Florida’s Fight: Tallahassee historian shares state’s underappreciated role in WWI

Published: Apr. 22, 2021 at 5:23 PM EDT
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - 104 years after the United States entered World War I, a memorial dedicated to lost soldiers debuted in Washington D.C.

What’s known as “The Great War,” is often overshadowed by World War II, and so is Florida’s connection to WWI.

Tallahassee is home to a WWII memorial that honors the 4,600 Floridians who died in the war.

However, you won’t find a World War I memorial in the capital city, despite over 1,100 Florida residents making the ultimate sacrifice, including dozens at the center of the U.S. Navy’s darkest day.

September 26, 1918: The beginning of the end for the Coast Guard Cutter USS Tampa, attacked by a German sub while ferrying British troops.

“It had split off from the convoy duty,” said historian Joe Knetsch. “One torpedo hit the main part of the vessel, causing a tremendous explosion two minutes later when the mines that were in there went off.

“No one had a chance of survival. Period.”

130 souls lost in the Bristol Channel off Britain’s coast. The worst single U.S. Naval combat loss in World War I was Florida’s own.

The Tampa features prominently in Knetsch’s, a Tallahassee historian, new book, Florida in World War One, co-authored by Bradenton librarian Pamela Gibson.

An effort to uncover Florida’s underappreciated role in The Great War.

Germany’s potent u-boat attacks had paralyzed allied forces, hitting merchant and combat ships alike.

“A little thing called German submarine warfare had really done a number on our and British transportation facilities as far as shipping was concerned,” Knetsch explained.

Enter Florida, a lumbering powerhouse.

The wood was used to build boats to replace a quickly disappearing U.S.f leet.

In a 1978 audio interview from the North Florida Folklife Project, W.H. Hammack recalled his work in Hamilton County in 1918.

“The government wanted to build some wooden ships and I manufactured many carloads. The Germans sunk that lumber in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean,” he said in the recording.

The war was felt in our most rural outposts; even Sumatra, in Liberty County, had a role, sending lumbermen to Europe.

“It’s almost non-existent now,” said Lisa Keith-Lucas, a WWII museum archivist. “Eight men from that one little hamlet went. That just shows how important lumbering was at the time.”

Keith-Lucas serves as a volunteer archivist at Carabbelle’s Camp Gordan Johnston WWII museum, which carries a small WWI collection.

She recently looked into Franklin County’s role, shocked to find 128 soldiers served.

“128 out of a teeny county like this!” she exclaimed. “I was astonished!”

From naval tragedies to woodyard heroes, Florida’s role in the Great War goes deep beyond the surface.

Worldwide, 20 million lives were lost in the first world war, but it coincided with another battle, one we can all relate to today: A deadly virus.

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