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Group aims to save Daytona Beach World War II building

By Patrick McCallister
For Veteran Voice
patrick@Veteranvoiceweekly.com

Images courtesy of Citizens 4 Responsible Development Daytona Beach

Citizens 4 Responsible Development Daytona Beach is leading efforts to save the City Island Recreation Center, a city-owned World War II-era building. The city got Works Projects Administration funding to build the recreation center for Sailors and aviators at the Naval Air Station Daytona Beach and Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps — later Women’s Army Corps — recruits training throughout the city. Residents increasingly complained about the WAACs. An Army investigation found that a lack of recreational facilities for the WAAC recruits caused frictions. But, the Army refused to build them recreational facilities.

Editor’s note: The writer, Patrick McCallister, submitted written comments urging preservation of the City Island Recreation Center to the Daytona Beach Historic Preservation Board for its March 15 regular meeting.

Citizens 4 Responsible Development Daytona Beach has taken the lead in efforts to keep a World War II building from the wrecking ball. On March 15 the group rallied 17 people to speak at a Daytona Beach Historic Preservation Board regular meeting in favor of saving the City Island Recreation Center at 104 E. Orange Ave. None spoke in favor.

“It was built in 1943 and it was used by the city as a recreation hall for many years,” said Anne Ruby, chairwoman of C4RD Daytona Beach, in a telephone interview after the meeting. “It was closed in 2012, because there was a rat infestation. At some point people at city hall forgot when it was built and why it was built.”

City staff have, according to the Daytona Beach News-Journal,repeatedly asked the commission about demolishing the structure — which has fallen ever deeper into disrepair — over the last decade. The commission will again consider the proposal at its next regular meeting, Wednesday, April 6. The Historic Preservation Board voted 4-1 to recommend to the commission saving and restoring the building. C4RD Daytona Beach hopes to not only save the building from demolition, but to finally get its renaissance going.

“We’re hoping for really good public turnout for support on April 6,” said Ruby. “Email the commission. Better yet, show up for the meeting. We need people to show up and say this building is worth declaring historic.”

A city historic designation would allow for certain grants. The commission meeting will be at 6 p.m. at 301 S. Ridgewood Ave., Daytona Beach. Commissioners can be emailed simultaneously at citycommission@codb.us.

Florida in World War II

There was a time, now almost completely forgotten, when Florida was on the front lines of World War II.

In 1942 German U-boats prowled Florida’s shores largely unfettered and unafraid. They were part of Operation Drumbeat, which cost an unprepared America hundreds of ships and thousands of lives in a matter of months. The counts vary, because there was largely a news blackout about the daily attacks so’s not to scare the public. But, Operation Drumbeat was one of the few times in history Americans standing on American soil could witness a major foreign military attacking and killing Americans.

Florida was traumatized in April of ‘42 when U-123 attacked and destroyed the SS Gulfamerica on its maiden voyage. People in Jacksonville Beach enjoying our too short spring evenings watched in horror as 19 crewmembers died in a fiery German attack.

Weeks later four covert German agents tasked with recruiting what we’d now call homegrown terrorists and disrupting American manufacturing with well-aimed factory bombings came ashore at Ponte Vedra from U-584. They were quickly captured, tried and executed.

Folks walking on the Daytona Beach Boardwalk in 1942 were all too aware a German on a U-boat might be watching.

Daytona Beach in World War II

As America ramped up to fight World War II, Daytona Beach became a hub of military activity. The municipal airport became the Naval Air Station Daytona Beach to train pilots on a variety of planes including the storied Scout Bomber Douglas “SBD” Dauntless — the Slow But Deadly — that played a critical role in the victory at the Battle of Midway.

But, also and very importantly, Daytona Beach was the second Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps basic training facility. No, there wasn’t a WAAC training facility in Daytona Beach. Daytona Beach was the training facility. At first, the Army used buildings and spots around Daytona Beach to train the WAACs. This led to tensions as about 20,000 of America’s most patriotic women did their basic partly on the streets and beach. Yes, in public. The WAAC recruits, naturally, needed recreation during their weeks of training. The Army did nothing about that; it built them no recreational facilities.

Tensions in Daytona Beach

Author Mattie E. Treadwell wrote in the 1954 book “The Women’s Army Corps” how Daytona Beach became the site of the largest investigation in the WAC’s history. The “Auxiliary” was quickly dropped and the Soldiers counted as active duty. It didn’t help that even after agreeing to building a small training camp to get the recruits off city streets, the Army refused to add recreational facilities for the WAACs, later WACs.

“As a result, large numbers of recreation seeking Waacs descended on the city nightly, provoking much civilian resentment and some of the most serious allegations encountered by investigators,” Treadwell wrote.

At first complaints were generally about the women taking up space at restaurants. They grew from there.

“Rumors nevertheless grew more vicious. It was said that WAAC trainees drank too much; that they picked up men in streets and bars; that they were registered with men in every hotel and auto court, or had sexual relations under trees and bushes in public parks; that there was a nearby military hospital filled to overflowing with maternity and venereal disease cases,” Treadwell wrote. “Finally, it was seriously stated that Waacs were touring in groups seizing and raping sailors and Coast Guardsmen.”

The Army sent investigators to Daytona Beach. What they found was a lot of women Soldiers in extraordinary circumstances exercising military discipline almost inarguably better than their male counterparts at traditional bases. 

“Although the center had almost 10,000 trainees, the military police report for a typical Saturday night revealed a total of only 11 delinquencies: 2 kissing and embracing in public; 1 no hat on; 2 injured in auto accident; 1 without identification card; 1 walking with officer on street; 2 found intoxicated; 1 AWOL returned; 1 ‘retrieved from Halifax River in an intoxicated condition,” wrote Treadwell.

The book adds, “The inspectors and the local authorities unanimously blamed the location and the lack of recreational facilities.”

Most of the WAACs, investigators concluded, had taken to staying in their rooms during off time, likely due to local resentment towards them, and there was a growing moral problem in the ranks because of it.

“The Fourth Service Command inspector general recommended more recreation facilities so that trainees would not need to roam the city at night,” Treadwell wrote. “The military intelligence operative agreed: ‘It is the opinion of this officer that recreational facilities are inadequate.’”

The Army declined to build recreational facilities for the recruits.

The book is among the U.S. Army Center of Military History’s online publications at www.history.army.mil/books/wwii/Wac.

Ruby’s research

Ruby said a lot of that history is long-forgotten, even in Daytona Beach. In her efforts to save the City Island Recreation Center she reviewed microfilms of local newspapers published during World War II. Ruby came across the fact the city got Federal Works Administration funding to build a recreational facility for the Navy and Army trainees in Daytona Beach. Among the things Ruby discovered is that Navy Capt. Willis Everett Cleaves spoke at the dedication in December of 1943.

“When you get close to the enemy, you don’t need recreation,” he reportedly said at the dedication. “It’s when you’re a long way from the battle front, where you would like to be, you need recreation to keep up your morale. As beautiful and charming though Daytona Beach is, men and women in uniform need someplace like this to which they can come when off duty.”

The WACs wouldn’t get to enjoy the city-supplied recreational facility for long. The Army moved the Daytona Beach WAC basic to the more isolated Fort Ogelthorpe, Ga. in ‘44.

About the only reminder of those days is the City Island Recreation Center.

“We had residents (at the Daytona Beach Historic Preservation Board meeting) who got up and said, ‘We never knew the WAACs were associated with this building,’” said Ruby.

LOCAL HERO – Jetson leader remembered as ‘Veterans first’

Mary Kemper/Staff Writer

Photo of John Thofner Jetson provided by Amy Thofner

His passing was as typical of the man as his life was — “it was never about me, but Veterans,” he said, over and over.

  I only just found out about the passing of John Thofner Jetson, well known owner and operator of Jetson TV & Appliance, a Treasure Coast fixture with multiple locations.

  He passed away Nov. 15 at his home in Vero Beach. He was 71. I feel privileged to have known him, if only in brief intervals.

  Jetson TV & Appliance held annual Veterans Day events as part of its usual business days, inviting Veterans’ organizations from around the Treasure Coast to come and set up booths to raise awareness of their missions, including Wreaths Across America and many others.

  John also held numerous Veterans Appreciation Day events for the same reason. It was at one of these I first met him.

  John was busy, being pulled in many directions. Clearly, he wanted to hang around and chat with all the Veterans and supporters who showed up, but business called. I found him to be both no-nonsense and funny in a dry kind of a way. Our conversation was interrupted numerous times by employee concerns, to be juggled with the focus on Veterans. John only had maybe an hour, if that, to spend at the Appreciation Day. Some of that he carved out for me.

The obvious and cliched connection

  Naturally, I had to bring up the Jetson name with the 1960s animated series. What, I wanted to know, did John share with George?

  “Well, I wouldn’t mind if ‘push-button-itis’ was my only problem,” he said, with a twinkle in his eye.

  “Seriously, though, I do think our world will probably come to a day when everything is automated. If that’s the case, we [at Jetson TV & Appliance] will be right on it.”

  George Jetson was a family man, and so was John. John, however, kept his family matters securely close to his vest.

  He leaves behind son Trey Thofner of Vero Beach; sister, Lisa Kauffman of Fort Pierce; nephews, Adam Thofner and Kyle Kauffman both of Fort Pierce, and Scott Thofner of Tallahassee.

  In accordance with John’s wishes, the late animal lover asked for donations to be made to Dogs and Cats Forever, 4600 Selvitz Road, Fort Pierce, FL 34981 or to your local Humane Society.

  John was a tough Veteran, and no-nonsense businessman. But animals were a soft spot with him.

Military service

  As soon as John graduated high school in Pompano Beach in 1969, he enlisted in the Air Force, and became a crew chief specializing in reconnaissance.

  According to his legacy.com obituary:

  “John’s expertise as an air strike controller made him an intelligence source, munitions expert, communications specialist, and above all, the on-scene commander of the strike forces and the start of any subsequent combat search and rescue, if necessary. After leaving the Air Force, John, along with his brother Scott Thofner, founded and operated Jetson Appliance TV and Appliance in 1974.”

  John sidestepped my questions about his service in Vietnam. Time and time again, the answer was, “well, whatever, but it’s not about me. It’s about Veterans.”

  The same evasion came from questions about his building of the business that bore his name. “We look at what people want and need, and we answer it,” he said. Obviously, it was successful, and continues to be successful.

True Floridian

  John loved nothing more than fishing and sailing. At one point in one conversation, he said, “Gotta go. Sorry. If I’m lucky, I’ll catch the currents.”

  He was pulled in so many directions in life, but managed to indulge himself in the things that were important to him. The business surely took top priority. Veterans the same. He loved his fellow Veterans to the end. In between, somehow, some way, he found time to get out on the water.

  Veterans won’t forget him. I hope no one forgets him.

  I wish I could share a photo of John here, but Veteran Voice, as with other publications, must not overstep copyright requirements.

  Please visit https://tinyurl.com/y3qch5ru

 to see the happy John Jetson I met, and that so many knew.

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