around the course.
I met Stevens at a lecture in the 1970s and asked him about the “Duck.” He said it was simple: he just took a GMC 2½ ton truck chassis, made it float and added a big propeller and rudder! There were many other innovations, such as allowing the driver to increase or decrease the tire pressure by flipping a switch on the dashboard. This gave the Duck the ability to go across loose sandy beaches with low tire pressure, slightly higher pressure to cross sharp rocks or coral, and then use the highest pressure to do 50 mph down the road!
I remember back in the 1970s and ’80s, the US Coast Guard station on Sandy Hook, N.J. had one. She was all painted up in the Coast Guard colors of white with the orange stripe and would make an appearance around the county for Memorial Day or 4th of July parades.
However, her most important function was once every four- or five-years during times of flood. We lived on the shore of Sandy Hook Bay, which faces northeast. Whenever there is a full moon (affecting the height of the tide) and a northeast storm, the towns around the bay and rivers flooded.
Now northeast storms, (or “Nor’easters”) occur during the fall and winter. Typically, they blow for three or more days from the same direction. The tide would come up, but when it went out the pressure of the wind would keep most of the water in the bay, so low tide was not much lower than high tide! Then the next high tide would be even higher and so on, flooding the town.
Many of the houses were built in the early part of the last century as summer residences, before building codes, and are susceptible to flooding.
You can imagine how it felt for a family to have six feet of water on the front lawn and two feet in the living room, wondering what’s going to happen next when this Leviathan, with US Coast Guard painted on the side, comes roaring down the street, sometimes afloat, sometime awash, leaving a two foot high wake behind it, crushing everything in its path, including fences and shrubbery to pull up to the living room window and take the family safely aboard. Then off down the road to the next rescue!
I’m sure the volunteer fire department and private citizens with small outboard motorboats were responsible for many more rescues, but none as spectacular!
This has mostly changed since “Superstorm Sandy,” when a lot of federal money was made available to raise the older houses above the one-hundred-year high water mark. The only caveat was that if you didn’t use the money to raise the house, you were no longer eligible to receive any more, as well as not being eligible for flood insurance.
It always makes me smile when I think of all the farmers out in Iowa, Arkansas, Illinois, Oklahoma, and those other states that begin with a vowel, paying their taxes and the money being used to raise houses on the north Atlantic Coast. It makes up for all the tax money we pay them on a regular basis not to grow corn, or soybeans or whatever else the federal government decides they shouldn’t grow to keep the price stable!
This column is dedicated to the 800,000 men and women who passed through Camp Blanding on their way to war in Europe and Africa.
Photos: by Vinnie Mendes