The 1940s: War turns city into an armed camp — but it keeps on growing
In 1947, the flood forced American Insurance Agency employees to roll up their pants legs to process claims. (Fort Lauderdale Historical Society, courtesy / March 18, 2011)
Though far from actual hostilities, Fort Lauderdale was on a firm war footing because of its proximity to the sea and enemy vessels. The city became an armed camp. Artillery was mounted along the shoreline. Coast Guard units patrolled the beach on horseback. Port Everglades was transformed into a Navy base, from which converted yachts searched for enemy subs. Merle Fogg Field, named for a pioneer aviator and now the site of the city's international airport, became a naval air station specializing in training torpedo bomber pilots (former President George H.W. Bush was one).
Hotels were turned into military training centers, and it was common to see Navy fliers or members of the Women's Army Corps marching in crisp parade dress down city streets. Saturday night dances at a downtown hospitality center often attracted up to 3,000 service members, many of whom returned after the war.
Residents hung blackout curtains over their windows at night and painted their car headlights half black. Coffee, fuel, rubber and other supplies were rationed.
The war brushed up against Fort Lauderdale in 1942, when a German submarine within sight of shore torpedoed the British tanker Eclipse, killing two. The stricken vessel was towed into Port Everglades. But the war's effects were most keenly felt that same year, with the heroic death of Army Lt. Alexander "Sandy" Nininger, West Point grad and son of a local theater owner.
During the battle of Bataan, Nininger, 23, charged from behind American lines into the teeth of Japanese positions. Though outnumbered and wounded three times, Nininger destroyed several enemy foxholes and reportedly killed more than 20 soldiers in a series of daring grenade attacks before he died. He was the first soldier in World War II to be awarded the Medal of Honor. In 1994 a statue of Nininger was erected along the New River in downtown Fort Lauderdale, near where he grew up.
Three years after the war ended in 1945, an aviation mystery that would fuel the myth of the Devil's Triangle originated at the naval air station. Flight 19 — five torpedo bombers bearing 14 men, later known as the Lost Patrol — took off on a training mission to the Bahamas. They never returned. A search seaplane from Central Florida also went down, killing 13 more men.
Investigators think the pilots became disoriented in bad weather and darkness. Others say they disappeared in the Devil's Triangle, an area bordered by Bermuda, Puerto Rico and Fort Laudedale where other ships and planes have gone missing over the years.
Upon war's end, Fort Lauderdale resumed its growth spiral. The city acquired a surplus Coast Guard base at the south end of the beach, as well as a naval landing strip, which later became Executive Airport.
WFTL, the city's first radio station, began broadcasting from a houseboat on the New River in 1946. Major League Baseball came to town that same year, when the Boston Braves trained at a ballfield on Broward Boulevard.
The Fort Lauderdale Symphony Orchestra was founded, and the city's first major department store, Burdine's, opened in a downtown building that was later renovated to serve as County Hall.
Construction of the Bahia Mar Yacht Basin, the country's first such complex, began in 1949 where the Coast Guard base, and one of the original Lauderdale forts, once stood.
The decade also saw the completion of a second causeway to the beach, on Sunrise Boulevard, and the Dixie Court Housing Project for African-Americans.
But the decade wasn't spared natural disaster. In the fall of 1947 back-to-back hurricanes dropped a record amount of rain; Fort Lauderdale experienced 12 inches in 30 minutes, and the city was flooded. Insurance agents rolled up pant legs and processed claims in waterlogged offices. Rattlesnakes seeking high ground plagued the terrain.
The flood led to the creation of what many today consider either a boon or a curse: the South Florida Water Management District.
Did you know?
In 1946, Commodore A.H. Brook, Fort Lauderdale's biggest booster, celebrated his 80th birthday by standing on his head. It caused a cerebral hemorrhage and he died a few days later.
Flood of critters
Two hurricanes in 1947 at one point dumped 12 inches of rain on Fort Lauderdale in a 30-minute period. Rising waters sent every manner of wildlife, including numerous rattlesnakes, scrambling up river and canal banks.