Words and images by Luke Barber
“Welcome to Camp Blanding,” a sign greeted at me as I approached what appeared to be an abandoned battlefield on the side of a paved country road. A well-kept patch of grass decorated with restored tanks, planes and military-style humvees could be seen from the road — badges of honor worn by the historic National Guard training camp on the edge of Bradford County near Starke.
A building directly next to the display of wartime vehicles houses an organized display of photographs, weapons, newspaper articles, uniforms, medals and other memorabilia, the bulk of which were collected and preserved from WWII.
That building, the Camp Blanding Museum, is a nonprofit organization that was opened by the Florida National Guard in 1991. The museum’s goal is to share information about Camp Blanding and its paramount role in training soldiers — hundreds of thousands of them — for combat since 1939.
Camp Blanding itself is situated on 72,000 acres of lush green, along the shore of Kingsley Lake. To active and retired military personnel, the camp offers recreational opportunities such as camping, fishing and swimming. The museum, which is open every day from noon to 4, is free to enjoy. The wealth of knowledge found in the museum is priceless.
Photographic displays cluster just about every inch of the walls, with supplemental descriptions of each artifact’s purpose. Additionally, there are always informed and friendly volunteers on duty to open up a dialogue with, like front-desk greeter and veteran Roger MacEwen.
“I retired from the Air Force,” MacEwen said. “The military was really good to me. This is just one way I can give back.”
“It’s particularly interesting because many, many of the people we see here trained here [during WWII]. They’re in their nineties now; they’re truly the world’s greatest generation.”
One exhibit that piqued my curiosity was labeled “HALL OF HONOR.” This display denoted Blanding-trained soldiers who were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest and most respected military award.
Forty-seven infantrymen were recognized and awarded after showing exceptional courage and problem-solving skills in times of combat, all of them having slept in Blanding’s barracks at one point or another.
On the opposite side of the room, a faux Nazi soldier was placed between a display of various WWII weapons and an exhibit labeled “WOMEN AT WAR,” which used the iconic Rosie the Riveter flyer as a centerpiece.
Today, much of Bradford County is economically tied to agriculture. But at one point, in the years leading up to and during WWII, the entire county was thriving in military-industrial-complex-fueled prosperity following the opening of Camp Blanding. In fact, at its peak, it had one of the highest populations and largest hospitals in Florida.
The camp was developed by Starrett Bros. and Eken, a contracting company that gained notoriety in the ‘30s for building the Empire State Building, the tallest building in the world at that time.
Creating well over 20,000 civilian jobs, the project cost was approximated at $36 million [totalling over $600 million in 2016] and was completed in 90 days. This type of economic growth in preparation for the war was pivotal in pulling America from the throes of the Great Depression, explained 20-year museum curator Greg Parsons.
“[The construction workers] were working three shifts a day, seven days a week,” Parsons said. “Starrat Bros. and Eken were offering two or three times the current wage rate to get people here to work.”
Camp Blanding, which covered around 30,000 acres at the time, was originally used as a National Guard training camp, but was federalized in 1940 and primarily used by the U.S. Army to train infantrymen.
Additionally, Blanding was a designated anti-Nazi prisoner of war camp for German soldiers, the majority of which were captured in North Africa. The number of German POWs kept at Camp Blanding during WWII was approximated at 1,200.
“History is so important for young people to know,” two-year volunteer Ferne O’Quinn said. O’Quinn, a Jacksonville native, originally came to Camp Blanding to research and trace her genealogy; her father and uncle were WWII vets who trained there.