This article was originally written by Krystin Miner for the Bradenton Herald column History Matters. Research for this article was conducted by the author. All sources are available upon request.
Originally thought to be the war that would end all wars, World War I (WWI) raged from 1914 to 1918, and resulted in the deaths of approximately 8,500,000 combatants. Put simply, the war began when tensions that had been building over the previous half century were set alight by the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, prompting reactions from alliances that stretched across Europe. Although the United States officially remained neutral for the majority of the war, it declared war against Germany after the 1917 intentional sinking of Lusitania, a ship that carried many American passengers.
Two days after the United States officially declared war on Germany in April of 1917, the Florida Naval Militia reported for duty. Throughout the state, men enlisted to fight and women registered as nurses and ambulance drivers to assist in the war effort. Soon after, Florida became a pivotal location for training of army, naval, air, and marine troops. The mild temperatures and large amount of vacant land in the state drew the armed forces into the area but also attributed dramatically to Florida’s economic expansion and infrastructure, which would later contribute to the land boom in the early 1920s.
World War I saw one of the first uses of airplanes for military engagements. To accommodate training, aviation centers were set up across the state, including Pensacola, Jacksonville, and Miami. Florida was also a point of departure for many facets of the Navy and Coast Guard. Just as many other areas throughout the country were using factories to produce materials to support the troops, Florida’s farmers worked tirelessly to produce corn, pork, and beans to feed the troops. They also contributed with the planting of castor beans, the oil from which was used to help airplane engines run smoothly.
In smaller communities, the period just before the United States’ involvement in the war saw little change in the residents’ day-to-day lives. Within the next few months, some of these men would find themselves enlisting for a war which would take them away from their hometowns and families and place them in the trenches of Europe. In Cortez, at least 11 men registered for war, many of whom have descendants or relatives still in the area such as the Bells, Fulfords, Guthries, and Manns.Shortly after their sons enlisted, many fathers from Manatee County travelled to Georgia to visit their lads in training and to show their support. Through the carnage of the war, Cortez remained lucky and all of its brave soldiers came home.
Nettie Hamilton Lightfoot in a WWI biplane, at an airfield near present day Arcadia, c. 1918, courtesy of Manatee County Public Library Digital Collection
Clayton Fulford (front row, fourth from left) in Camp Gordon, GA, c. 1918, courtesy of Manatee County Public Library Digital Collection